Experiencing Trauma Together

I was chatting with a friend of mine the other day about what drives high quality relationships in her workplace. She is a nurse and commented on how it is the living through trauma or extreme circumstances that truly binds the nurses together. Snowstorms where everyone is trapped in the hospital, difficult patients, unlikely successes – all of these help these nurses form HQCs. She said she’ll never forget how one nurse, during one of these snowstorms, surfing the floor cleaner like a Zamboni driver at 2am after all of them had been in the hospital for a couple of days.


I’ve recently been interviewing members and former members of the military about extreme events and, not surprisingly, they speak at length about how they are “brothers for life” with those that had shared the same experience. They speak at great detail about these traumatic events, no matter that the event had happened many years prior.


Why is this? What is happening to forge these ties? When you are at risk and experience an extreme or traumatic event, the memory is encoded into your brain differently. Most memories fade away at a relatively predictable rate (Sorry Bing Bong), but memories having to do with such events do not. Gary Ballinger and I have written about this phenomenon of the anchoring event, the emotional experience that is encoded into long-term rather than short-term memory structures.


The power of the workplace is that these memories are shared between individuals. They become a lasting, persistent, foundation on which the relationship can flourish. While it may be unethical to create trauma in organizations in order to facilitate such bonding, even events like intense working towards deadlines or traveling together can create the uncertainty and intensity needed to bring people together.


The result? When my friend walks down the hall and sees another nurse coming towards her, all she has to do is wink at the floor cleaner and they both bust out laughing, with neither of them having to say a word.