By Nora Kramer
Even if you’re lucky enough not to be targeted directly, just watching the news or even our social media feeds these days bring a daily assault on so many issues progressives care about: human rights and equality, environmental protection, animal welfare, and the state of our democracy and our discourse, for starters.
How do we cope without burying our heads in the sand?
“Self-care” has become a popular topic in recent years, but it wasn’t a term I had even heard of when I started out as an activist 20 years ago. I recently recognized that, without consciously planning it, I’ve been using some key strategies that have helped me keep going all these years, though they’re a bit different than what folks normally think of when we think of self-care. In addition to the basics that most of us know (though may not necessarily do), like eating healthy, exercising, meditation, and getting enough sleep, choosing our approach to activism and how we engage with the problems in our world can help us use our time strategically and avoid burning out.
At Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp, a summer camp for social change, we have expanded our focus on self-care since the 2016 election. This year we will host our second year of YEA Camp for Adults as well, and we will make even more time for this. We will do yoga and journaling and meditation, yes, and we will also focus on how we can do activism in ways that not only make a big difference in the world but also sustain ourselves. We’ll also have time in nature and the opportunity to visit with rescued animals at the sanctuary we will be staying at. But I digress….
Here are 10 approaches to self-care that might support you in your journey as an activist and human.
It might seem like doing activism is not a form of self-care or is even the opposite of self-care, but resisting harm is self-preservation and helps us know we are taking action on what matters to us.
When your house is on fire, it’s hard to go take a bubble bath. We need to sound an alarm and put out the fires.
“Activism is the antidote to despair,” said Joan Baez, and taking action can not only bring about change but also keeps us action-oriented so we can protect ourselves and our community and don’t feel helpless.
While social justice issues are very interconnected, to avoid overwhelm, at YEA Camp we recommend focusing on one main issue, what we call your IOI, or issue of importance. Nobody can solve any of the major problems of the world alone, but all of our actions add up to make a cumulative difference. Taking breaks and pacing yourself as needed for you and your life are key.
To get more involved in activism opposing this administration, connect with Indivisible, sign up with 5 Calls to call your legislators, or get involved with any of the many organizations working to bring about social justice.
2. Focus on other types of activism you enjoy or can easily accomplish to see an in-person, real-time impact.
Resistance activism is playing defense, stopping something bad from happening. As important as that currently is, it’s also difficult and exhausting, and a “victory” just means stopping something terrible.
We also need to proactively find ways to make good things happen. This can include volunteering at a local shelter or community organization, doing a neighborhood cleanup, teaching people what you know, or greening your school or office.
Is there a way to combine something you love to do with a cause you believe in? Or a way you could get involved that doesn’t involve convincing sold-out politicians to change their policies?
It’s also empowering to recommit to daily actions that you have direct control over. Think driving less, eating fewer animal products, boycotting harmful companies, buying less stuff, and speaking up in oppressive situations. Knowing that we are doing these daily things can help us feel OK about taking the time off we need. Try to bring humor, lightness, and joy to counter the stress associated with the issues we’re working to address.
3. Think of yourself in a larger activism context.
You don’t need to get your PhD in Social Change, but just learning about how change has happened in the past can reframe our thinking in a more long-term context. It can be humbling to realize just how many actions it takes to cumulatively bring about systemic change, and to recognize that none of us can ever do “enough.” That also frees us up to pace ourselves. Even though we may not see big results right away, each small step adds up. Two short videos about the gay rights movement and civil rights movement serve as a reminder that all of the actions so many people took led to big change.
4. Donate money.
If you’re feeling depleted or demoralized about the state of the world, a donation is essentially paying someone else to do the work that you’re not able to do. And giving not only does good, it makes us feel good — and activism that combines doing good with feeling good is a win-win that we should do as much as we can. Even better that it only takes a minute and then you can go do whatever you need to do.
Even if you are not in a good financial situation at the moment, since you’re reading this, you can probably donate $1. Maybe $10 or $100? Or more, if you can. Choose an organization doing good work (here are many we recommend), and then commission them (or us) to do more of it while you take time to do what you need to do.
5. Follow just the right amount of the right news.
As activists, we want to be generally aware of what is going on — sometimes it can be more stressful not to know — but you don’t need to know intimate details of every horrible thing happening in the world each day. Learn just enough of what you need to know for the activism you will be doing. Some specific tips:
- Remove any news apps from your phone and disable news notifications.
- Give yourself a time limit of the amount of time you can spend on the news or social media each day. Monitor it so it doesn’t get out of hand.
- Ask yourself: Do I really need to know the details of this? What will I do with this information? Will this help me to make a bigger difference, or make me feel more demoralized?
- Sometimes we need to laugh instead of cry. Watching Alec Baldwin’s dead-on Saturday Night Live performances, and critiques from Seth Myers, Trevor Noah, Samantha Bee, or Stephen Colbert can be as gratifying as a bubble bath. In fact, there’s actually reason to believe that satire is better equipped to critique Trump than mainstream news.
