In the third part of this series on mental and emotional health, Dr. Khaled Nasser argues that journalists should not wait until a traumatic event, such as war, is over in order to deal with its impact on their mental health. When tragedies and uncertainties seem endless, journalists need to adopt certain measures in order to cope.
Local journalists are not only physically stuck in the battlefield, but they are also emotionally bonded. The pain they witness everyday is their own
Christina is an American correspondent for a well-known newspaper. Her editor sends her to Syria to cover the latest events in the North of the country.
Over two months, she works with Mona, a local journalist who works as her fixer and translator, and they witness many horrors and stories of unimaginable suffering. Two months later, Christina returns to the USA. She cannot forget the harrowing images of war, and she often wakes up in the middle of the night in cold sweats. She decides to go to therapy, and slowly starts to feel better.
Mona, on the other hand, welcomes another journalist from the UK. She works with her, like she did with Christina, facing the same dangers everyday. Unlike her foreign counterparts, Mona does not get to leave and cannot take a distance. Fear becomes her way of life.
Foreign correspondents and photojournalists who are parachuted into a crisis may heal faster by distancing themselves physically from the field when their mission is accomplished. Local journalists, on the other hand, are not only physically stuck in the battlefield, but they are also emotionally bonded. The pain they witness everyday is their own.
Therefore, the international labels of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Vicarious Trauma (VT) may fall short of explaining the subjective experience of local journalists.
PTSD refers to the acute emotional and physiological stresses felt after exposure to a traumatic event or series of events. Vicarious trauma, on the other hand, applies to the same feelings and tensions developed following continuous witnessing of traumatic events happening to others. In both cases, symptoms develop after the fact.
Through my work with Arab journalists, I noticed that mental health teachings and practices mainly deal with either the management of past dangers or expected dangers in the future. But how can you deal with dangers happening in your life right now?
You need to “trick” your brain into feeling safe. The way your body feels and reacts is based on your perception of reality, rather than reality itself
Here, it is important to define the word “safety.” From a mental health perspective, this word includes a specific set of notions:
Your body must not be in harm’s way. This is the most basic prerequisite for any feeling of safety.
You must feel a sense of predictability. This means that you are able, more or less, to plan your day and expect to know how it will unfold. For example, if someone works in a bank, he/she expect to work from 9-5 and carry out various banking and financial transactions.
You must feel a sense of control over your daily life. Closely linked to predictability, control means that you can organise your day without expecting major changes that are completely out of your hand. For example, a journalist working for an opposition newspaper, under an authoritarian regime, may face the prospect of officials storming the office and arresting her and/or her colleagues. She may also be forced to edit or delete parts of her article despite their importance.
So what can you do when you have to battle stress and/or trauma in an unsafe environment? I recommend two approaches to survive such circumstances. I will call them “living a double life” and “deconstructing cultivation.” Basically, you need to “trick” your brain into feeling safe. The way your body feels and reacts is based on your perception of reality, rather than reality itself.
“Living a double life”
This means creating a mental distinction between danger and safe zones, based on the above definition of safety.
First, take care of dangers and address them by taking tangible safety measures, such as using passwords, sharing your location with a trusted friend, using secure communication channels, etc.
Try to identify a “shelter” where you can feel some predictability and control. So whenever you feel unsafe, imagine that you are actually there. Let’s go back to the same example of the opposition journalist working under a brutal regime. She may not be safe at work or on the street. Even her home address is known. But whenever she goes to her friend’s house in the mountains and locks that door, she feels safe and happy. Let her go there every weekend. Let it be a predictable ritual and a sense of safety, even if unreal.
The fact that your tiny environment (the boat) is organised, regardless of the wind outside, will have a positive impact on the way you feel and react
I always provide journalists with the “boat in the winds” metaphor to explain this point. Suppose you are caught on a boat in the middle of the sea, and in the middle of a vicious storm. You cannot control the winds, nor can you prevent your death. But try, as much as possible, to organise things inside your boat and give your brain a false sense of predictability and control. The fact that your tiny environment (the boat) is organised, regardless of the wind outside, will have a positive impact on the way you feel and react.
This is about the effort you need to make to change the way you perceive reality. When you face many dangerous situations, one after the other, your brain tends to cultivate the belief that the world in its entirety is totally unsafe. This is a natural tendency in the brain, and it happens even when the only dangerous situations you know of are the ones you watch on TV. Therefore:
You must “talk” to your brain. Actually tell it that, although some places and times are quite unsafe, this reality must not be generalised to include all places and all times.
Sit with yourself and think of areas or things that make you feel unsafe, and then others that make you feel good. Make a distinction between the two, develop awareness about the difference and act upon this difference.
This process will reduce the size of danger in your head, and will help you cope more. Your brain will know when to be on its guard and when to relax. You will manage and dodge dangers where you face real risks and will find peace when you don’t.
Photo: Andreja Restek, Italian photojournalist, in Aleppo, Syria. Photo by : Siccardi Paolo. Copyright: Andreja Restek
If you have any comments or questions for Dr. Khaled Nasser, please add them in the comments section below and we will get his answers as soon as possible