The Long Game

This is going to be a long, difficult few (I hope) years. If, like me, you are committed to human rights, equality, compassion, scientific advancement, and social healing, we need to take very, very good care of our bodies, minds, and spirits if we are to persevere.

There are many articles on activism burnout, activist self-care, and internet induced trauma or stress. I’ve included some links at the bottom*. However,  I have a few of my own nuggets to offer.

*More good articles keep coming out, so I’m going to be updating this periodically.

Mental Health Care
For many of us, current events are seriously triggering. They may bring up traumatic events from our past or just scare the bejeezus out of us, affecting our physical and mental health. Either way, this creates a lot of strain on the psyche. If you’re feeling extra stressed out, or being extra grouchy to your loved ones, consider finding a therapist.

Therapy doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does take time and commitment. Good therapists are worth the cost, but they also often supervise people who are fulfilling their hours for licensing. The soon-to-be-licensees charge far less than fully licensed therapists, and are usually compassionate, highly competent people.  Google stuff like “sliding scale therapy my area” and see what comes up. Or, ask your friends for referrals. If your bestie sees a full price therapist he or she loves, said therapist may have people he or she supervises and recommends. If you’ve never had therapy, it can seem daunting. But trust your gut, and audition those shrinks until you find one you feel safe and comfortable with.

If you already have a therapist, great! Still feeling extra wiggy? You might consider a talk therapy group. They are supervised by a licensed therapist and have different dynamics than individual therapy. It might be your cup of tea. I find a combination of both works best – I see my individual therapist twice a month and attend group therapy weekly. If I’m having a rough time, I increase the frequency of the individual therapy.

In times of stress, the line between body and mind (which isn’t really there in the first place) becomes blurred. Our stress affects our body. Our tired bodies increase our stress. I’ll warrant you already know to eat, move, and rest. But a relaxed body can only do so much under a constant barrage of psychological pressure. Which leads me to,

Mental Hygiene in the Internet Age
Yes, you’ve read lots of listcicles about how not to explode your brain on the internet. Many of them are quite good. I’d like to talk a bit about what goes on in your body and mind when you get too wrapped up in the conversations and clickbait.

When people get really stressed out or traumatized, they can experience dissociation. This is a sense of being outside one’s body, or detached from an overwhelming emotion or experience.  When we experience this in proximity to another person, we may become aware that we are freaking out because we see some reflection of our reaction in the other. We may have some sense that our body isn’t functioning normally – we need to sit down, or our hands shake. But when it happens on the internet, we may not notice the physical symptoms. You know how sometimes you get so wrapped up in whatever you’re doing on your computer that you forget to stretch, or pee, or eat? It’s like that, but with feelings. We may not notice that we’re experiencing and acting on strong emotions until later.

Before I started my dissertation, I took a class in phenomenology and writing. The simple definition for phenomenology is the study of a phenomenon through the experience of the subject. So, since I was interested in aggression, I studied my own experience of it as both an aggressor and target. I learned that aggression is very physical. When I explored my strongest memories of feeling aggression or having it directed at me, the memories were mainly of physical sensations. Hot sensations if I was angry. Cold sensations if someone attacked me. All emotions have some physical sensation associated with them, which may be different for each person. But anger is especially vivid.

And then I tried to figure out how it felt when I was engaged in conflict on the internet. I realized that I tuned out my physical sensations when I was online (even think about the nature of that phrase – on line. Like we are somewhere else) and by extension, my emotions. I had to start training myself to pay close attention to how my body felt when I was involved in intense online conversations, or reading articles that brought up strong emotions.

I was hyper-aware of this when I was working on my dissertation research. (Just a quick reminder – my dissertation data was comment threads on YouTube and other social media outlets. Imagine.) I created a bunch of rules for myself that I still try to follow.

  • Don’t read the comments after 6pm
  • Don’t read the news after 6pm
  • Avoid reading triggering stuff first thing in the morning (I’m looking at you, Facebook)
  • Get enough sleep and food if I’m going to be engaging with difficult material
  • Spend time outside

Some of this may fit with the listsicles, but I do it for very specific reasons: I can’t engage with my data in a rigorous way if I’m triggered. If I’m feeling strong fear, anger, or conflicting feelings, I can’t observe myself very well, let alone others. I think this applies to activism as well. I can’t call my senators, or try to engage in dialogue with someone I disagree with, if I’m freaky. Freaky = stressed out, tired, fearful, or angry.

Summary: The body will always tell us where we’re screwing up. The internet tends to temporarily deafen us to our bodies.

