In the week since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, I have seen and heard increasing numbers of journalism colleagues struggling with the effects of covering the conflict and news remotely.
It is different from the experience of those on the ground, of course, who face direct threats to their physical, psychological and digital safety, but the potential for vicarious trauma is significant.
After two exhausting and unprecedented years of a global pandemic, in which many of us have experienced anxiety, uncertainty, personal and professional stresses, it is important to know how to manage our mental health, even when we are physically far from a rapidly changing and traumatic story.
Vicarious trauma is the idea that people can become affected by experiences they are not directly exposed to. I remember working in a London newsroom in 2003, during the US-led invasion of Iraq and being asked to watch the live agency feed of the bombing of Baghdad. I was 25 years old, less than five years into my career.
On that March night, no senior journalists warned me about the horrors I would see, or advised me to limit my exposure, turn down the volume of the video and take regular breaks. Nobody offered to speak with me afterwards or warned me of the nightmares I would have, or how the only way I would briefly forget what I heard and saw was by drinking myself into oblivion. I know these reactions were my way of coping with vicarious trauma and I wish I had been better prepared to manage my mental health.
Exposure to such images does not automatically mean we are going to develop vicarious trauma. We may react with anger or sadness in the moment, but it is important to recognise the potential of a longer-term impact on our wellbeing.
It was not until almost a decade after my experiences that the term vicarious trauma started being used in newsrooms. As the growth of social media coincided with revolutions across the Arab world and the rise of the Islamic State, it meant anyone with access to a smartphone could upload high-quality images online, no matter how graphic or genuine.
It is not just viewing images that can impact us. Hearing the stories of those affected by trauma can also be distressing. The past two years have taken their toll on many journalists, for whom empathy is both a characteristic that enables them to bring humanity to their work and one that means they may be more sensitive to vicarious trauma.
The global health crisis has not only exacerbated the volume of news and noise but being hyper-connected to the biggest news story in living memory, often working from home where our personal and professional lives blur, has brought added pressures to our ability to process what we experience at second hand.
So, what can we do practically to protect our mental health, when dealing with secondary trauma, and still trying to cope with the pressures of the pandemic?
The following tips are distilled from my years working in media safety and mental health, although it is important to note I am a journalist, not a clinician.
- Graphic images have been often described as radioactive. This means it is important to limit our exposure to them as we would to toxic material, in terms of the time we spend viewing them.
- We can also mitigate the impact of videos of violence and trauma by switching off audio on our first viewing, minimising the screen, focussing on one specific (less graphic) image, and avoiding playing the images on a loop.
- Prioritising general wellbeing during times of heightened stress is vital: we can ensure we take breaks, stay hydrated and eat properly. Try to avoid viewing such images close to bedtime, and – where possible – ensure they are not viewed in the same location where we sleep.
- If we are managers, we can ensure we speak with colleagues about our expectations: explain in advance that what they see might be difficult, remind them to limit their exposure, check in with them afterwards, thank them for doing the work, and do not ask them to do something we would not. We should also be aware of factors that might make some individuals more vulnerable to viewing this material.
- Validation and recognition of our responsibilities and roles as journalists can give us a sense of agency and accountability and help us manage our mental health. It can help combat feelings of guilt about reporting from a ‘safe distance’ or the sensation of being powerless and wanting to ‘do more to help.’
- We can become more aware of our reactions. When I experience trauma or triggers for my trauma, my hands sweat, my heart and breathing speed up, so too my speech if I am talking. Recognising my body's normal response to an abnormal experience is helpful.
- Recognition, in turn, allows us to respond and to regulate: I try to step away from my computer and close it, focus on breathing, take a break, with a walk or exercise outdoors if possible. If I need to stay at my desk, I try to practise a grounding exercise, focussing on being aware of my body and my surroundings, what I can see, hear, and touch etc. Sometimes I write down my experiences in a notepad.
- The pandemic has reduced our ability to be spontaneous and to connect with colleagues. But connecting with people we trust is important when we have experienced something difficult, so we should try to have a network of peers to connect with for support and solidarity. Often this is only a phone call away and does not necessarily have to be those in the newsroom with you.
- At times of breaking news and uncertainty, many of us tend to spend a lot of time online, especially as we often fear missing a big story. We cannot be on call all the time. Giving ourselves permission to switch off, silence some notifications or delete certain apps, can help us rest, recalibrate and return to work better able to do our journalism.
- Working remotely has blurred the boundaries between our professional and personal lives. At times of increased stress, it is important to do something intentional to create a bridge between our work and home lives. It might be creating an artificial commute, having a ritual that marks the end of the work day, such as making a cup of tea, changing out of certain clothing, or shutting your laptop.
- When we face times of uncertainty, it is important to recognise what we can and can not control and to practise activities that give us agency. So, while we cannot control conflicts or the content of graphic images, we may be able to control how and when we see them and mitigate the impacts in terms of how we respond to them and the ways we then interact with those around us. We can not expect family and colleagues to second guess us. Trying to communicate in simple terms our expectations and our availability can be helpful.
- Sometimes our reactions are delayed and it is important to recognise when we might need to seek out additional help. Signs to look out for might include a sense of hopelessness, struggling to concentrate, feelings of anger, guilt and tiredness, difficulty sleeping, or conversely being more active than usual. Know that these reactions are our body's way of dealing with an emotional burden, and that we are not to blame for this: it is important to seek and accept help.
Hannah Storm is a media consultant specialising in journalism safety, crisis management and effective, empathetic leadership. She is the founder and co-director of Headlines Network, a community set up to promote more open conversations around mental health in the media.