1. Understanding Stress

Types of stress and symptoms

You don't have to be suffering from full-blown Post-Traumatic Stress Order (PTSD) to be affected by stress. There are several different levels of stress, and awareness of where you stand is an important first step in understanding how best to respond.

There are also a broad range of symptoms to watch out for. Some are obvious, such as insomnia and anxiety, but some are not, like boredom and irritation. Knowing to spot the warning signs can often pre-empt a deterioration in your psychological wellbeing further down the line. It will also equip to you help friends or colleagues if you begin to recognize some of the symptoms in them.

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Basic Stress

Basic stress - Brought from Home

As the name suggests, this is the kind of underlying stress that you are experiencing at the moment, no matter what you're doing. It can be particularly intense at the beginning of a new job or posting when you're getting used to an unfamiliar environment, but it can often be hard to pin down its origins.

It arises - essentially - from the circumstances of your life; what is going on within you, within your family, among your friends or in wider social or environmental contexts.

It must be remembered that your basic stress level will most likely dictate how resilient you are to more intense pressures that may come along later. If you have upsetting or unresolved family issues preying on your mind at the start of an assignment, you will be far more prone to disturbance and upset by other factors. Previous experience of traumatic stress or pre-existing conditions such as depression also compromise your capacity to cope with future stressors.

It is also crucial to understand that you will not resolve basic stress issues by moving to a new job or a new country. Taking an assignment on the other side of the world may seem like a handy solution to inconvenient emotional dilemmas at home, but you will find that they follow you, one way or another. To quote the title of Jon Kabat-Zinn's famous book on meditation: "Wherever you go, there you are".

Symptoms

Fatigue, headaches, back pain, insomnia, nausea, indigestion, cramps, fainting, constipation, diarrhoea, sweatiness, sleeping too much or too little

Forgetfulness, poor concentration, boredom, paranoia, poor teamwork, perfectionism

Irritability, depression, anxiety, anger, fear, mood swings, apathy, increased sensitivity to criticism

Loneliness, withdrawal, intolerance, relationship problems

Substance abuse, eating problems, risk-taking, hyperactivity, overwork, procrastination, missed deadlines, anti-social behaviour

Emptiness, loss of beliefs and sense of meaning, cynicism, compassion fatigue.

Cumulative Stress

Cumulative Stress - When the Cracks Appear

Cumulative stress is by far and away the most frequent form of stress experienced by journalists, both at home and in the field.

It is not necessarily traumatic, and can comprise a combination of factors that build up over time, gradually eroding our resilience and productivity. Prolonged exposure without adequate rest or relaxation can eventually have devastating results.

Many people end up in extreme difficulty because they fail to spot the accumulating warning signs at an early stage. This can be easy to monitor under normal circumstances, but in emergency environments such as war zones and areas of natural disaster, it can quickly spiral out of control.

Once you have identified the symptoms of cumulative stress, you have a choice. Either find a way to reduce the causes of stress or develop healthier and more effective coping strategies.

Trauma Tip - The Snowball Effect

The more the stress response is activated - either physically or psychologically - the harder it is to shut off. If stress hormones, heart rate and blood pressure remain elevated over time, your body and mind will begin to suffer.

Symptoms

Fatigue, headaches, back pain, insomnia, nausea, indigestion, cramps, fainting, constipation, diarrhoea, sweatiness, sleeping too much or too little

Forgetfulness, poor concentration, boredom, paranoia, poor teamwork, perfectionism

Irritability, depression, anxiety, anger, fear, mood swings, apathy, increased sensitivity to criticism

Loneliness, withdrawal, intolerance, relationship problems

Substance abuse, eating problems, risk-taking, hyperactivity, overwork, procrastination, missed deadlines, anti-social behaviour

Emptiness, loss of beliefs and sense of meaning, cynicism, compassion fatigue.

Trauma Tip - The Stressed Bureau

Cumulative stress operates both on an individual and a group level. If it remains unaddressed in the context of a team or a bureau, it can lead to a high turnover of personnel, the formation of alliances and cliques and a general lack of cohesion and initiative. Apparently trivial human resources issues can become chronic and entrenched.

Trauma Tip - Stress and PTSD

Routine cumulative stresses can contribute to the risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While ordinary daily stress cannot in itself cause PTSD, it can gradually erode your resilience to larger unexpected shocks. Addressing cumulative stress as it arises (e.g. effective self care combined with maintenance of a robust support system) can equip you to handle the intense traumas that you may experience and reduce the likelihood of becoming severely traumatized yourself.

Acute Stress

Burnout (Acute Stress Disorder)

Some definitions:

"A state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward." Herbert J Freudenberger, U.S. psychologist who coined the term "burnout"

"A state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long term involvement in emotionally demanding situations." Elliot Aronson, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at University of California

"Changes in thoughts, emotions, and behaviour as a result of extended job stress and unrewarded repetition of duties. Burnout is seen as extreme dissatisfaction, pessimism, lowered job satisfaction, and a desire to quit." AllPsych Online

Burnout is a process, not an event. A build-up of Cumulative Symptoms (link above) slowly depletes our natural resources for coping with pressure and strain. Everyone has their own breaking point, and in burnout, our system finally tells us that enough is enough.

A key factor in burnout is that it often affects the most dedicated and motivated people. It strikes people who are highly committed to their work, and is characterized by deep exhaustion and a profound sense of disillusionment.

(Many journalists, for instance, feel increasingly troubled by their role as observers, unable to change the course of events that they witness or practically help the people involved.)

As the culmination of a long period of accumulating stress, burnout can be triggered by apparently trivial events, the so-called straw that breaks the camel's back. For journalists, it is confusing and frightening to feel unable to handle a story that seems undramatic in comparison to previous experiences. This is simply the mind's way of telling you that enough is enough.

The sense of failure and frustration that comes with burnout can be overwhelming. Life becomes dull and flavorless, relationships can seem tedious, and passionately held beliefs, opinions and ideals drain away. While time off and rest can address the physical exhaustion, the recovery of enthusiasm for life can be a much lengthier process.

Trauma Tip - Recovery and Growth

Burnout is NOT THE END OF THE WORLD, no matter how much it may feel like it. It is just your mind and body's way of telling you that you have pushed yourself too far. Compassion fatigue may be a common occurrence among journalists, but experts have also identified what they call Compassion Satisfaction. Journalism is an important, rewarding profession. If you have lost your sense of those rewards, help is available and recovery is possible. The majority of those who experience burnout integrate the experience and move on to renewed understanding of themselves, resilience and a sense of purpose.

Symptoms

  • Emotional exhaustion and fragility
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Feeling helpless and hopeless
  • Severe depression
  • Heavy substance abuse
  • Anxiety
  • Chronic sleeping disorders
  • Memory loss
  • Loss of self-esteem, focus on failure

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