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:
- What time of day am I most likely to be anxious?
- When am I calmest or most energetic?
- What websites do I feel relaxed after reading?
- What websites do I feel anxious after reading?
- What kind of physical activities do I like to engage in?
- 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.
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