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Webinar: Managing Trauma Exposure

Many journalists are being exposed to graphic images and information while covering conflicts in the Middle East and Ukraine, and issues closer to home such as bushfires and floods.

It is important for journalists to be able to recognise signs of trauma response to mitigate potential mental health impact. This post summarises a webinar that the Walkley Foundation hosted on this important topic, led by Dr Erin Smith of Dart Centre Asia Pacific on 13 November.

You can download a PDF of webinar takeaways here and watch the session here:

Summary of the session

Presented by: Dr Erin Smith, CEO, Dart Centre Asia Pacific

Understanding stress

Stress surrounds us. It comes at us from all angles: work, home, family, finances, and health.

Stress is a natural response to everyday or extraordinary stressors. Sometimes, it can linger for a while and become chronic. This may lead to burnout, but not always.

Stress isn’t necessarily a negative reaction. In many instances it can help you become alert and achieve your goals, e.g., a project deadline can lead you to focus.

Understanding burnout

Think of burnout as the larger, meaner, older brother of stress. It requires stress to exist, but you can have stress without being burnt out.

Stress makes people feel that they have too much on their plate, but burnout makes people feel depleted, like they have nothing else left to give.

  • Employees who are burned out report worse stress and anxiety compared with employees who are not.
  • Burnout is associated with degraded employee performance.
  • People who are burned out feel far less connected.
  • Burnout is a major driver of attrition.
  • There’s a notable gender gap between women and men on the issue of burnout, with female workers showing 32% more burnout than their male counterparts.
  • Younger workers are more likely to experience burnout.

Understanding trauma

Any event that involves experiencing or witnessing actual or threatened death, serious injury, or violence has the potential to be traumatic.

Can be direct or indirect (vicarious) exposure.

Understanding vicarious trauma

Trauma after tragedy is nothing new: Evidence of PTSD in soldiers and commanders is present in ancient Greek and Roman texts.

The notion that trauma can be communicable is much newer.

Essentially, engaging with trauma vicariously can change the way we view the world (e.g., we can recognise that our loved ones may not be as safe as we thought, or maybe we face our own helplessness in preventing future tragedies).

The risk of VT often arises from repeated immersion in traumatic detail e.g., interviewing; listening to audio; viewing graphic images; moderating online content, fact checking, and processing disturbing testimony (transcripts and direct recordings).

How do we respond to trauma?

Our brains are wired to take steps to protect us from real or perceived threats to our safety. We have a physiological response to trauma exposure.

Fight or flight

The fight or flight response is an automatic physiological reaction to an event that is perceived as stressful or frightening. The perception of threat triggers an acute stress response that prepares the body to fight or flee. These responses are evolutionary adaptations to increase chances of survival in threatening situations.

Common responses to trauma

  • Sleeplessness.
  • Upsetting dreams.
  • Intrusive images or thoughts of the event.
  • Avoidance of reminders of the trauma.
  • Feeling that bad things are about to happen to you.
  • Being jumpy and easily startled.
  • Physical reactions such as sweating, rapid heartbeat, dizziness, nausea when reminded of a traumatic event.
  • Concentration difficulties.
  • Irritability/mood changes.
  • Difficulty trusting and connecting to others.
  • Guilt or shame.
  • Deep exhaustion.

All the above issues are natural (albeit unwanted and unpleasant) by-products of essential survival reactions that happen when our bodies anticipate the possibility of violence.

Many of these responses are similar to those we can have if we are stressed or burnt out.

These reactions will usually resolve naturally, once exposure to the threat is removed (that could be high volumes of disturbing material) and the mind-body connection has the breathing space it needs to relax back into a lower level of arousal. This may take days or several weeks. Reactions may be likely to stay higher for longer while working on an ongoing story (e.g., Ukraine crisis).

What influences our response to trauma?

The way a person reacts to trauma depends on many things, such as the type and severity of the traumatic event, the amount of available support for the person following the incident, other stressors currently being experienced in the person’s life, and whether the person has had previous traumatic experiences before.

What protects us against trauma?

  • Understanding what we can control and what our purpose is.
  • Recognising changes as they are happening, not when mental health injury has already occurred.
  • Scheduling physical activity into our daily routine.
  • We can help ourselves by staying connected to people and things outside of work.

How are stress, burnout, and trauma connected?

Previous trauma exposure can result in an increased sensitivity to stress and eroded resilience. This can make it more challenging for individuals to cope with subsequent stressors, including work-related stress, leaving them more susceptible to developing burnout.

Emotional exhaustion is a core component of burnout. Any existing emotional exhaustion — such as that caused by previous trauma exposure — can compound the effects of work-related stress and burnout.

Exposure to trauma can also lead to hypervigilance, a state of heightened alertness and constant scanning of the environment for potential threats. This hypervigilance can persist in non-traumatic contexts, including the workplace. Being on high alert and feeling hyper aroused can contribute to chronic stress and exhaustion, increasing the risk of burnout.

Trauma can also disrupt an individual’s ability to effectively cope with stress. Maladaptive coping strategies can make it more challenging for individuals to manage work-related stress.

Prior experiences of trauma exposure can also lead to challenges in support-seeking behaviours and establishing positive social connections in the workplace. A lack of perceived support can inhibit a sense of belonging and peer support, contributing to experiences of burnout.

