Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Tips to Cope with the Stress of Activism

A beautiful place to help heal the troubled mind.


As an activist, there's no avoiding that the stuff we deal with is horrible, and will hurt, at times a lot. If we weren't sensitive people we wouldn't be acting in the first place, so in a way the pain is unavoidable. But developing coping mechanisms is essential to not burning out.

Here's some of my tips on how to deal with the stress, and to not let the horror get you down (for too long):

  1. Set objectives, actual tasks to do. It helps to focus on the task rather than dwell too long on the atrocity. Keeping busy really does help! Try to allocate specific time slots to work on specific tasks, this way you will not feel like you are wasting your time and you will still be able to cope with the rest of your life. If the task is something you can do methodically, without too much thought (like at the moment I spend a lot of time data logging of atrocities), then putting on some music in the background whilst you are working can help keep your spirits up and stay calm.
  2. Force yourself to take real breaks. Easier said than done. My secret here is having a husband that really hates my activism so forces me to do other things when he is here, like watch some TV series about some far out world. This I would never dream of doing myself, I would think of it as a waste of time, but really it is exactly what I need, to turn my mind off the campaign work and then I come back to it refreshed.
  3. Try to keep physically healthy. Eat healthily rather than drink gallons of tea and eat chocolate when stressed - I'm still struggling to achieve this, trying hard though! And take exercise. I got to the point where I was going for a short daily run in middle of the day which was a wonderful way to distress - but I have to say recent events with the Rohingya did take over when all kicked off in October - I thought it was just going to be for a few weeks so I stopped the exercise and hardly left the computer, but now realise this is going to be a very long battle, like with Yemen, so am getting back to my exercise routine. On a Monday I go out for a run with a group of ladies to talk about kids and 'normal' things (plus I let off a little bit of letting off steam to a close friend whilst running) this brings me back into the 'other'(real?) world. It's so important to keep the balance.
  4. Do other leisurely activities. Gardening I love, digging a hole, connecting with nature. Taking photos. Walks on hilltops. Walks in woods - the colour green is very healing. Breathe deeply. Listen. The sound of a river running renews my spirit. I spend time with my children doing really daft things. Even housework helps. Pegging the washing out is a chance to listen to the birds. Taking the bins out at night is a chance to gaze at the stars. Don't beat yourself up about happy moments, focus on them, concentrate on them, and during those times, don't think about the bad things, but appreciate your blessings more. This will make you even more determined to work hard for those who have been denied peace and security in their lives.
  5. Do other work. I do actually have another job, my web development. It's really difficult to keep on doing this alongside my activism, but I think it does help me to keep balanced. Stopping sometimes to bury myself in code I think does help stop me going crazy/crazier. It also helps me to come back to a problem with a fresh mind and new ideas on possible paths to solutions.
  6. Rejoice when you get the successes. They may seem small, but recognise them and always remind yourself that what you are doing is making a difference (even if not apparent at the time).
  7. Pray or meditate. For me praying really helps. As I am a Muslim I stop 5 times a day for a short pause. It's a little like a meditation break, and a time to say what is on my mind, and what I need some help with. These timely breaks help me to remember the time too and so not get lost on just one issue, which might be something really awful that wants to stick in my head.
  8. Don't carry everyone's problems on your shoulders. One tip I was given early on in campaigning that I feel was excellent advice and something I always recall: Remember that the problem you are dealing with is not actually your problem. Although you feel empathy, that's not actually your dead child, it's someone else's. In a way, don't indulge in the misery, be strong, for that person. This was told to me by a campaigner I once worked with. She told me the story of how her son was beaten up really badly and it was  traumatic to see him like that, but the way she got through it was by telling herself, even when it was her own son, it wasn't her pain, she didn't need to feel what he was feeling, she just needed to be strong. So it's that kind of mindset I try to develop, without becoming cold hearted, but to remind myself: this isn't actually my pain. It's like a pain limitation coping mechanism.  
  9. Cry sometimes. Of course all these points are great in theory; I've got stronger over the years. At the beginning I used to cry a lot, maybe that's a process we just have to go through. It does get easier, you do learn to cope, if you persevere. But sometimes a few tears brings some relief, so don't be afraid to let it out when you need to.
  10. Talk. Talking (or texting/chatting) always helps. If you feel terrible, maybe have a chat with someone else working on the campaign, they might have been feeling the same, and together you can give each other the support you need.
Here's a little blog I put together, Pictures for Peace, of some of my favourite photos that I have taken over the years. It is a place I sometimes go to, to focus on something beautiful, after looking as so many terrible images. Every now and again I add a new photo, when I feel inspired. I hope it may bring you some healing too.

If anyone else has any tips to share on dealing with the stress of activism, please post as a comment, I would love to share your experiences too. My apologies to all those living in places of insecurity, or under oppression or war; my little struggle is so insignificant to what you are facing every day, and I am constantly amazed at how you manage to cope living under the pressures you do.