Burnout certainly isn’t a niche issue. 64 percent of Australians report that their mental health is affected by stress, and for activists (who often have to take on more responsibility than the average person) becoming exhausted by overwork is a real danger. The enormity of the task ahead and the indifference of others can be enough to overwhelm anyone, but with some time and thought it’s possible to fight activist’s burnout.
Identifying activist burnout
Everyone has their off-days, but it can be surprisingly difficult to recognise when you’ve gone beyond being a bit fed up to in danger of compromising your mental health.
You may volunteer, raise awareness through a blog, or make daily choices in accordance with your principles – it all takes extra effort. The everyday stress of life can be enough to push people to the edge of exhaustion at the best of times, and if you care deeply about the environment, or social justice, or global poverty you have even more to think about.
Then you have to take into account the emotional strain of simply being concerned about the welfare of the planet. There’s a huge amount of bad news to contend with everyday, and a seemingly endless amount of work needed to counteract it. It’s been found that socially anxious people tend to be better at reading people’s feelings and are more empathetic – which suggests that caring personality types are more prone to worry and anxiety.
People often don’t quite realise how bad a “bad patch” is until it’s over, so activists should make a concerted effort to keep track of their emotional wellbeing. Are you feeling stressed-out, worn down and dispirited more often than not? Is your passion for activism waning, with a feeling that you have achieved nothing? Insomnia, frequent illnesses, pessimism and lack of concentration are all signs of burnout, and it can creep up on you slowly. Knowing the warning signs could help you avoid complete collapse.
Putting your own wellbeing first.
It’s true that the issues of one individual pale into insignificance when compared to the problems of the world, and if we are to avoid environmental disaster (as well as a host of other issues) we’re going to have to make some sacrifices. However, no good will be done at if you scupper your ability to help by putting too much pressure on yourself. Looking after yourself isn’t selfish, it’s vital if you want to be mentally and physically healthy enough to be a positive influence in the world. Direct some of your natural compassion inwards, and learn to balance the responsibility of being a good citizen of the world against your own needs.
Activism is hard work because you have to fight against prevailing tides and to some extent, set yourself apart from the rest of society. Making choices like not buying plastic-bottled drinks or going zero waste is even more difficult when you see others buying up and chucking disposables without thought.
It can be lonely caring about something when the majority of people don’t even think about it, and it’s unsurprising that feelings of hopelessness take over – so making self-care a key part of an activist’s daily life is crucial.
Creating a self-care strategy
Self-care is a very personal thing. One person may look after themselves by embarking on an intense workout regime, another may spend a day in bed reading and eating chocolate. It’s all about what makes you feel better and ready to face the world again. The analogy most used to describe self-care is putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others, and while there’s the odd occasion where you’ll have to work through a haze of tiredness, most of the time the best thing to do is head home and rest.
Burnout is usually the result of overwork and chronic stress, so finding time to meditate daily can make a big difference and will drastically reduce stress. Studies have found a reduction of stress hormones of up to a third in those who meditate, and simply having twenty minutes a day to yourself can create a huge psychological boost. Having a creative outlet that’s not tied to work or activism can help too – whether it’s keeping a diary, throwing paint at a canvas, or cooking up a storm. No matter how important your work and activism is, you should still find time for the things you enjoy.
You also have to consider the emotional toll activism can take. Dedicate some time – maybe a day every week or two hours each day – where you keep off social media, don’t read any rolling news and try to focus on something else. Overexposure could overwhelm you. Also, it’s likely that in your activism you’ve met a group of likeminded people. Discuss any negative feelings you’ve had with them. The likelihood is that they know exactly what you’re talking about, and will become a support network who understand activism’s unique challenges.
Acknowledging your achievements
There is no end to how much you can give in order to change the world, and if you aren’t careful taking on too much is evitable. Thinking about the next campaign, fundraising effort or awareness drive can keep you motivated, and it’s important to keep moving forward. However, it’s also important to acknowledge your successes and take a moment to congratulate yourself. You may have cut down on dairy products for three months in a row, or put together a petition that made a difference – there’s still lots of work to be done, but you can afford to be pleased with yourself.
The last thing you need is to turn your activism into a thankless task without bright spots or reprieve, so every now and then a celebration is in order. You a fighting to change the world for the better, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging just how good and giving that is. You deserve your own good will, and with some self-care and appreciation, finding yourself suffering with activist’s burnout will become very unlikely.