Self-Care for Activists: A Beginner’s Guide
“You have two hands, one for helping yourself, the other for helping others.”— Maya Angelou
Activists, social justice advocates, and community organizers are driven by a passion to improve their communities and the world. But the unflappable focus and dedication that makes so many activists effective can also lead to burnout.
The physical and emotional demands of activism and community work can drain your energy reserves, and compassion fatigue can set in—especially if your own needs aren’t being met.
That’s why self-care is so important.
Activists are often exposed to threats, traumatic images and situations, and even violence. Those who do anti-racism work, animal rights advocacy, environmental activism, and police and prison reform work are especially likely to face threats of violence.
For these activists, healing work is vitally important. That may look like counseling sessions with a licensed therapist, meditation, breathwork, leaning on community members, or simply committing to getting more sleep.
“Self-care means giving yourself permission to pause.”— Cecilia Tran
Self-care is not selfishness: It’s a way of staying present, connected, and committed. Here are some ways to take care of yourself so you continue caring for others:
Watch out for activist burnout symptoms
Burnout is common, especially for the most dedicated activists. It usually happens after a period of extended activism and may leave you feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, lethargic, depressed, angry, or frustrated that change isn’t happening fast enough.
Don’t ignore these warning signs. Your body is telling you it’s time to take a break, or at least do more to protect your physical and emotional health.
Eat a healthy diet, get enough sleep, and exercise. Try meditation. Don’t engage in political and social arguments with people who are unlikely to agree with you—it almost always leads to frustration. And remind yourself that making systemic change is a marathon, not a sprint.
Nurture supportive relationships
Connection helps stave off burnout. Spending time with supportive family members and friends can help recharge your emotional reserves. Try to surround yourself with people who affirm your experiences. Join groups and communities who are as committed as you are to justice and inclusivity.
Even being around companion animals can boost your mood. Research shows that spending time with animals can increase immune functioning, lower heart rate and blood pressure, and decrease pain. It can also stave off loneliness, calm anxiety, and reduce emotional pain. Why? Fears and anxiety about being judged or criticized fall away with animal friends.
“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”— Audre Lorde
Take some time off if possible
Not unlike soldiers who have experienced combat, activists can develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex trauma from frequent exposure to upsetting images or events. Over time, activists can become numb to the suffering of others—it’s the body’s way of coping with overwhelm.
Know your limits and take time off when needed. You can’t be effective if your compassion reserves are run down. Part of your self-care plan might involve spending more time doing things that have nothing to do with activism.
Get help when you need it
Activists are used to taking on a lot, but sometimes it becomes too much. There’s no shame in asking for help. Don’t let feelings of despair, hopelessness, or anxiety reach a crisis level. A trained therapist can give you tools to manage stress and help you learn how to recognize when it’s time to take a break.
Think of self-care as fuel and rest as a form of resistance. Making time to recharge gives you the space you need to be most effective. Remember, you’re not betraying anyone—or the movement—by taking care of yourself.
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