As a therapist who works with sexual and domestic violence survivors, I cannot pretend that I am unbiased in response to politics. I subscribe to feminist therapy ideology and believe that “the personal is political and the political is personal.” As such, I own that bias professionally. It is a part of ethical practice to do so.
Unfortunately, the president’s actions mirror the power and control wheel. As a result, many are newly stepping into activist roles in the wake of the election. Like many, I, too, have been reflecting on how I can be most helpful. One of the things I’ve found myself thinking about is how we can find the balance between activist efforts and taking good care of ourselves. How do we fight activist fatigue?
Political Unrest is a Huge Stressor and a Shared Problem
Activist fatigue is not a personal problem for some people. It’s a reflection of a huge stressor or even trigger – one that we will share as a movement.
In general, balance is important when dealing with the regular stressors of life, such as work, families, friends, health, etc. When there is political unrest, we add fighting to maintain rights already gained to that list, let alone standing up for rights not yet gained. All alongside losing much-needed resources, like health care. This takes the notion of “taxes” to a whole other level.
Political change is dependent on public participation and if we are taxed, it becomes a challenge we must all face together. We need LOTS of people to stand up for the rights of all people and with the barrage of scary political news on a daily basis, this becomes a serious problem.
The Brain & Stress
Given how stressful political unrest is, it’s worthwhile to take a look at how our brain is set up. This will give us clues about how to strategize our efforts to fight activist fatigue.
The base of the brain, nicknamed the “Reptilian Brain,” is the oldest part of our brains, evolutionarily speaking. It controls very basic functioning such as breathing, sleeping, and eating. The midbrain, or “Mammalian Brain,” is second oldest and operates our emotional response system. The newest area of our brains, the Prefrontal Cortex (abbreviated as PFC), is toward the front of our heads. This area controls many of the things that make us humans so successful at living. This includes a lot of things we call executive functioning, like making decisions, thinking critically, managing our daily obligations, etc.
The evolutionary age of each area tells us about how our brains prioritize energy. Older areas are more streamlined, use fewer resources and function with little effort. However, if there is a threat to those older areas, then they will zap energy from the younger areas. When thrown into an emotional state, the Mammalian Brain taps energy from the Prefrontal Cortex. If something threatens a primal function, then the Reptilian brain takes energy from the Mammalian brain. This is how we are optimized to survive.
Activist fatigue stresses our midbrains making it very hard to engage our prefrontal cortexes’ capacity. And what do we need to organize and stand up against oppression? Executive functioning, in other words, energized prefrontal cortexes.
It’s a conundrum, but not impossible to overcome. We wouldn’t have made it this far as a species if it were impossible.
So what do we DO about it?
Strategies to Keep Activist Fatigue at Bay
Self-care will not directly address systems problems, however, we do need to leverage our self-care to fight the good fight.
It’s a huge balancing act and figuring out how we can help others and help ourselves is a nuanced process. Here are a few considerations. These ideas may or may not fit you exactly, so take only what is helpful and leave the rest.
1. Get Organized.
Getting in formation on a grand scale also requires getting personally organized. One of the best tools for that is a good old fashioned calendar. A calendar helps you to get things out of your head and onto the page in front of you. You can see where your energy is going and make dates with yourself to direct your energy where you want it to go. Getting things out of your head helps to reduce your cognitive load. Use your calendar to carve out space for work, advocacy activities, and space for self-care.
2. Be realistic.
You may also want to consider using your calendar for a week to track how you are currently spending your energy and how this makes you feel. Reflect on this and use this information to help you figure out what your limits are with regards to adding activist activities to your life. This is new for a lot of us, so taking the time to get present to what you can realistically do is important. Then, plan the work and work the plan.
3. Set limits.
Given how overwhelming all this can be, limits are going to be more useful than ever. Some common areas for limit-setting include social media, internet use, late night TV watching and work. Of course, everyone is different.
Ask yourself: Where do I need to reel myself in a little? Where am I giving a little too much? How can I make setting limits more feasible? What gets in the way of setting limits? How can I bust that barrier?
Putting pen to paper to answer these questions can help you get present to your own unique answers in a more tangible way.
4. Be intentional about your news sources.
Staying informed is important, but information from every stream online and off is draining. To streamline this in a trauma-informed way, you may consider these tactics:
- Choose one source that speaks to you and visit their site briefly daily or weekly for summaries.
- Watch comedy news shows to keep the news viewing contained and use humor to hear about what’s going on without it being as triggering.
- Subscribe to one organization’s action alerts so that you know clearly when to take action on the efforts that are most important to you.
And, leave the rest. Unsubscribe from stuff you can’t really take in. Turn off notifications. By choosing a primary source and reducing the noise, you find that sweet spot between staying informed and feeling helpless.
5. Make recharging a priority.
We all need to recharge. It’s a given even though it can be hard for us to make this happen in our daily lives. Sometimes, too, it’s not for any lack of ideas about what to do but more so an issue of getting present and determining if this is a priority to you.
One way to get present to your needs is to ask yourself what is being taxed. How’s your sleep, nutrition, space for play and relaxation efforts? What aren’t you getting enough of and what’s keeping you from doing these things? From there you can inquire about what you need to and are willing to adjust to make this a priority. What can you choose in the matter? That’s key to getting in touch with your priorities and how you can make this a priority.
6. Focus on what inspires you.
Limits are also needed in other areas – like how much advocacy activities to partake in. With so much at stake right now many of us feel pulled in a million different directions. Many of us feel guilty that we can’t fight for the environment, the rights of marginalized communities, and health care all at the same time. When you stop and think about it, that’s A LOT to focus on and none of us can do it all, nor do it all well.
So, choose ONE area that inspires you and do not feel bad for the other areas that you can’t attend to. It’s not that you don’t care, you do, but your PFC resources have limits. And guilt, in this context, can paralyze us. If we all focus in on one thing that inspires us to get in action, then we will do so with much more energy.
7. Consider that others are doing their best.
Finally, if you find yourself frustrated with others lack of participation, hold off on conclusions. Consider that they may be overwhelmed. Maybe they are simply directing their energy to the efforts that are most sustainable for them to attend to. Political unrest is a huge stressor and is triggering for many. It is in our best interest to consider how abuses of power may be limiting people’s activist capacities. The fault is not with them but more so with the people who are abusing power and the culture that supports abuses of power.
Lead with love, reduce the noise, do what you can and have faith that others will too. That’s how we inspire greater participation. That’s how we stay in action. And, that’s how we keep our own flames burning bright in a time when we need the light.