Researcher Trauma and Our Discipline

20 April 2017, 1349 EDT

The following is a guest post by Cyanne Loyle, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Indiana University. 

With the devastating passing of Will Moore, many of us in Conflict Studies have begun to discuss the impact of our work on our mental health. Talking is important. So is seeking help when needed. But there is more that we can be and should be doing.

In January, I wrote a piece on research-related trauma and conflict studies.  Will helped with this article.  He thought it was high time that the field and the discipline had a serious discussion of mental illness. In this article, Alicia Simoni and I talk about the risks of research, how to identity trauma in our friends and ourselves, and best practices for our field.

Research-related trauma is the psychological harm that comes from exposure to death or violence while engaging in our research. This trauma results from both direct and indirect exposure to violence; either through personally experiencing a particular event, witnessing that event, or having indirect contact with traumatic material. In this way, we don’t need to travel to conflict zones to be impacted by the stories we read or the data we gather. Coding news articles and victim testimony can be just as impactful.

While there is variation across individuals, common signs of distress include:

  • Intense or unpredictable feelings. Noticeably anxious, nervous, impatient or overwhelmed. More irritable or moody than usual. Generalized despair and hopelessness.
  • Changes to thoughts and behavior patterns. Disrupted sleep and/or eating patterns. Difficulty concentrating or making decisions. Procrastination, specifically on work related to the traumatic material.
  • Strained interpersonal relationships. Increased conflict, such as more frequent disagreements with family and coworkers. Social withdrawal or isolation. Decreased interest in activities that used to bring pleasure.
  • Stress-related physical symptoms. Headaches, nausea and chest pain.

There are several strategies that can be employed to mitigate the impact of research-related trauma.

  • Before beginning a project, know your risks as well as the signs and symptoms of trauma. Prioritize balance in your work schedule. Establish sustainable connections and maintain meaningful contact with others.
  • During data collection make sure to take a break from your research. Exercise, eat well, and get outdoors.
  • Continue to take breaks from the material in your data analysis and write-up phase. Move onto non-related projects and get distance from the research. Talk about your experiences with colleagues who have worked on similar topics. Seek professional help, particularly on university campuses where counselors specialize in research-related trauma.

Despite the real risks associated with research in our discipline, we have been slow to start this conversation. It is our responsibility as teachers and colleagues to engage with the possibility of research-related trauma for ourselves and our students. We would all benefit from discussions about trauma being more commonplace within the discipline.

Please take a look at our full piece here and reflect on what we can all be doing to keep us safer and healthier.