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COVERING MASS DISASTERS: What Reporters Can Do To Take Care of Themselves

by Bonnie Bucqueroux

The Victims and the Media Program offers e-mail support for journalists who want to share feelings with their peers. If you would like to be paired with someone who has been there, click here to e-mail Bonnie Bucqueroux - please put "PEER SUPPORT" in the subject line.

The shock and horror os 9/11. The devastation and frustration of Hurricane Katrina. Reporters often find themselves on the front lines of mass disasters alongside other first responders, seeing things that most of us will never see. What can reporters do to take care of themselves in such difficult times?

The following is a list of short- and longer-term coping strategies based on suggestions from the mental health professionals at the National Center for PTSD and distilled advice from reporters and other professionals who have witnessed extraordinary violence or suffered it second-hand.

In the heat of the moment

  • Short time horizons - To get through the immediate assignment, recognize that it may be necessary to go on "auto-pilot." Focus on what to do next. But remember that this strategy only works short-term.
  • A promise to yourself - You can delay dealing with trauma, but promise yourself that you will deal with your feelings later -- and then live up to that promise.
  • Mini-breaks - Take a few minutes for a walk outside to breathe in fresh air or call someone you care about. Circumstances may not allow you to leave the assignment for long, but make the most of the small opportunities to gain perspective and experience much-needed relief.
  • Honor your competence - Reporting on violence is the toughest assignment. Remember that you may uncharacteristically show emotion. You may make mistakes. But you are a professional in a challenging assignment helping others to assimilate terrible news. Never beat yourself up for doing your best.

In the longer term

  • Talk to supportive peers - You are not the only journalist who finds that these assignments take a significant toll. Of course, there are still some reporters and editors who deny the impact of trauma. Do not let their ignorance or cynicism wound you or undermine your self-confidence. Turn instead to empathetic peers who understand. You can e-mail us (please put PEER SUPPORT in the subject line), if you would like to be paired with a supportive reporter who knows how difficult these assignments can be.
  • Learn about trauma and PTSD - You will find resources to help you understand PTSD through our links page. As the experts from the National Center for PTSD say, you will find that you are "not alone, not weak and not 'crazy.'"
  • Lean on your personal support systems - Talk with family, friends and co-workers, at your own pace. Follow your own inclinations, but do not hesitate to call upon others for help. There are times when we all need a shoulder to lean on - and to cry on - and the good people in our lives take pride in our willingness to trust them.

  • Practice relaxation techniques - The National Center for PTSD recommends: muscular relaxation exercises, breathing exercises, meditation, swimming, stretching, yoga, prayer, listening to quiet music and spending time in nature. Be aware, however, that disturbing physical sensations can become more apparent when you are relaxed, so experiment to find what is tolerable for you. (You may want to intersperse different activities.)

  • Increase positive, creative activities - Many people find that artistic expression helps them cope with stress and trauma. Take a painting class. Take action on an issue that matters. Volunteer to help others. Do things that make you laugh. Keep a journal. Visit a museum. Play with children. Distraction alone cannot re-build a life, but it is a positive force in the right direction.

  • Start an exercise program - After getting your doctor's OK, begin a moderate but regular exercise program. In addition to improving your overall health and fitness, the brain chemicals exercise generates can help boost your spirits.

  • Take care of your physical self - Eat regularly and eat healthy foods. Take time to sleep. Get a massage. Make time away from the telephone. Say no to adding new responsibilities (if you can).

  • Seek help sooner rather than later - Don't buy into the argument that you should tough it out as long as possible before seeking help. Talk with your physician about the trauma you have experienced. Seek references to counselors with whom you can talk about what you have been through. There is no shame in taking good care of yourself.

    • WARNING SIGNS FROM THE NATIONAL CENTER FOR PTSD: You should be sure to seek help if:
      • you are experiencing any symptoms that are causing distress, are causing significant changes in your relationships or are impairing your functioning at work,
      • you are self-medicating with alcohol or other drugs or
      • you are unable to find relief with the strategies listed above.

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