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Overworking as a Trauma Response

Updated: Oct 1, 2023

In a world that often celebrates hustle culture and relentless productivity, it's easy to overlook the intricate relationship between our work habits and the emotional battles we face within. The daily grind, the relentless pursuit of success, and the constant push to achieve more can sometimes serve as veils, concealing the deeper struggles we carry beneath the surface.


There is an often-unseen facet of our professional lives, one that has garnered increasing attention in recent years. It's a topic that brings to light the interplay between our psychological well-being and our work habits, and it's something that deserves our understanding and attention. Behind the façade of productivity and efficiency, many people are quietly wrestling with unresolved traumas. Whether stemming from childhood experiences, personal losses, or the relentless pressures of modern life, these traumas have the power to shape our behaviours in unexpected ways. For some, the response to trauma takes the form of overworking — an attempt to outrun the shadows of the past or to mask the inner turmoil with ceaseless busyness. This article will explore the prevalence of overworking as a trauma response in modern society, looking at the intricate threads that connect the two. It will examine the psychological mechanisms at play, shed light on the consequences of this coping mechanism, discuss the importance of recognising and addressing the underlying trauma, and outline the key ways to building alternative, healthier coping mechanisms.

What is trauma and its potential impact?

Trauma is a psychological and emotional response to a distressing or disturbing event or series of events that exceeds a person's ability to cope. It can have profound and lasting impacts on us, including:

  • Emotional distress - such as anxiety, depression, anger, or fear.

  • Intrusive thoughts, nightmares, or flashbacks related to the traumatic event.

  • Physical symptoms like headaches, gastrointestinal issues, and sleep disturbances.

  • Dissociation or disconnection from emotions, thoughts, or even a sense of self.

  • An inability to trust and form healthy relationships.

  • An increase in the likelihood of engaging in risk-taking behaviours, substance abuse, or self-harm as maladaptive coping mechanisms.

  • An erosion of self-esteem and self-worth, leading to negative self-perception and feelings of shame or guilt.

  • Physical health problems, including cardiovascular issues and chronic pain.

  • Disruption in daily functioning, impairing our ability to work, study, and carry out routine tasks.

  • In some cases, trauma can lead to the development of PTSD, a mental health disorder characterised by persistent re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyperarousal symptoms.

It's important to note that the impact of trauma varies widely among people, depending on factors like the nature of the traumatic event, a person’s resilience, and the availability of support systems. Trauma can have far-reaching effects on mental, emotional, and physical well-being, and it often requires professional intervention and support for healing and recovery.

The importance of understanding the connection between overworking and trauma

There is a growing understanding of the connection between overworking and trauma in the fields of psychology and mental health. Overworking is often seen as a coping mechanism that people use to distract themselves from unresolved trauma or emotional pain. The intense focus on work can serve as a way to avoid dealing with difficult emotions, memories, or past experiences.

Overworking may provide a sense of control and order in our life, especially when other aspects feel chaotic or uncontrollable. It can create a distraction from the distressing effects of trauma and offer a temporary escape.

Success at work can provide a sense of external validation and self-worth. For people who have experienced trauma, achieving professional success may be a way to compensate for feelings of inadequacy or self-doubt stemming from their traumatic experiences.

Trauma often involves overwhelming emotions that are difficult to process. Overworking can serve as a way to keep these emotions at bay. Instead of confronting and processing our trauma, we may bury ourselves in work to avoid emotional distress.

Overworking can also be tied to perfectionism, where we feel compelled to excel in every aspect of our lives, including our careers. Traumatic experiences may intensify perfectionistic tendencies, driving us to overwork in pursuit of unattainable standards.

Overworking as a trauma response can have detrimental effects on mental health. It can lead to burnout, anxiety, depression, and other stress-related disorders. It can create a cycle where we continually suppress our trauma through work, leading to even more stress and burnout. This can perpetuate a vicious cycle of overworking as a coping mechanism.

