“Listen to the whispers and you won’t have to hear the screams.” This Indigenous proverb floats around the internet timelessly. Its exact author remains elusive, but wise nonetheless.
In a world of social media, 24-hour news cycles, and endless gloom, journalism can take its toll on those producing it. Against a backdrop of #TheHustle, we’re under constant pressure to perform at a level which seems to exceed human capacity.
And, when we inevitably burn out, the whispers can quickly become screams. Wider structural change is essential — but how can we look after ourselves better in the meantime?
Why Is Journalism So Stressful?
Working in journalism can be incredibly rewarding — but there are also points when it can get very overwhelming — for many different reasons.
Perhaps you’re walking a tightrope of commissions to pay the bills. Maybe you’re in a role that requires multiple stories a day. Maybe your shift pattern means you never see your friends
Winnie Tang (L) and Katy Georgiou (R)
Even the content of our job can take its toll, where we’re required to report on highly sensitive stories without proper aftercare or safeguards.
Navigating the often bleak 24-hour news cycle alone can also feel all-consuming — especially for those producing, delivering, and reading it.
For Ella Devereux, a recent journalism graduate who’s gone straight into a full-time reporting role for the Nursing Times, it’s “all very new territory”.
Speaking to Journo Resources, they say: “There has been a level of expectation of me as a reporter that leaves less room for error, as the subjects I am covering are time sensitive and require a quick turnaround of copy.”
While it’s been both exciting and rewarding, it’s also been a challenging learning curve. And Ella isn’t alone.
“Even writing a list feels like a chore, and being told to sleep well and eat properly feels like an extra set of things to do that you then have to factor in.”
In the age of social media, it can be especially tough. Self-comparison is always a stone’s throw away, and it’s become scarily easy to equate self-worth to productivity and work-related achievements. I’m certainly guilty of it — which probably warrants the disclaimer that I’m not an expert on this topic. But as somebody who has felt overwhelmed, I’d like to think I knew what questions to put to the real experts.
Social Media Is Not Reality
Career pivot coach Winnie Tang says of social media: “Everyone is selling you what’s at the end. “Suddenly, we have access to how people live their lives. It’s very glamorised.” But a constant “I can do it, you can do it” narrative doesn’t acknowledge an individual’s situation, resources, and support.
“I think it’s very admirable in a sense that we all want to achieve better or do more with our talents and passion, but I’m not quite sure it’s correct to just sell one part of your journey,” Tang muses.
As for the notion of a ‘work–life balance’, Tang isn’t so sure. Balance, she says, literally means 50/50 — but it should really be more about focusing on what you want to prioritise, being aware that priorities change, and knowing that’s okay.
Tang also notes how dangerous the “rest is for the weak” message can be when it comes to work endeavours, cautioning: “If you’re not taking that rest, your body will eventually make you rest — and then you’re not actually resting, you’re recovering.”
Katy Georgiou is an individual and group psychotherapist in a GP surgery and private practice, and the author of the recently-published book, How To Understand and Deal With Stress. She shares Tang’s sentiment: “The mindset that somehow we are robots that can pump out and not sleep and not eat is nonsense. We’re human beings, we have bodies.”
Practical Self-Care For Journalists
Emphasising how vital rest is to move from overwhelmed to calm, Tang highlights how rest can look very different for everyone. While she enjoys reading, it’s not an activity where she feels truly rested doing it. Of course, somebody else might achieve rest this way, but the only thing that Tang has found that allows her mind to rest is crafting and making paper flowers. “It’s like a creative rest. For some people, it could be just watching TV when they feel rested, and that’s fine.”
As author and scholar Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writes for the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California: “Even in our brain’s resting state — when we are not directly focused on a task — it’s still active, engaging its ‘default network’ to plug away at problems, examine and toss out possible answers, and look for new information.” When Tang makes those paper flowers, that is what’s happening.
If you have managed to master the art of meditation — I have tried and failed many times — then good for you. But technically, you don’t have to be meditating in the traditional way we tend to equate with achieving a meditative state. It can just be making paper flowers, building LEGO® sets, walking, baking, gardening, running… anything at all that can help you to switch off.
How Can Journalists Deal With Stress?
When it comes to stopping burnout before it happens, Georgiou highlights how useful it can be to recognise your stress response. For Georgiou, this is when she starts finding herself unable to do very basic tasks that are usually simple — like sending an email or posting a letter.
It’s a clear sign she’s struggling, even if she hadn’t consciously registered the stress. Sometimes, she says, the answer is simply to do nothing. Getting your energy resource back up is the priority.
"It’s very admirable that we all want to achieve better or do more with our talents and passion, but I’m not quite sure it’s correct to just sell one part of your journey."
Winnie Tang, Career Pivot Coach
She advises checking in with yourself daily to see if you can begin to notice any kind of stress response. While it can feel like there’s little time for rest in a busy newsroom, checking in with yourself can make a difference in itself.
“Once you’re aware that you’re stressed, even if you can’t immediately do anything to change it, just the very act of being aware of it makes a difference already,” she says.
Equally, what you do outside the newsroom is just as important as what you do inside it. “Prioritise your sleep, prioritise your routines of self-care,” she urges.
Taking Time To Ground Yourself
Personally, when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I can find it incredibly difficult to get out of my own head — something that’s exacerbated if I’m working from home alone.
Whilst I might usually bombard my mum or sister with all of the rational (and irrational) reasons I’m feeling stressed and overwhelmed, I don’t always have them as an outlet for stress — and many may not have them in the first place. A lot of time, it’s just me and my screen, which research has shown can further increase stress.
When faced with this feeling, Georgiou explains how effective the technique of grounding can be to “take yourself out of your mind and into your physical body”. When people are stressed, it’s easy to “feel quite disconnected from the world and discombobulated”. To combat this, Georgiou recommends literally putting your feet on the ground, an act that can be “powerful because it connects you with the idea of belonging”.
The key to grounding, she says, is to get in touch with your senses because they are the quickest route into your body. Georgiou also suggests engaging the senses with simple things, like making a cup of tea; before you drink, take a moment to smell the tea.
Whilst we might think that trying to master a self-care routine is the ultimate solution, and that sticking to it will quell the anxiety and overwhelm, Georgiou reminds us that “trying to create a routine can feel stressful in itself.” It will become easier to establish a self-care routine when “you’re out of that immediate fog and things are clearer,” she adds.
When you’re experiencing high-arousal stress, everything threatens to take valuable brain power. “Even writing a list feels like a chore, and being told to sleep well and eat properly feels like an extra set of things to do that you then have to factor in.”
This is why, Georgiou reiterates, sometimes “the best self-care you can do, is to do nothing,” because it’s often the only way of finding the energy you need to decide what to do next.
Mental health issues can be difficult to tackle — don’t hack it alone. You can find help and support from Samaritans and Mind.
Header image courtesy of Tim Goedhart via Unsplash
Hannah is a recent graduate from Loughborough University, where she studied a BA in English and Sport Science and an MA in Media and Cultural Analysis. Alongside her studies, Hannah was on the editorial teams of several student magazines, and in 2018, was awarded ‘Best Student Journalist, Midlands’ by SPA.
She was a BBC Sport Kick Off Reporter in 2019 and in 2021, co-founded and edited a one-off 40-page print and digital magazine in celebration of International Women’s Day. Along with her work for Journo Resources, she is currently studying the NCTJ diploma at News Associates and freelance writing.