I realized this morning that I need to make posts on this site related to my trauma research and background evergreen. It wasn’t a good feeling. It’s terrible to know that I repeatedly need to share my knowledge about trauma because preventable, major traumatic events keep happening. But here we are. Once again, I must help inform my journalist friends about recognizing emotional trauma in yourself and others in your newsroom or your life.
Understanding Journalism and Trauma
Certain professions are prone to emotional trauma. My research shows that journalism is one of them, whether industry leaders and journalists themselves are willing to recognize and admit it.
In my national study of more than 800 professional journalists, 88% reported exposure to traumatic happenings. More than half of them said they were exposed to the traumatic event (defined as a death or near-death experience) through their work. Only about half of the population is exposed to a traumatic event in their lifetime.
Journalists are more likely to be exposed to trauma at work than most people are to be exposed at all.”
Covering trauma is not part of the job you can avoid. And trauma exposure happens, whether you’re reporting live from a traumatic event, reading about it in a police report, or editing wire footage. Viewing or learning about trauma as part of your job is exposure.
Coping With Trauma
That news is pretty bleak. I understand because that’s exactly how I felt when I got those initial results. But I continued researching and learned that it’s not all gloom and doom for the journalism industry, at least not related to this.
Trauma exposure doesn’t mean you’ll be traumatized and develop a mental illness.”
Journalists’ responses to trauma are variable. Some are able to be exposed to traumatic happening with little or no emotional response. Others don’t. So, the question becomes, “What’s the difference?” How can some people process trauma and move on while others seem to stay stuck in it? The answer isn’t resilience. No, some journalists aren’t just tougher than others. It’s in their ability to process their emotions.
People cope better with traumatic events when they:
- Debrief. People with trusted others they can talk to about traumatic happenings are less likely to experience emotional trauma symptoms than those without. Newsroom leaders should make professionals available for those who don’t have people to talk to or don’t feel comfortable doing so.
- Have Social Support. People with strong friend, family, and even faith networks cope with trauma exposure better than those without. Their layers of social support protect them.
- Are Older. Age is a factor when it comes to experiencing trauma symptoms. People older than 25 tend to process trauma more readily. The simple science behind this ability is that their brains are fully formed and more prepared to handle such emotional shocks.
- Are Trained. Training eliminates some of the uncertainty. People who know what to expect during and after a traumatic event are less likely to experience emotional trauma than those who don’t have that informational support.
- Lack Personal Experience or Connection. People without a history of personal trauma or those who don’t relate directly to the experience are less likely to experience emotional trauma due to trauma exposure. So, people who were traumatized as children or through gun violence are much more likely to experience trauma symptoms as a result of a school shooting. People with children also are more prone to symptoms.
These are just some factors that help people cope with trauma exposure. But there’s a key to all of this.
You have to recognize and admit that you were exposed to trauma and need help. The sooner you admit exposure and start guarding your mental health, the better.”
You can start dealing with the potential emotional fallout of trauma exposure right after it happens. But what’s more common among journalists is denial. Denying they have feelings about what they experienced or thinking they’re fine, even when it’s clear to others they aren’t. That’s why recognizing the symptoms of emotional trauma is critical.
Levels of Emotional Trauma
Before we get into symptoms, let’s talk about what I call “the levels of emotional trauma.” Understanding the types helps you establish a timeline of care and gives you a better idea of how to help others.
The levels of emotional trauma:
- Adjustment Disorder. The first level of emotional trauma is an adjustment disorder. We’ve all experienced this type of psychological response to a stressor. It’s when we have difficulty adjusting after something traumatic happens, but we can continue on relatively well with our daily lives. For example, your grandparent dies. You’re sad, and you miss them, but you’re also able to work and function. You think about your sadness less often as time goes on.
- Acute Stress Disorder. The second level of emotional trauma is ASD. Symptoms of ASD last more than a week but generally are gone within three months. You have trauma symptoms, but you can still function pretty well.