The prevalence of overworking as a coping mechanism in modern society

The prevalence of overworking as a trauma response in modern society can vary significantly depending on several factors, including cultural, societal, and personal differences. While there isn't a single statistic that accurately quantifies its prevalence, numerous trends and studies suggest that overworking as a trauma response is a notable concern.

Different cultures may have varying attitudes toward work and coping mechanisms. In some cultures, the pressure to succeed and the normalisation of overworking may be more pronounced, leading to a higher prevalence of using work as a trauma response.

In industries and professions that are known for high stress and demanding workloads (e.g., finance, law, healthcare, technology), there may be a higher prevalence of overworking as a response to stress and trauma.

Economic instability, job insecurity, and financial stressors can contribute to a higher likelihood of people turning to overwork as a means of coping with the anxiety and trauma associated with these challenges.

Social media platforms often perpetuate a culture of comparison and the need to present a picture-perfect life. This can lead us to overwork to maintain appearances or to feel validated in a society that values productivity and success.

Major global events, such as economic recessions or health crises like the COVID-19 pandemic, can exacerbate feelings of stress and trauma, leading to an increased prevalence of overworking as a way to cope during these times.

Gender may also play a role, as societal expectations and pressures on men and women regarding work and emotional expression can vary. Some studies have suggested that men might be more prone to overworking as a response to trauma, while women may employ different coping mechanisms.

While these examples and trends provide some context, it's important to remember that overworking as a response to trauma is a deeply personal and individualised experience.

The Impact of Overworking on Physical and Mental Health

Overworking can have several negative consequences on well-being, including:

Burnout: Prolonged overworking can lead to burnout, resulting in physical and emotional exhaustion.

Physical Health Issues: Overworking can contribute to physical health problems like cardiovascular issues and chronic stress-related conditions.

Mental Health Struggles: It often exacerbates mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, and increased stress levels.

Strained Relationships: Overworking can strain personal relationships due to limited time and energy for loved ones.

Reduced Productivity: Paradoxically, excessive work can reduce productivity, creativity, and problem-solving abilities.

Work-Life Imbalance: It disrupts work-life balance, which is essential for overall well-being.

Impaired Sleep: Overworking can lead to sleep disturbances, further affecting mental and physical health.

Increased Risk Behaviours: It may contribute to engaging in risk-taking behaviours or substance abuse as unhealthy coping mechanisms.

The importance of self-awareness

Self-awareness is crucial in addressing the issue of overworking as a trauma response for several reasons:

Identifying Triggers: Self-awareness helps people recognise the emotional triggers and underlying traumas that lead to overworking. It allows them to connect their work habits to their emotional experiences.

Recognising Unhealthy Patterns: Through self-awareness, people can identify unhealthy patterns of overworking and the negative consequences it has on their well-being and relationships.

Taking Responsibility: Self-awareness empowers people to take responsibility for their actions and choices, including their coping mechanisms. It encourages them to acknowledge that overworking may not be a sustainable or healthy response to trauma.

Setting Boundaries: Self-awareness enables people to set boundaries around work, ensuring a healthier work-life balance. It allows them to prioritise self-care and mental health.

Seeking Help: When people are self-aware, they are more likely to seek professional help or support groups to address the root causes of their trauma and explore healthier coping strategies.

Embracing Healing: By being self-aware, people can embark on a journey of healing and recovery. They can work towards resolving their trauma rather than burying it under a relentless workload.

In essence, self-awareness serves as the foundation for acknowledging, understanding, and ultimately addressing the complex issue of overworking as a trauma response. It opens the door to healthier coping mechanisms and a path towards healing and well-being.

Building alternative coping mechanisms that are healthier than overworking

There are several alternative coping mechanisms that are healthier than overworking. These strategies can help people manage stress, trauma, and emotional distress in a more balanced and sustainable way. Here are some healthier coping mechanisms to consider:

Therapy and Counselling: Seek therapy or counselling to address the underlying trauma and develop healthy emotional processing skills. Therapy can provide a safe space to explore and heal from past experiences.