Tips for coping with stress, burnout, and trauma

  1. Practice Mindfulness: Mindfulness is the practice of being present and fully engaged in the current moment. This can include breathing exercises, meditation, or simply being aware of your thoughts and emotions without judgment.
  2. Get active! Physical activity is a great way to reduce stress and improve mood. You can try yoga, running, dancing, or any form of exercise you enjoy.
  3. Get Enough Sleep: This is crucial for reducing stress and improving overall health.
  4. Prioritise Self-Care: Taking care of yourself is essential for dealing with stress and preventing burnout. Look at both temporary and enduring ways that you can enhance your emotional, physical, and spiritual wellbeing.
  5. Hit Pause: Stress, burnout, and trauma exposure can leave us feeling overwhelmed and in a constant state of fight or flight. It’s important for us to hit pause and give our mind and body time to rebalance and for our arousal levels to come back to normal. Take small breaks every hour.
  6. Connect: Social support is an important factor in reducing stress and preventing burnout.
  7. Limit screen time: Spending too much time on electronic devices can contribute to stress, burnout and trauma exposure. Try setting limits on your screen time and take regular breaks to rest your eyes and recharge — give yourself (and your brain!) time to recover.
  8. Set Boundaries: Setting boundaries is important for preventing stress and burnout. Learn to say no to requests that are beyond your capacity or set limits on your availability.
  9. Seek support: Talk to a peer or seek the advice of a therapist or counsellor, they can provide support and guidance.
  10. Tell someone: Flag that you or a colleague are at risk of burnout or mental health injury (talk to your manager or wellbeing/safety advisor), contact the MEAA about unsafe work practices around trauma. Speaking up is the only way to bring about industry-level change.

Organisational support — what helps?

1. Problem — Lack of control: Limited decision-making authority or control over one’s work can contribute to burnout. Employees feeling powerless, micromanaged, or unable to influence their work environment or processes, can lead to feelings of frustration and exhaustion.

Trauma-informed solution — Empowerment: Create choice and autonomy for your team to ensure they have a sense of control over at least some of their workplace experiences.

2. Problem — Work/life balance: An inability to maintain a healthy balance between work and personal life can lead to chronic stress and burnout.

Trauma-informed solution — Flexibility: Organisations should support flexible work arrangements and encourage breaks.

3. Problem — Lack of support: A perceived lack of support during times of stress, burnout, and trauma exposure can be just as — if not more debilitating — than the initial stress, burnout, or trauma experience.

Trauma-informed solution — Community: Build a community of support.

Superficial solutions

Reflects a desire for quick fixes to complex problems. These temporary self-care practices, while valuable in their own right (e.g., taking 5 minutes away from desk each hour) often address symptoms (e.g., anxiety, stress) rather than any underlying causes (e.g., rostering, excessive workloads).

Tokenistic approaches to wellbeing

Implementing wellbeing programs that are perceived as “tick-box” may give the impression that organisations are not really invested in prevention (remember, this costs more in the long run).

Individual focus

In many cases, wellbeing initiatives serve as “band aids” to much bigger problems, systemic problems within organisations. Culture change is challenging, but for real change to occur, it needs to happen at the system level to address significant organisational problems (e.g., toxic cultures and poor leadership).

Tackling graphic imagery

However compelling its news value, traumatic imagery needs to be handled with care, as it can place the wellbeing of those who work with it at risk.

From research, we know exposure to limited amounts of traumatic imagery is unlikely to cause more than passing distress in most cases; media workers are a highly resilient group.

Nevertheless, the dangers of vicarious traumatisation become significant in situations where the exposure is repeated. Risk also rises when a news professional has a personal connection to the events at the scene.

1. Hit pause: If you know the material is graphic, it’s best not to click on it without a procedure in mind. If it catches you unawares, hit pause straight away to disrupt the tendency to cruise-ahead on autopilot. If you are working with video, park the play-head at a frame that is not traumatic.

2. Eliminate needless repeat exposure: Review your sorting and tagging procedures, and how you organise digital files and folders, among other procedures, to reduce unnecessary viewing. Think about colleagues down the line.

3. Build some some distance into how you view images: i.e., focus on certain details (clothing rather than face).

4. Try adjusting the viewing environment: Reducing the size of the window or adjusting the screen’s brightness or resolution can lessen the perceived impact. Try turning the sound off when you can — it is often the most affecting part.

5. Take breaks whenever your concentration lapses: Research shows that we are most vulnerable to emotional overload when we begin to feel fatigued. When we are tired and not fully utilising the more analytical functions of our brains, we may be more likely to “record” traumatic images in a way that leads them to come back as nightmares or intrusive images.

6. Actually schedule time for protective self-care: It’s important to preserve breathing space outside of work.


  • Stress is a natural response to everyday or extraordinary stressors.
  • Burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress.
  • Trauma involves experiencing or witnessing a life threat, serious injury, or sexual violence. Stress can make us more vulnerable to trauma, and trauma can make us more vulnerable to burnout.
  • Some of the signs of stress, burnout and trauma are similar, and they are all biopsychosocial experiences, and have an impact on your biology, your psychology, and your social interactions.
  • Stress is a natural response to everyday or extraordinary stressors.
  • Burnout is a syndrome resulting from chronic workplace stress.
  • Trauma involves experiencing or witnessing a life threat, serious injury, or sexual violence. Stress can make us more vulnerable to trauma, and trauma can make us more vulnerable to burnout.
  • Some of the signs of stress, burnout and trauma are similar, and they are all biopsychosocial experiences, and have an impact on your biology, your psychology, and your social interactions.
  • Hitting pause and scheduling time for self-care are important protective behaviours that allow the mind-body connection to have the breathing space it needs to relax back into a lower level of arousal. This may take days or several weeks.
  • If you are still experiencing signs of stress, burnout, or trauma for longer than this, seek support.


Dart Centre — Asia Pacific

Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA)

Headlines Network: Headlines is a UK-based NGO set up to support journalists experiencing burnout.

Committee to Protect Journalists

Event Partners

Dart Centre Asia Pacific Logo

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