Your list will fit your schedule and biorhythms. I tend to get most anxious at night, so I try to avoid fear inducing stuff when it is dark. I also have a young kid, so I have to cram my sleep into the hours before 6am. (Terrifying news tends to inhibit sleep.) Left to my own devices, I’d sleep different hours. Both of these things inform what kind of hygiene I impose on my activism, online and otherwise.

Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. What time of day am I most likely to be anxious?
  2. When am I calmest or most energetic?
  3. What websites do I feel relaxed after reading?
  4. What websites do I feel anxious after reading?
  5. What kind of physical activities do I like to engage in?
  6. What helps me feel grounded and peaceful?

After answering these questions, consider how you normally spend your day, and if it minimizes the time you feel unstressed, or maximizes the time you spend feeling anxious or unhappy.

I am not suggesting that we avoid all pain or stress. First, that’s impossible. Second, it’s still impossible. But we must be present in our lives, to ourselves, and to our loved ones in order to spend our energy wisely in activism. So consider stepping away from that looming conflict on Facebook and spend some time outside instead. You will have more energy and focus, and we need you for the fight ahead.

Resources:
Activist Burnout Is Real – And You Probably Need to Read These 4 Ways to Manage It
How to #StayOutraged Without Losing Your Mind
What Kind of Activist Are You? Free Five Minute Journaling Exercise!
How To Avoid Being Psychologically Destroyed By Your Newsfeed


Advertisements

Surfing the Waves: You Are Beginning to Damage My Calm

My life has been hella stressful lately. School, money, health – you name it. It’s been a high stress year. One thing I haven’t been tracking until recently is the effect of my interenet use on my stress level. It sneaks up on me. I have this inner dialogue that goes something like this:

Me 1: Wow, I’m feeling a lot of anxiety after browsing Facebook on my phone for ten minutes. Trump. Reproductive rights. Natural disasters. Maybe I need a break.

Me 2: What do you mean? Do you want to be ill-informed? Do you want to willfully choose to ignore the pain of others? That makes you selfish.

Me 1: I guess you’re right. Maybe I’ll try to thin back some of the political stuff I follow in my feed to see if that helps.

Me 2: Wimp.

Me 1: Well, that’s a little better, I guess. Still pretty hard to avoid triggering stuff. Everyone propogages this stuff constantly. And I like to be informed. And who can resist a “Top 5” list or a “You won’t believe…” headline. Apparently not me. And then when I click on something mildly click-baity I end up on a page with horrible brain-burning click bait that hurts my brain.

Me 2: Yeah that’s really annoying.

Me 1: Totally

Me 1: Okay, now that my external stressors are REALLY HIGH,  browsing the internet, checking my email (which I do obsessively), Instagram, the “helpful” news feed on my Iphone can instantly trigger the shit out of me. I feel like I’m waiting for “the shoe to drop” – a typical anxiety thing – and the internet provides an endless supply of shoes. Interspersed with funny stuff, cute stuff, and friend stuff. So I gravitate towards it to 1) confirm my anxiety and keep it going, and 2) to connect with other people.

Me 2: Wimp? Maybe not. Maybe we need a fricking break. Does that makes us weak?

Me 1: Who freaking cares?

Me 2: Good point.

So I did that thing. I spent three ish days with minimal internet. It got progressively harder. I’m back to checking my email several times a day and cautiously checking FB to see if anyone has said anything to me or tagged me (they have). Balance is certainly going to be key. Discoveries:

  1. Accidentally swipe right on your iPhone and prepare to be bombarded with “Texas woman shoots two daughters”. Fuck. Me. No wonder I’m so triggered all the time. Because I’m reading this crap all. The. Time. I have to figure out how to turn off the news feed.
  2. The Weather.com app is also less fun than I realized. “Hundreds dead in horrible painful awful flood!” With video! Flashy ads for fictitious loans. Maybe I need to go back to the more benign apple weather app.
  3. My anxiety is WAY lower when I’m not constantly bombarding it with crap. And checking my email to see if there’s any bad news. And checking the weather, sadly.
  4. I’m making an effort to reconnect with paper books. I’ve gotten rid of a lot of the ones I can read digitally for free (library) but I have tons of non-fiction that I can peruse at my leisure. That’s been good.
  5. I’ve also started keeping a written journal, which is weird because my handwriting is TERRIBLE. Unless I write really slow. So I’m writing really slow. And drawing pictures.
  6. Analog is not so bad. I think I started to slip today because I felt lonely. Because I’m alone a lot of the time. I can just feel it when I’m not bombarded with low level social input.

I give you, the weather. Or something.

