We have lost so much. We’re grieving and grasping and giving and growing.
If you’re like me, you need some reassurance. I’m here to give it to you: I see and appreciate the hard work you’re doing. I’m cheering you on. And this issue of The Cohort is holding space for when you fall apart. Because you will. We all will.
I reached out to Sidney Tompkins, a licensed mental health counselor and ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, to see what she could teach us about coping with the coronavirus in the days ahead. Over the last three years, she and her husband, long-time Poynter faculty member Al Tompkins, have taught thousands of journalists from all over the world about dealing with stress and trauma. On top of that, she has 37 years of experience as a psychotherapist. We talked about anxiety, control, burnout and interpersonal relationships during the coronavirus outbreak for the latest issue of The Cohort.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Mel Grau: How does coronavirus stress impact journalists differently?
Sidney Tompkins: It’s been my experience that journalists like to have control over their environment. What’s going on now with the virus is scary. We don’t have control over what’s going on with our own selves, much less our children, and other people that we love and care about.
Mel: And feeling like you’ve lost control leads to more anxiety, right?
Sidney: This is probably the first time in our lifetimes that we have felt as helpless as we do now. It’s changing the center. We feel these things on a cellular level.
Mel: I sometimes want to react like the kids in my life and just scream about it. But I can’t because I’m an adult professional woman.
Sidney: Who says you can’t? At times like this, we are reduced to our least common denominator. And that can be a 6-year-old, or a 2-year-old, or whatever it is, because it’s nuts.
Mel: Is scheduling a video call with a coworker to complain or commiserate healthy?
Sidney: It absolutely is a healthy coping mechanism. Because the truth is you have to get it out. If you were in your workspace, you would have been able to go and talk with your coworker, even for a few minutes, and get it out. And your coworker would be able to do that same thing with you. We don’t realize how much we rely on that kind of contact to ground us.
Mel: How do we know if we’ve crossed a line? Become too obsessive about the little we can control? Are drinking too much?
Sidney: You have to know yourself well enough to know if you’ve lost it and rely on the feedback of others who know you well.
Mel: A lot of subscribers to The Cohort are in charge. They may have kids at home, and they’re also responsible for their teams. What advice do you have for women leaders during this time?
Sidney: Tell yourself as a leader: I have never worked under these circumstances before, and I am in totally foreign territory. You have to first recognize this. Write it down. You are a trailblazer.
Then, just remember to check in with your staff enough for them to know you care about them and what they’re doing.
Mel: Should we be worried that we’re transferring our work stress to our kids?
Sidney: I think it’s important to be honest with our children about what’s going on. It’s easy for mothers to feel guilty about not being able to remedy or fix whatever situation is in front of us.
Mel: I think that could apply to partners, too. Whatever roles had been established a month ago are warped and the effects compounded. What’s your advice for navigating changing relationship dynamics?
Sidney: You’ve got to name it and claim it. And give your partner permission to speak it out. It’s OK to say, “We do not know how to do this.” Try this framework:
It would help me if you could [fill in the blank]. Tell me what would be helpful to you that I could do.
Mel: What if the answer is “nothing”?
Sidney: Then just do something. Make coffee. Refill water glasses. Cook.
Mel: There are tons of resources out there for dealing with stress. What if those things are not enough?
Sidney: Do things that require you to change your focus. Learn something new. I’m teaching myself how to effectively and realistically do a cactus garden.
Mel: You’ve been married to a journalist for 25 years, and your daughter is a social media producer for a local NBC affiliate. What have you learned as a therapist watching them and their colleagues?
Sidney: I think being a journalist is a calling. It’s crucial to know that what you’re doing is making a difference in order to be resilient to the trauma of the job. But it also leads to working 20 hours a day. It’s hard to stop.
So, set an alarm on your cell phone to get up and move around, to go eat, to change your focus so that you don’t burn out in the process.
And the story of burnout is that for people who are invested and really believe that what they’re doing matters, it’s not that you burn out. It’s that you just flat get exhausted and worn out. It’s different. But there’s got to be boundaries that you put in place to take care of yourself.
Mel: When I know that everyone is impacted by this but I don’t exactly know how, I struggle with basic salutations. A simple “thanks” doesn’t seem to do the trick. Do I write, “Hang in there?” “Keep breathing!” “Wear a mask?” What is your parting phrase?
Sidney: I can tell you what mine is: Be blessed.
And maybe one of the best prayers is just simply to say “help!” We don’t know what to do. We’re in uncharted territory. We’re pioneers.