Mindfulness and Meditation: Practice mindfulness techniques and meditation to stay present and reduce anxiety. Mindfulness can help you become more aware of your emotions and thoughts without judgment.

Journalling: Keep a journal to express your thoughts and feelings. Writing can be a therapeutic way to process emotions and gain insight into your experiences.

Physical Activity: Engage in regular exercise as it releases endorphins, which are natural mood lifters. Physical activity also helps reduce stress and anxiety.

Adequate Sleep: Prioritise getting enough sleep. Create a sleep-friendly environment and establish a consistent sleep routine to improve the quality of your sleep.

Positive Self-Talk: Challenge negative self-talk and replace it with positive affirmations. Building self-compassion can be a powerful tool in managing stress.

Avoid Substance Abuse: Avoid using alcohol, drugs, or other substances as a way to cope with stress or trauma. These substances can exacerbate mental health issues.

Creative Outlets: Engage in creative activities that you enjoy, such as art, music, or writing. These outlets can provide a healthy way to express your emotions.

Set Realistic Goals: Set achievable goals and expectations for yourself. Avoid overcommitting or striving for perfection.

Support System: Reach out to friends, family, or support groups. Sharing your feelings and experiences with trusted people can provide emotional relief and a sense of connection.

Limit Stressors: Identify and limit sources of stress in your life where possible. This might involve setting boundaries, delegating tasks, or re-evaluating commitments.

Hobbies and Interests: Rekindle or develop new hobbies and interests that bring you joy and fulfilment. Engaging in creative, recreational, or intellectual pursuits can be therapeutic.

Breathing Exercises: Practice deep breathing exercises or diaphragmatic breathing to manage stress and anxiety in the moment.

Setting Boundaries: Learn to set and enforce healthy boundaries in all areas of life, including work. This can help prevent overcommitting and overextending yourself.

Mindful Work Habits: Cultivate mindful work habits, such as taking regular breaks, prioritising tasks, and avoiding excessive multitasking.

Time Management: Improve time management skills to enhance productivity at work while maintaining a work-life balance.

Positive Affirmations: Use positive affirmations to challenge negative self-beliefs and boost self-esteem. Replacing self-criticism with self-compassion is a vital aspect of healing.

Support Groups: Consider joining support groups or therapy groups specifically focused on trauma or related issues. These environments provide a sense of community and understanding.

Professional Guidance: If work-related stress is a significant concern, consult with a career counsellor or coach to explore healthier work environments or career changes.

Remember that building healthier coping mechanisms takes time and effort. It's essential to be patient with yourself and seek professional help if needed. Combining several of these strategies and tailoring them to your specific needs can be particularly effective in your journey toward healing and recovery from overworking as a trauma response.


There is a link between overworking and unresolved trauma, and many people use excessive work as a coping mechanism to escape from emotional pain. This often arises from the need for control, perfectionism, and avoidance, leading to a cycle of overworking with detrimental consequences for mental and physical well-being. Self-awareness is key to recognising this pattern, as well as replacing overworking with healthier coping mechanisms, such as therapy, mindfulness, and self-care. Recognising and addressing overworking as a trauma response is crucial for healing, mental health, and fostering empathy and support.


Sally Edwards

I am a fully qualified counsellor based in Orpington, Kent

I work with clients with problems including: depression, anxiety, panic attacks, stress, low self-esteem, low self-confidence, identity issues, relationship problems, self-destructive behaviours, self-harm, childhood sexual abuse, sexual violence, domestic violence, domestic abuse, trauma, PTSD, eating disorders and body image problems.

I am easily accessible from local areas near me including Orpington, Bromley, Chislehurst, Petts Wood, Sidcup, Beckenham, Sevenoaks, Tonbridge, Knockholt, West Wickham, Chelsfield, Swanley and Bexley

Face-to-face in person or online counselling

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