This comes at an odd time, since I’m doing a positive psychology for the internet kind of thing for my dissertation and major research area. Still, I think maybe I needed more of the big picture. I’ve started reading Turkel’s Alone Together. I assumed that she was an older person with that “get off my lawn” approach to the internet. Not so much. She is more of a baby boomer, but she’s been tracking online culture since the 70s and she’s a psychoanalyst, so kind of up my alley. She makes some good points. This disembodied, scattered feeling can subsume a sense of connection to the physical world. And we are physical beings. I think perhaps there is a time for diving into the dynamic, challenging, pluralistic online world, and a time to retreat, reflect, and exist as a physical being. I think we ignore the online world at our peril, but we also ignore the physical world, which is highly impacted by the online world, at our peril.

More to come.

 

Hit the wall and keep trudging.

Catchy, no?

I keep hitting walls, picking myself up, and trudging on. Last semester was fairly awful. This semester has been great in many ways, but exhausting and stressful nonetheless. I have to generate at a major paper draft in the next few weeks, hopefully sooner. I’ve pulled two new syllabi out of my ass this semester, but still have a whole new class to teach starting later this week (after I wrap up the last one, today).

In the meantime, I may be getting back to the food blogging, since my body has decided that it won’t digest lactose or gluten. Because that’s helpful. Keep in mind I am a snobby foodie daughter and sister of professional cooks and food writers.  I often sneer at restrictive fad diets while eating my locally sourced meat, cheese, bread, and vegetables. Except now two of those things are gone forever (or at least until after menopause–there’s hope). Re-learning how to eat has been stressful. Speaking of menopause, that’s fun too. And don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t have symptoms before 50, because I will personally fly to wherever you live and bitch-slap them for you.

I feel like I have academia-induced bipolar disorder. One hour or minute or half day I’m full of amazing ideas, I’m speed reading articles, mind-mapping, and writing super cool stuff. The next minute or hour or half-day I’m exhausted, filled with self-doubt, sure I’m going to be sniffed out as a total imposter, and curled up in the corner with my laptop and Pinterest trying to find all the best gluten and dairy free recipes that I will never have time to cook.

This is my life. My poor husband and daughter have to deal with my epic mood swings, periodic isolation, and caffeine induced tantrums. I can’t seem to totally unwind enough to sleep well, cry, or just fucking relax. I take everything personally. I know that most of my problems qualify as “too much of a good thing” rather than all of the really horrible things that could happen, but that knowledge doesn’t help me figure out how to cope right now. I know getting a PhD is a gauntlet that I am willingly running, but the difference between this and other gauntlets I’ve run is that there is no settling in. It’s always changing, evolving, and getting harder. There’s very little room to breathe. That’s what it feels like to me, anyway.

That’s my whinge for today. I’ll see you on the next upswing.

Feeding the Trolls: Part One

I’m starting to get my act together around my dissertation, which is on how people express aggression online, and how the online environment facilitates reinforcement or change of social norms. While I have a very specific sample in mind, I recently stumbled on another idea through getting caught up in a YouTube flame-war.

A few days ago I watched this video on YouTube of Mary Lambert, a gay and body acceptance activist and pop artist/spoken word poet. It’s a really raw, powerful statement about the dual forces of self-love and internalized hate. I was moved, but then I read this comment:

feedingtrolls1

I saw red, and in retaliation openly engaged in the kind of aggression that I usually avoid or observe at a distance:

feedingtrolls2Mr. TheThird trolled me back (aggressively). Note his use of the words gluttony, shameful and violent imagery:

feedingtrolls3I was not the first person to get riled up by Mr. TheThird’s comment, apparently this thread had been going on for a while:

feedingtrolls5And then Mr. TheThird posted a long missive, not long after my comment:

feedingtrolls4Wow. I found his use of words like foul, vile, insidious, morally corrupt, medically aberrant more than a little off-putting and creepy. Disturbed and a bit scared, I took a step back to think about how we seem to keep our aggression in this endless loop on the internet.

Perhaps Mr. TheThird is projecting his unconscious fears of losing control on the woman who is singing about self-esteem-while-fat. When I react, I am in turn projecting my own anger at the forces that have led me to empathize with Ms. Lambert back onto him; rinse, repeat. We are locked in this dance of aggression where there is no understanding or compassion, just lots of anger, disdain, rationalization, and condescension. What might it take to change this pattern?

So, as an experiment, I came back, apologized for my ire, and instead explained my feelings and asked him some genuine questions.

feedingtrolls6He never responded, which is not surprising given the research I’ve read on cyberbullying.

