Minding our minds: thoughts on how to take care of your mental health as an activist

Written by Sarah Przedpelska to celebrate World Mental Health Day

To be an activist is to fight for a change in the way of the world, and any fight — no matter the issue — takes a toll. Committing to battles against occupation, discrimination, formal politics, environmentalism presents us with issues much larger than ourselves, intimately confronting us with the scale of the task at hand.

It is part of why we are drawn to the task, to dedicate ourselves to justice and freedom in ways that necessitate collaboration and work that is bigger than we can achieve on our own, and sometimes, in our lifetime. However, committing ourselves to such labour is also committing ourselves to the premise that the work is never done. When there is always more to do for a just cause, other needs may fall by the wayside and we can burn out. 

Our functioning self is our most important tool for our actions. The fight won’t last if we dont last. We need to maintain our mental health.

What happens in the individual body?

Researcher Emily Nagoski, phd, demonstrates how the exposure to constant stressors like conflict, discrimination, constant urgency and existential dread causes cortinsol to build up in our systems. Evolutionarily, the stress-induced cortisol is supposed to help us fight or flee danger. Much activism isn’t direct physical combat and therefore we don’t go through the physical exertion that spends the cortisol. It stays in our bodies in unfulfilled stress cycles, and over time, the cortisol overwhelms our system. If left unchecked, accumulated stress goes on to undermine immunity, disrupts the body’s physiological milieu and can prepare the ground for a multitude of chronic diseases and conditions.

The consequences of burnout can cause feelings of ineffectiveness, detachment, and cynicism. More physical consequences of cortisol buildup and poor mental health has also been linked to heart disease to type 2 diabetes to depression.  In other words, the work we do as activists can end up compromising the work we do as activists.

Activism is also plain hard. You can distinguish burnout from hard days if you find that a) it’s persistent over time, b) you experience it in more than one situation, and/or c) if it’s a change from how you used to feel in similar situations.

How does activism impact our mental health?

As activists we work in many different ways. There are activists who care intimately for others, others write policy proposals and articles. Many activists educate and connect with their audiences through social media, and there are people who are the bodies on barricades, tied to trees, abortion clinics and outside legislative offices.  All the different ways one can be an activist contributes to the larger movement, and creates nuances in how our mental health is impacted. 

For some activists, taking a break is harder than for others. If you are facing the impact of the oppression you are fighting on the daily, through an occupation, in racism, economic exploitation or expropriation, finding room for self care is harder than if your activism takes form in a kitchen or on social media. 

But let us not forget our structural analysis! Patriarchy, racism, classism, literal warfare and conflict, socioeconomic stressors – taking a bubble bath probably won’t cut it. Consider when your exhaustion is a result of individual conditions that you can impact, and when the structures around you create an issue larger than you can possibly change on your own. Managing our mental health and avoiding burnout is both an individual and collective responsibility. 

While forging more space for our well-being takes space away from oppression and restitution ourselves, it also creates a reverberating effect that encourages others to do the same. 

How do we cope?

When we near the edge of burnout, or maybe even topple into it, we do have our fair share of less helpful coping mechanisms: doom-scrolling, video bingeing, emotional dumping, numbing sexual connections, indulging in consumption of goods, drugs or alcohol – there are plenty of stimulants that take our mind off of what we are feeling. As nice as they may feel in the moment though, none of those coping mechanisms address the underlying structural causes or the individual buildup of stress cycles in our bodies. 

The forms of coping mechanisms required to maintain mental health and oneself in the work requires different approaches. A basic self-care plan can consist of some well-known categories, but how you design these and tend to them has to be up to your own style and preferences:

Disconnect: The screen! The scroll! The pings! We scroll through news, attacks, abuses, murders and devastating statistics, at a higher rate than ever before.  You know it’s good to put it away. Think through how you consciously want to engage with news and kittens, and when you want to have disconnected time.

Sleep: We seldom get enough of it. Being sleep deprived over a period of time has the same effect on the brain as being inebriated. 

Exercise: Even something as basic as clenching and releasing muscles is enough to deal with some of that cortisol buildup in the body (Fact!). But fun with sports, pets and any cardio or yoga activity can connect us with our bodies, and produces those great endorphins and can often take  our mind off the end of the world.

Connect: None of us can change the world on our own, and the way we maintain our mental health is equally dependent on others. Connecting over meals, giggles or shared cynicism allows us to heal better and quicker from the stressors of the movements we are in. 

What are some of your favorite ways to maintain your mental health?

 Sarah Przedpelska
Sarah Przedpelska

Sarah Przedpelska is an educator and researcher who likes feelings, people and justice.