Strategies for maintaining health, resilience, and connection during trying times
In September 2019, an estimated 6 million concerned citizens worldwide assembled in the streets to strike for the climate. Inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, demonstrators in the Global Week for Future sent a bellowing message to world leaders: we will not stand idly by while you trade our futures away to big oil and industry. And while the September 2019 climate strikes made headlines as the largest environmental protest ever, it’s certainly not the only example of mass activism in recent history. Consider the 2017 Women’s March—sparked by the 2016 US election results—which attracted upwards of 5.2 million marchers in the US alone. Or the exploding Zero Waste movement in which (primarily) women are making massive shifts toward reducing their consumption of single-use plastics and inspiring others to do the same.
As threats of environmental devastation and fascism become harder to ignore, activist-minded citizens are putting their health on the line—both physically at demonstrations that sometimes result in violence, as well as psychologically in the form of activist burnout.
Researchers on the topic define activist burnout as “when long-term activism-related stressors deteriorate activists’ physical or emotional health or sense of connectedness to their movements, impacting their effectiveness or abilities to remain engaged.” Symptoms of activist burnout can include feeling irritable, hopeless, or helpless; loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed; trouble making decisions; lack of focus; and fatigue, according to the now-archived Activist Trauma Support website. Nandini Jammi is the co-founder of Sleeping Giants, an organization dedicated to “making bigotry less profitable” by notifying brands when (often unbeknownst to them) their digital ads are being run on far-right sites such as Breitbart. Jammi describes her own experience with activist burnout as a little voice in her head that asks, “Why am I even doing this?” Because she spends a lot of time online monitoring Twitter, she says she absorbs “a lot of anger, rage, or sadness.” When she hears that little voice, she knows it’s time to regroup and nurture her spirit.
You gravitate to where the action is. You take sign making seriously. Your preferred method of communication is through a megaphone.
You believe in the power of a handshake and a smile. You want to make change from the inside. You’re a natural leader and advocate for those you care for.
Your social posts tend to get a lot of likes and engagement (not that you’re keeping track). You have a knack for marrying current events and pop culture. You don’t shy away from learning new tools and discovering new platforms.
Self-care may seem like a revolutionary new approach to health and wellness, but the truth is we’re only hearing so much about it in mainstream media because it’s an incredibly lucrative industry. In fact, self-care has roots that date back to the civil rights movement, during which time the late writer and activist Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Unfortunately, this sentiment has been diluted by those companies that seek to capitalize on our anxiety. Having a bad day? No problem—it’s nothing a bar of salted caramel chocolate, a lavender-scented sheet mask, a $40 candle, and a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon can’t fix!
For many, activism ends up being a full-time job (on top of their already full-time jobs) and can be mentally and physically draining. The following strategies are activist-approved to help alleviate the negative impact of activism.
It might seem counterintuitive to do more in the face of activist burnout, but taking action can often help ease the emotional burden. In a 2014 study from the International Journal of Mental Health Systems, researchers revealed that rumination can lead to depression in test subjects who self-reported low levels of hope; however, those who reported high levels of hope were less affected by rumination. By taking action—even sending an email—you stop rumination in its tracks. Plus, by funnelling your negativity into something tangible, you may feel more hopeful. Sustainability writer and educator Leah Payne tends to agree that “doing more, not less, helps”—specifically “connecting with others and working at a grassroots level,” which she finds encouraging and uplifting.
Although self-care has all but become synonymous with spending serious cash on spa treatments and shopping sprees, true self-care is whatever recharges you. Polly Barks is a Zero Waste and sustainability educator who wrote an entire blog post on meaningful self-care. She says go ahead, apply that face mask, but also “call your representative about declaring a climate emergency.” According to Barks, it’s impossible to truly take a break from environmentalism since “the issue is so ingrained in the fabric of our lives.” She says a comfort snack doesn’t really provide comfort if it’s wrapped in plastic, and an overseas holiday isn’t really relaxing if you consider the carbon emissions. Instead, she recommends identifying “two to three habits that don’t trigger eco-guilt but give you a chance to turn down the eco-anxiety,” such as spending time in nature.
Keeping the body in peak form is incredibly important for the modern-day activist. The following herbs and supplements are often used to help support the immune system or reduce the effects of stress, so you can keep fighting the good fight. Always check with your health care practitioner before trying a new supplement.
More and more of our lives take place in the digital space, and that includes activism. But Jammi says this type of activism “can be very isolating because few people care as obsessively about our causes as we do.” To counter this, she formed a close-knit chat support group with other women activists. They use the space “to vent, to brag without feeling self-conscious, and to work through interpersonal problems we’re facing in our work lives.” She says establishing the group has been a potent tool in working through tough times of burnout and defeat. Barks, too, speaks to the power of community—not only as a means of support but also of activism. She says that “our current systems require us to remain divested from our communities,” so “creating new systems that pull us forward together, not down and isolated” is actually a form of activism.
In addition to burnout, activists may also experience depression, anxiety, and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). As such, it’s important to diligently take stock of your emotional well-being and intervene if necessary. As Payne puts it, it’s “lovely to take a quiet evening, watch some trashy TV, eat some snacks, and cuddle in bed,” but “if you feel that you’re dealing with anxiety or depression, please don’t be afraid to seek help.”
Amy Wood is an ecosocialist, intersectional feminist, and founder of Shine Bootcamp, a public speaking incubator for womxn in tech, marketing, and startup environments. twitter.com/amy_would
This article was originally published in the April 2020 issue of alive Canada, under the title "Hacking Activist Burnout."