Journalists: Are you emotionally exhausted? Signs to watch for and how to ask for help

Rich Glickstein is a trauma therapist and social worker
Photo by Stacy Pearsall, Veterans Portrait Project

Many journalists are already there, and many more are on the precipice: emotional exhaustion brought on by a combination of professional and personal stressors.

What can we do?

Rich Glickstein, a trauma therapist, social worker and former photojournalist, shares with the Institute how journalists and their editors can identify burnout, and how (and when) to get help.

What are the signs of emotional exhaustion to watch out for in yourself after reporting on stressful situations? What should editors look out for?

Glickstein: Emotional burnout and covering traumatic events are ubiquitous in doing good journalism. Bad things happen, we report it, and we move on. However, even if the bad news is yesterday’s news in the paper, these things stick with us. Our brains will record things when we experience stuff that causes a significant change in emotion or markedly increased stress. 

During her testimony about now-Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, Christine Blasey Ford, Ph.D, referred to one memory’s location in relation to extreme stress: “Indelible on the hippocampus …” she said. Some memories are indelible, and they stay with us. Here’s how to detect if they’re presenting a problem with your major roles in life: work, family or play. 

Signs of emotional exhaustion:

  • Anhedonia: caring far less or feeling numb to things with which you would normally connect
  • An increase in irritability or a shorter temper with others
  • A reduction in work quality
  • Distancing from family or close friends
  • Estrangement from co-workers or work itself
  • A lack of attention and concentration 
  • An increase in alcohol or other drug use
  • Emotional and/or physical exhaustion
  • Indigestion, stomach or gastrointestinal discomfort 
  • A stark change in appetite (excessive or minimal)
  • A shift in sleep patterns (excessive or minimal)
  • Unreasonable expectations for self and others
  • Impulse control problems
  • Self-sabotaging behaviors
  • Missing deadlines or pushing deadlines beyond normal behavior

What happens in the long-term when someone puts off coping with trauma they have experienced on the job?

Glickstein: A person will experience intrusive thoughts spanning memories triggered by an encountered connection to feeling as if they re-live the experience once again and lose time. Someone may develop psychological or physiological arousal: 

  • Jumpiness when startled by things
  • Reactive to people, places or things that represent the traumatic experience
  • An increase in anger outbursts or reduced control of impulsivity

Other signs include:

  • Becoming increasingly avoidant of people, places or things that remind them of painful or unwanted memories, traumatic events or cause physiological reactions of extreme anxiety
  • Experiencing a shift in how they think about themselves, others or the world in much more extreme terms or judgments
  • Blaming themselves for something that’s happened, something they didn’t act to stop or feel they couldn’t stop, or feel strong, unpleasant emotions such as fear, horror, anger, guilt or shame
  • Having an increase in depressive experience about the life limitations their avoidance has created
  • Experiencing depression or self-judgment regarding an experience that caused severe inner conflict (moral injury)
  • Developing obsessions or compulsions that attempt to negate future negative events that may or may not be related to the thoughts or actions meant to deter them from happening

The above experiences may become chronic or cyclical. Some things may remain dormant until there is a specific trigger that brings back or changes the approach to the situation once encountered.

For example: You cover the tragic death of a child at a certain age. You’re fine with the reporting, you didn’t cause the family any extra trauma, you treated the facts correctly, and the story led to helpful change. However, when you finally have children, and your child approaches that age, some of the above symptoms start to show up and it’s difficult to figure out why without a professional. 

How can a journalist ask for the mental health support that they need?

Glickstein: If you’re employed by a larger organization, EAP – Employee Assistance Program. This is a serious program through which the employer is compelled to help and make time during the workday to ensure the employee is cared for. Usually, EAP offers between four and six sessions free of charge to the employee. That’s typically enough to make sense of a critical incident, but you might decide to continue in psychotherapy. It could be with that therapist if they’re taking private practice clients, or you may be given several options to find a new therapist after the EAP completes.

Health insurance panels have “find a provider,” and a journalist can do a search for a mental or behavioral health provider/talk therapist. Remember that there is nothing that says you must disclose [to an employer] that you’re seeking psychotherapy for anything. It’s protected information. 

Union or professional associations (NPPA, for example) should have the ability to find assistance set up.

Managers in some newsrooms can sometimes revert to “old-school,” suck-it-up-and-deal-with-it toughness when it comes to covering difficult topics. But those approaches are changing. You know the editors or managers you can trust in your organization. Use those managers if you need to disclose psychological difficulty and need for EAP. There may be a time when you need to disclose that you need to reduce or avoid covering certain stories for a short time while you work on it in therapy.

Glickstein participated in an Institute program for visual journalists on preventing burnout and treating trauma. Watch here:

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Phil D. Space
Phil D. Space
4 months ago

Thanks. Understanding this more and more the longer and longer I stay in this business.