Tips for Staying Sane

"It just doesn't go out of the brain." Onscreen, an Australian Broadcasting Corporation editor described watching footage of a beheading in Iraq. At a brown bag lunch at the Columbia Journalism School on Oct. 30, students watched a DVD chronicling journalists' experiences covering traumatic stories, from accidents to terrorism, and then discussed how to manage such occupational stress with two of Australia's leading experts on the subject.

Heather Forbes pioneered one of the most advanced news organization peer support networks as director of news training at the ABC; Cait McMahon, director of Dart Centre Australasia, has trained journalists worldwide for such challenging assignments as the Indonesian tsunami and the Khmer Rouge genocide trial. But the two started not with their own stories, but with a DVD showing cadet and senior journalists from the ABC talking about how their hardest assignments affected them. Students in the audience identified common themes:

"The stories stuck with them long after they left the scene." "Delayed reactions." "People talked about the need to talk about [their experiences]." 

Forbes and McMahon built on these anecdotes by laying out the common reactions and strategies for self care. The long list of reactions included sleeplessness, unexplained mood changes, avoidance of reminders, startling easily, intrusive images of the event, disorientation and many more.

It doesn't mean that you're not going to be able to report on the hard stories, because they're often the best and most interesting stories to cover ... The trick is to learn how to acknowlege this stuff in yourself ... and say "Ah, OK, I'm feeling unusually angry. Maybe it's something to do with the stories I covered."

Along with identifying reactions, journalists can benefit from knowing specific strategies to cope with and release stress. The list Forbes and McMahon outlined was extensive: exercise, sleep, hydration, breathing exercises, healthy eating, taking breaks, staying in contact with people in your life and so on.

They sound like no-brainers, but last week I was in Samoa working with journalists after the tsunami .... and when we're talking about some of this stuff they were saying, "Ah, of course! We forget!"

Consciously thinking about self care can help journalists remember, as well as expand, their repertoire of coping skills.

More advice on self care can be found on our Tips & Tools page.