I did not know trauma anniversaries were a thing until I realised how much significance I attach to certain dates, and started to consider how they affected me.
My own post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) stemmed from a series of painful incidents which occurred on days carved into my conscious by the weight of my experiences.
In the past, in the days and weeks leading up to these anniversaries, I would experience the echo of the event, feel an ominous sense that something bad was going to happen to me again. At their worst moments, I would be anxious, angry, uneasy, and avoid certain things. Sometimes I would self-medicate with alcohol, self-sabotage with unhealthy behaviours, trying to simply get through the day again.
This week marks a significant anniversary for many in the journalism industry and beyond. It is twenty years since 9/11, a date for which those three numbers encapsulates so much.
From my past work in journalism, safety and mental health, and my personal experiences I know this week will be really difficult for many of our colleagues. Recent news from Afghanistan is likely to exacerbate the emotional toll on many. And, after 18 months of really hard grind, times when we have been worn down, I think it is helpful to recognise the cumulative effect of stress and trauma on ourselves and our colleagues.
Of course, our experiences are not the same as those who were directly affected by the devastating attacks of 11 September, those who lost loved ones, those who experienced the events first-hand. But our responses and experiences are valid.
As journalists, we are expected to run towards a story, to cover the news, to be the channel through which the world hears and sees stories that matter. We keep on going and going, and we absorb stuff vicariously or first-hand.
We often rush into a story without forearming ourselves, without realising the impact it might have on us. In my past work at the International News Safety Institute, I would work with news organisations to prepare and support journalists going into dangerous or difficult environments, where the need for physical body armour was often paramount.
Now I advocate for an ‘emotional flak jacket’ as I call it, for newsrooms and our industry to better prepare people who might be exposed emotionally to tough stories. Journalism is a brilliant profession, but it can be a hard one to work in. It is one where we are often expected to cover tough stories and yet conditioned to avoid talking and sometimes simply acknowledging our own stories.
At Headlines Network, we are working to create connections between people who want to speak about mental health, working to normalise the conversations in newsrooms, recognising it is not always easy to share when you are struggling.
Journalism is a community built on communication. It is one in which we are resilient, but not immune, as my colleague professor Anthony Feinstein reminded me when I was at my lowest ebb.
I asked clinical psychologist and trauma expert Dr Kevin Becker for his thoughts on trauma anniversaries. He told me:
"Recovering from trauma is a developmental process. Often people create artificial timelines for healing and expect survivors to "move on" after that timeline is reached. The reality is that traumatic events can resurface in our lives and memories at virtually any point, especially around anniversary dates.
"Journalists should understand that this is an expected part of the recovery process. Traumatic events are not simply witnessed, processed, and expelled from our consciousness; they are slowly digested over time as they become more and more integrated into who we are and how we experience the world."
So, what can we practically do to navigate these tough times and to support ourselves and others when faced with the calendar-carving of trauma?
First off, we can plan for it, recognise that the date is meaningful to us and find ways to cut ourselves some slack in the lead up to it. We can talk to others about our experiences if we feel able to – those we trust, who will not judge us, but understand we need a friendly ear.
Sometimes I find it helpful to find ways to mark the dates that matter, to do something to commemorate and actually acknowledge the pain. It might be taking a walk, taking some time to myself, writing something down. It might be pausing for a moment to reflect on how far I have come since that traumatic date.
As journalists, there is one final piece of advice that might seem to fly in the face of reason. Sometimes the only thing you can do is disconnect. Switch off the phone and the news and the noise. Step away from the story. It is okay to take a break if there are times when the story or the memory of it hurts.
Mental health begins with the letters ME. I have learned at my cost that I need to look after myself because only by doing that can I continue to do my job.
Hannah Storm is a media consultant and a mental health advocate. During her career, she spent more than a decade working as a journalist for television and radio, online and print for outlets including the BBC, The Times, Reuters and ITN, and Oxfam. She recently founded Headlines Network.
Free daily newsletter
- Journalists are exhausted and we need a safe space to talk about it
- Headlines Network creates free workshops for journalists to support their mental health
- Tip: How to write about traumatic events without re-traumatising people
- 13 self-care tips for overworked journalists
- Hybrid working is here to stay but journalists need to be "sensible about it"