Recently I realised the term ‘mental health’ began with the letters ME.
Self-care is often regarded as a fluffy phrase, particularly in our industry where we are programmed to avoid admissions of vulnerability, conditioned to be on call all the time, to feed the beast, where we measure ourselves against a macho default, without making time to celebrate how much better our industry could be if it really was inclusive.
After years working in journalism, media safety, and my lived experience of and recovery from post-traumatic stress disorder, I have learned the language of mental health. Now I work with news organisations and individuals to help facilitate conversations, trying to create safe and inclusive spaces where people feel more able to share their experiences.
It is not always easy. There are many taboos preventing more open discussions about mental health. Although there has been a marked shift in the conversation since the start of the pandemic, stigma is still rife in journalism.
It took me many years to seek help for my mental health, to be able to speak openly and to really understand how important a role I could play in my own well-being. I realise I am privileged to be able to share these tips on self-care. They will not work for everyone, and they are not a substitute for medical or clinical help, but they have benefitted me and I am immensely grateful to those who have helped steer me towards practising them.
Take conscious breaks
Working remotely means boundaries blur between personal and professional life. Our phones and laptops are extensions of us. I take conscious breaks from the screen. This can be by stepping away from the phone or computer or closing my eyes for a few seconds. Sometimes it feels counter-intuitive, but I have discovered these recovery breaks allow me to work more effectively.
The past year or so has been intense. The impulse to not switch off is very strong. I have had many conversations with colleagues who cannot envisage turning their phones off at night, or leaving them in a different room. Journalists have to be on call, of course. But not all the time. Learning to accept this is scary but will reap rewards.
Reduce notifications and channels
It will not work for everyone but I have deleted some of my apps from my phone. This means my decisions to check Twitter or WhatsApp are more conscious than they were when I could access them at the press of a button.
Limit platforms and meetings
I have limited the platforms I use regularly. This has been a challenge when working with colleagues who use different modes to communicate, but because I am not across them all constantly it makes it more manageable. I also make conscious decisions to limit my video calls to three or four a day and try to have more old-fashioned phone calls.
Be mindful about meetings
I block out time in my calendar for meetings with me, allowing myself time to do work or simply think without constant virtual connection. I try to not schedule back-to-back meetings as well, though this depends on others as well. In the olden days, we would have time between meetings to move from one room or meeting space to another. It would allow us to transition between one work conversation and another. This is a virtual version of this.
Get some exercise
During the pandemic, it is not always been possible to exercise outside. In addition, some people face barriers which mean they struggle with exercise. But where and when it is possible, it can be a real benefit to mental health. I am fortunate to love running and it has been a massive mood enhancer for me.
Get outdoors if you can
We have spent so much of this pandemic period stuck between the same four walls. I work five metres from where I sleep, so when possible, I commute to work via a half an hour run or walk. It gets me outside and it provides a bridge between my work and home life that I used to have with my train journey. When it is not possible to go outside, music or movies connecting us with nature can be a substitute. Years ago, I lived in Peru. Amazon rainforest music helps me escape.
Check in with others
Just as we have to be more intentional about disconnecting, when we are socially removed from people, we need to be more intentional about connecting. Setting up virtual meetings with friends and family boosts my mental health, having social calls with colleagues does too.
Eat (relatively) healthily
I admit it. I eat rubbish sometimes. I like sweets, crisps and the odd glass of wine or two. But I also know when I eat healthier and slower, when I leave my desk to eat my lunch, have breakfast with my kids, it boosts my mood. Equally, I try not to beat myself up if I eat rubbish. At home, we have Friday evening wine and crisps for instance. It gives me something to look forward to at the end of the working week.
Journalling. Drawing. Photography. Knitting. Writing. Crafting. Model building. Painting. Music. Dance. These are all things friends and colleagues have tried. There is something therapeutic about getting creative. For the past few years, I have been writing flash fiction (a form of mini short story). It has been a great way of processing my experiences in a different way from my work.
Do not compare yourself
The tendency to compare ourselves is chronic to the media industry. Competition is rife. I learned from my running that I can only compare myself with myself. My background, baseline, perspective, priorities, privilege is different from those of other people. When I found that, I was more accepting of myself. I stopped beating myself up. I found more happiness.
Focus on what you can control
I cannot control what other people do. Sometimes, I find myself getting stressed and raging at injustice, at decisions made by others. As journalists, it is our job to hold people accountable, but it is also important to recognise that we have a sphere of influence and we can use that for good or bad. When we waste time worrying about things we cannot change, we add to our own stress.
Recognise there will be rubbish days
Mental health is not about rainbows and roses. It is about recognising there are good days and bad ones, and sometimes the best we can do is focus on getting through that one day, putting one foot in front of the other, remembering to breathe. A few years ago, I heard the phrase: the sun sets and the sun rises again. I like to remember this.
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. Her debut collection of writing, The Thin Line Between Everything and Nothing, was published this month by Reflex Press and is available here.