However, the experience made me think about my upcoming dissertation in a different way. Perhaps I was choosing to observe instead of participate in the online communities I am studying as a way to distance from my own discomfort. The inadvertent effect of engaging in this interaction was gaining insight into 1) what motivated me to react online, 2) The effects and repercussions of my engagement, and 3) various ways in which I can try to change the dynamic.

As a way to investigate these ideas further, I’m going to observe online conversations around body image and fat-acceptance, and also engage in them when moved to do so. I will document my experiment on this blog, analyzing the different expressions of aggression using George Vaillant’s interpretation of the Differential Identification of Defenses from The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Here’s a quick run-down from Vaillant’s book, The Wisdom of the Ego (1993 pp. 36-37)):

  1. Psychotic Defenses: Delusional projection, Denial, Distortion
  2. Immature Defenses: Projection, Fantasy, Hypochondriasis, Passive aggression, Acting out, Dissociation
  3. Neurotic (intermediate) Defenses: Displacement, Isolation/Intellectualization, Repression, Reaction formation
  4. Mature Defenses: Altruism, Sublimation, Suppression, Anticipation, Humor

So, trying this out, let me take a look at the interaction between Mr. TheThird, me, and some of the other participants.

Mary Lambert, the artist on which whose YouTube page this conversation resides, could be said to be utilizing sublimation, a mature defense, to deal with her negative feelings about her body, or trauma she has survived that was directed at her body (Ms. Lambert has been open about being the victim of childhood sexual abuse). Sublimation is the ability to direct the residual trauma towards a constructive activity such as songwriting and poetry. Further, her public role-modeling of self-love and survival might be considered altruism, the ability to identify with and alleviate the pain of others, which also may aid in her own healing.

Mr. TheThird’s comments seems to fit into aspects of projection, such as splitting (splitting negative from positive impulses) and demonstrating a superiority complex (obscuring feelings of inferiority), all of which are characterized as immature defenses. While I can only speculate about his psyche based on the language he uses, the voracity of his wording suggests that he is projecting an aspect of his personality that he as “split” off from his core personality, such as desire, craving, or low self-control. His later, lengthy post displays some of the same traits, but also utilizes intellectualization as a way to justify his verbal attacks. Reaction formation could also be demonstrated by his desire to appear rational and scientific in a discussion where he also uses terminology that clearly demonstrates strong negative emotions.

My initial posting could qualify as displacement (neurotic) or perhaps acting out (immature) as I was well aware of my angry feelings, but chose to inflict them impulsively and without forethought. My personal history with my body image is painful, and while I’ve become very accepting of myself and others, my ego is still vulnerable when it comes to aggressive criticism. I personalized Mr. TheThird’s comment and responded as if it was directed specifically at me (and perhaps also as a projection of my own vulnerability onto other participants, who I felt the impulse to defend).  When he responded with more violent language, I became frightened and considered withdrawal, a neurotic defense I’ve used frequently to avoid painful memories, impulses, and feelings. I think this default defense is also the reason behind my initial choice to observe online aggression rather than engage with the participants more directly.

When I took ownership of my feelings and asked genuine questions about Mr. TheThird’s motivation, I was perhaps engaging in courage and self-regulation (mature defenses); I opened myself up to dialogue with an aggressive person, and made some rules for myself around how much time I would spend online in order to project my psyche.

While Mr. TheThird has not yet chosen to respond, so perhaps he has chosen withdrawal, a neurotic defense more mature than his initial behavior.

It has also been interesting to look at the comments of others, which range from mollifying both groups, to enraged all caps cursing, to a lot of arguing of various facts. Intellectualization seems to be the default stance in these arguments, which frequently devolves into passive aggression, acting out, and distortion. I consciously choose not to debate the facts around obesity and health as I think it really amounts to arguing about the validity of a stereotype, which is by its nature persecutory. There is a ton of medical information that both validates and refutes the dangers and perimeters of obesity, but this has nothing to do with our individual lives, choices, and feelings. It seems like trying to justify or rationalize our positive and negative feelings about ourselves and others using cherry-picked science only gets us so far. What I’m really interested in is the larger patterns that emerge in these mini-explosions of aggression. What is their anatomy? Is there a common pattern? Are there different kinds? Do they evolve, or just die down and re-emerge elsewhere?  I’ll be looking at these questions as I observe and participate in other discussions around body acceptance. Stay tuned!

Words Words Words

My life is words. I read, write, and talk for most of my day, every day. So many fucking words. So instead of blogging to wind down, I’ve taken to drawing (again). The only thing I can do in the evening to quiet my mind is watch some Netflix with my husband and draw. Behold, this is where my spare creative energy is going these days:

If you like this sort of thing, check my Instagram.