Journalism, by definition, is a stressful profession. Ask any reporter who has worked on deadline, reported on conflict or crime, or lived and worked in a war zone or disaster area.
The demanding nature of the job, coupled with issues outside of work, can make it difficult to cope.
“All journalists are constantly negotiating stress in both positive and negative ways,” said Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma in an interview by phone. “There’s the stress of the deadline itself, there’s the stress of the subject matter in the story, and there’s whatever personal stress and professional stress we’re carrying. To a point, stress is helpful. Then there’s a point where stress becomes overwhelming and performance declines.”
Here are five ways to keep yourself afloat when life and work start to get to you.
Develop a support system
In the wake of major natural disasters, journalists are often caught in the middle. It’s our job to tell stories about what’s happening, and that requires us to sometimes continue functioning even when the world is falling down around us.
During Hurricane Sandy, the New York Daily News staff was heavily impacted. The newspaper’s office was damaged so badly that they are now in temporary quarters. Owner Mort Zuckerman said in November that staffers might not return to their offices for a year. Additionally, some staffers’ homes were basically destroyed.
David Handschuh, a veteran staff photographer with the Daily News since 1986, says colleagues pulled through by reaching out to each other. “The greatest single challenge to journalists seeking help is that they are not superheroes,” Handschuh said in a telephone interview. He added that giving moral support is “about the most important thing that journalists can do for journalists.”
The Dart Center’s Shapiro says “peer support is crucial” — both in terms of giving and receiving it: “Resilience is highly associated with connectedness and peer support. Isolation is highly associated with risk.”
Pay attention to signs of stress
When reporting on the Gaza-Israel conflict in November, it became obvious about five days into reporting on the fighting and bombings on Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and elsewhere that I was getting incredibly jumpy. The worst part was that it seemed completely beyond my control. I realized something was off when I was so worried about more rockets hitting my home base of Jerusalem that I jumped at every loud bang.
Though I was functioning at the surface level, meeting deadlines and caring for my child and spouse, I was not paying close enough attention to my own psyche.
When my mother-in-law offered to babysit for an hour in between her errands, I took the chance to walk away from the story and go to a relatively deserted restaurant in the middle of the afternoon. I just sat alone for half an hour and did nothing but drink a cappuccino and stare at the wall. Though brief, it gave me some much-needed breathing room, and more importantly, perspective.
Balance colliding worlds
When personal difficulties arise but have to take a backseat to a deadline, the background noise can reach a deafening level.
Shapiro says no matter what is causing the stress while working, it is important to pace yourself. That means paying attention to maintaining normal routines and completely unplugging if necessary by doing something you enjoy.
“Have a life beyond the stress of the assignment,” he advises.
This past summer I was working on a lengthy magazine article in the midst of a one-month visit with family members. It was also my first major assignment since giving birth to my son 8 months earlier. The circumstances were not ideal for any of us, and the resulting conflicts became a major distraction.
Because the article had a non-negotiable deadline and was important to me professionally and financially, the inability to resolve my personal troubles created an unmanageable stress level. The amount of work I was facing, compounded with ongoing domestic disruptions, left almost no time for a normal life. Instead, things were compounding by the day with no end in sight.
What I really needed at the time was to simply put some temporary distance between me, my work and my home life.
Document your experiences
Once you acknowledge that stress is an occupational hazard for journalists, it can free you up to take stock of the things you can control.
Last year, two journalists who were friends and colleagues were killed while working in the Middle East. I got several requests from media outlets to write something about them. Even though I initially wanted to be left alone to grieve privately, I wrote the requested articles.
As I did, I understood that sometimes the best antidote to stress is to literally work through whatever is traumatizing, aggravating or worrying you. I didn’t sit down and write journal entries about my friends, but the articles I wrote had the same impact on me emotionally.
When it’s something as significant as the death of a loved one, being a journalist and knowing how to document things can actually be a helpful tool.
Handschuh points out that the professional ability to document is a major advantage for journalists, noting that many psychologists recommend journaling as a self-therapy method. “And guess what we do in our jobs?” Handschuh said. “By nature, journalists like to share what we witness.”
Keep your own well-being top of mind
One of the gravest hazards of stress is that it can lead to a downward spiral health-wise. Shapiro notes that for this reason, it’s particularly important for journalists to take care of themselves physically.
That means that no matter what’s happening in your personal and professional life, you should still strive to eat well, get enough rest, take enough breaks from working and get exercise. He says aerobic exercise is particularly associated with resilience.
“A career is a marathon; a career is not a sprint,” says Shapiro. “As news professionals we are addicted to going deadline to deadline. I think we need to remind ourselves to be a little more strategic day to day (and) not to think, ‘how I am not going to get through the next two weeks?’, but ‘how am I going to get through the next two months or the next two years?’”
What other tips would you add to the list?