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. The third and most significant level of emotional trauma is PTSD. PTSD is a severe form of emotional trauma that keeps you from functioning in your daily life. Its diagnosis requires specific symptoms that must last more than a month. ASD frequently becomes PTSD.
Now that you know about these levels, it’s vital to understand how to cope with them. First, if you’re exposed to trauma, debrief. Talk to someone about how you’re feeling and processing your experience. Talk to them every day if you need to until you get through the adjustment. If you aren’t adjusting, seek professional help immediately. Trauma is unlikely to go away. You need someone to help you make sense of the experience and its aftermath on your emotional health.
Getting the needed help as soon as possible so trauma symptoms don’t become more severe is why it’s critical to be able to recognize trauma symptoms in yourself and others.
Recognizing Emotional Trauma
There’s not a standard script for how people respond to trauma. Some people scream and sob, while others laugh uncontrollably. They’re all natural responses to a happening beyond what you can imagine experiencing. But there is a set of symptoms that indicate trauma. You should be able to recognize them in yourself and others.
Symptoms of emotional trauma include:
- Unwanted Memories or Dreams. Having disturbing dreams or an inability to sleep because you can’t stop thinking about the traumatic happening. Having flashbacks or thinking obsessively about what happened.
- Re-Experiencing. Feeling like the trauma is happening again or reliving it repeatedly in your mind.
- Physical Reactions to Reminders. Having a physical response (a startle, upset stomach, or an onslaught of tears, for example) to places or things that remind you of the trauma. For example, police officers described a physical response to hearing cell phone ringers after the Pulse Nightclub shooting. When they finally got into the club and were looking for survivors, all they could hear was people’s loved ones trying to call them.
- Avoidance. Avoiding places or things that remind you of the trauma. For example, I once interviewed a reporter who drove miles out of her way every day to avoid a gas station where she reported about a girl’s murder.
- Depression. Not finding joy in life. Changes in eating and sleeping habits (too much or too little) often are signs of depression too.
- Self Blame or Guilt. Feeling like you could have or should have done something differently to avoid, prevent, or lessen the harm associated with the trauma.
- Hypervigilance. Hyper focusing on something to avoid processing your emotions. For journalists, this usually means doing nothing but coverage of the trauma and feeling that telling the story is more important than anything else.
What To Do When You Recognize Trauma
Every newsroom in the nation should have open access to mental health professionals, and newsroom managers should openly encourage using those resources. Newsroom leaders should model the behaviors they want to see from their teams by being transparent about seeing a mental health professional, making them available in the newsroom during exceptionally traumatic times, and checking in on their staff’s mental health.
If you recognize signs of emotional trauma in yourself or want to mediate the potential, talk to a mental health professional who can help you process your experience.
What’s trickier is if you recognize emotional trauma symptoms in someone else who is in denial. If that happens, have a one-on-one conversation with the person. Tell them exactly what you’ve seen in their behavior and what they’ve said to you that aligns with the symptoms of emotional trauma. Tell them you care about them and you’re worried about them. Ask them if you can help them find a mental health professional to talk to. Also, remember that you can’t force someone to recognize or talk through their trauma. That’s an individual decision.
Take Care of You
Above all, remember that you’re expected to feel. It doesn’t make you any less professional, and it doesn’t say anything about your journalistic abilities. It says that you’re human. Take care of yourself and each other. And please reach out to me if I can help.
Ronna Austin says
I went to work at CNN’s OKC temp bureau the night of the OKC bombing. All these years later, I still haven’t been able to bring myself to visit the site or the museum, and I get very emotional reliving many of the various experiences and conversations I had during the year I spent at the bureau.
Thank you for all you do, Kenna.
Kenna Griffin says
I haven’t gone to the memorial museum either, though I hear it’s lovely and was helpful for some reporters to visit. Thank you for sharing your experience. Take care of yourself!