Many correspondents find, surprisingly, that anxiety abates once they arrive on the scene of an assignment and get to work. Don’t be fooled by the relief. It likely is temporary.
Your sense of what is important will be challenged, and that will take a toll on your judgment over time, says Alissa Rubin, who was a co-bureau chief in Baghdad for the Los Angeles Times before joining the New York Times Iraq team.
“People are professionals,” Rubin says. “People can write a daily story and things will be fine. I think what you lose is the ability to step back and think more analytically.”
The time to care for yourself emotionally is before trauma gradually erodes your ability to think clearly and deliver your best work. You’ll be tempted to tough it out emotionally because that’s been an expectation in journalism.
“I honestly thought that to do this job was part and parcel with trauma, and that there was no healthy way ... that if you want to do this you were going to become an unhappy, lonely, traumatized person,” says Hannah Allam, who was Knight Ridder’s Baghdad Bureau Chief in 2005 and later covered the Middle East for McClatchy News.
“That seemed to be the experience of so many of my colleagues in Baghdad. And so I thought ‘I want to get off this train. I’m going to go cover features or something.’”
But there are healthy alternatives to getting off the train, Allam realized later, smart steps correspondents can take to care for themselves.
Here are key steps toward more healthy outcomes:
Execute the mental-health plan you set up in advance. Refresh your focus on the reasons you decided to take the risk. Establish contact with your newsroom, home and network of other journalists. Stay in touch regularly.
If you are replacing correspondents in the field or joining others, take advantage of any overlap time to seek their advice. No question is too mundane. Knowing how to handle small day-to-day challenges can boost your confidence in strange surroundings and stressful times.
Cultivate buddies. Colleagues you grow to trust can help you let off steam, find reasons to laugh in the face of grim reality and monitor your decisions for any erosion in judgment. You can watch out for each other’s safety and decide together when it’s time to pull out.
There’s no formula for deciding when to leave a hotspot. It’s pure instinct, and it is common to feel guilty afterwards, second-guessing your decision and worrying that you could have stayed longer and accomplished more. Taking a gut-check with someone you trust can save you tremendous anxiety later on.
Journalists who embed with the military, in particular, have found immense value in a buddy system. The embedded reporter or photographer can be the odd-person out, targeted as an enemy by the other side but also separated by professional distance from the troops. “You have to write on every page of your notebook, ‘I’m not one of them,’” Dave Wood says.
In some tense situations, journalists have felt threatened by the forces they embedded with. Some journalists who stood their ground ultimately earned respect from the troops. But it is crucial in such a situation to have a workable exit plan and to spell out in detail – to buddies in the field and to editors back home – what’s happening.
With or without a buddy, try to follow these simple and effective tips for self care:
- Acknowledge what you are going through.
- Sleep and eat as well as possible and take exercise.
- If you cannot talk with someone you trust, write down what you are feeling.
- Take time to reflect.
- Find reasons to laugh.
- Take care with alcohol and other drugs.
- Ask others for support along the way.
Allow yourself some normal human response. Sure you are a brave correspondent, but you also are a human being with deep-seated emotions that may startle the journalist in you.
“You are seeing the biggest of the big issues, you are seeing places destroyed, people dead ... enormous emotion,” Rubin says.
The hardest thing, she says, will be to go back and forth between your response as a person and as a journalist. A personal revulsion at the sight of mangled bodies, for example, will collide with the journalistic need to capture precisely the event you are covering.
In the end, effective journalists need the emotional and intellectual fortitude to do both. They need to feel their own heartbreak or anger in order to convey the full measure of what’s happening before their eyes. But they also need a professional perspective.
“You have to get really close and immersed and feel it and have this visceral sense,” Rubin says. “And then (you need to) be able to step back and say, ‘OK, what does it really mean?’”
Back off when you sense serious trauma taking hold. It is normal to feel somewhat sad, jumpy and irritable in a dangerous setting. You might cope very well with the occasional sleepless night or upsetting memory. The time for concern is when such feelings take over your day-to-day emotions and you can’t shake them. It might happen after one traumatic event – say, a bombing scene.
It might happen as a “final straw,” where a firefight you could have managed the day before suddenly breaks you down.
Here are signs of acute stress:
- Upsetting thoughts or memories that you can’t shake
- Upsetting dreams about an event
- Acting or feeling that the event is happening again
- Feeling upset by reminders of the event
- Physical reactions such as fast heartbeat, stomach churning, sweatiness or dizziness
- Sleep difficulties
- Irritability or outbursts of anger
- Difficulty concentrating
- Heightened awareness of danger
- Being jumpy or easily startled at something unexpected