6. Build community and ask for what you need
OK, enough about activism. We need to reach out and create tighter community than we’ve had before. We’ve currently got a perfect storm of disconnection. While so many of us communicate more with our friends by typing than talking, we also are more likely than older generations to move far away from our families and to be single later in life. Statistically, we’re less involved in community organizations, whether it be religious or civic, and we are less likely to know our neighbors. And there’s an all-out assault on just about every community of people, animals, and the planet who are not straight white men.
We need to know that we can count on others when we need it, and we will feel good to do the same for others. So meet your neighbors, try going to local events, maybe find a MeetUp, talk to people you come in contact with, connect with like-minded people through social media, and be in better touch with your expanding circle of friends and family. If you need help, there are resources to support you even in the most dire of circumstances.
At YEA Camp, we focus on giving campers the knowledge, skills, confidence, and community to make a bigger difference on their cause when they get home. We believe that being a part of a like-minded and dedicated community makes all of us stronger advocates. We want to be your cheerleader!
7. Manage your life and take care of yourself in ways that are right for you.
Typically, when we think of self-care, we may picture a spa day or yoga class, and these, of course, can be great. But we need to go deeper to assess what we can do to fully take care of ourselves.
In some ways, we all need the same basic things as a baseline, such as eating healthy food, access to clean drinking water, getting exercise, sleeping enough, safe shelter, and nourishing relationships. So many people, especially of lower income, are not getting these basic needs met.
- Evaluate different areas of life that cause you anxiety, from work stress to health issues to your home, relationships, or finances, and start dealing with the most critical ones.
- Get more rigorous doing what you need to do because taking care of ourselves is a precursor to taking care of others.
- Tackle unhealthy and develop healthy habits and practices as directly as possible to take care of yourself and your one precious life.
From stopping smoking to getting check-ups to paying bills on time, healing your relationships to pursuing your goals, or otherwise “adulting,” you are in charge of managing your life. When you don’t do it well, other things start to suffer, including your activism.
As activist hero Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
8. Figure out and do what you love.
To stay in this for the long haul, we need to find ways to enjoy our lives, do the things we love, and step away from stressful situations when we need to. Many people are either not clear about what they truly enjoy doing, and many more are clear that they don’t spend much time doing what they love.
If you love to read or write or play music or be outdoors, make time to do that, even if it’s just for a few minutes a day or an hour or two a week.
One of my favorite things about our YEA Camp for Adults is that it is held at Woodstock Farm Sanctuary, which provides sanctuary and some animal friends to visit with while we are there as well. Animals have an innocence and gentleness that can be an antidote to stress and help restore our energy and feeling of unconditional love.
9. Pursue fun and challenging hobbies and distract yourself as needed.
Pursuing challenging hobbies is a great way to trick your brain to take a break from what it was worrying about so that it can focus on the matter at hand. Studying a new language, learning a musical instrument, creating art, dancing, reading novels, playing games, and any sort of vigorous exercise are great for this. Find something you really enjoy that gets your mind off of things, and have that be your go-to when you need it.
10. Feel your emotions — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Our compassion and empathy has led us to become activists for change, but these emotions can sometimes overwhelm us. We are not robots and cannot go numb. We also need to live our lives and enjoy the beauty and possibility that we can create in life.
Being guided by a healthy relationship to our emotions will not only help us as individuals, it will help us as activists. We’ve got to feel the good, the bad, and the ugly. That might mean crying when we need to, journaling, talking things through with friends, or seeing a therapist. It can mean being quiet and meditating or going out in nature to unplug. It also means being grateful for the countless privileges and opportunities, friends, experiences, and beauty in life. When we don’t run away from our emotions, we can run toward what we want.
Finding ways to celebrate the positives and to fully experience joy might feel difficult at times in the context of all the suffering in the world and the harm being done by the Trump administration, but cultivating happiness and gratitude, and fully appreciating the good in life can help rejuvenate us to get through harder times.
It’s been said that activism is a marathon and not a sprint. We need to find ways to show up as activists as best we can in the short term, but we also need to recognize when we need to step back, especially if we are from a community that is more at risk, when we are going through personal struggles, or when we know that we are pushing ourselves too hard or not getting our own needs met.
When the government doesn’t take care of its people, we need to work extra hard to take care of ourselves, each other, and animals and the planet too. Each of us has an important role to play in bringing about the change we wish to see in the world.
For more tips on strengthening your change-making abilities, download YEA Camp’s free ebook, The Beginner’s Guide to Changing the World. Want to see how we integrate self care with leadership training at camp? Join us this summer at YEA Camp for teens or YEA Camp for Adults.
About the Author: Nora Kramer is the Founder and Director of YEA Camp. She is a long time activist who practices self-care by swimming, playing with her dog, Daiya, and eating vegan ice cream sundaes.