Maintaining Your Well-Being While Changing the WorldPick the Brain

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Many people have gotten more involved in social activism and community work, recently. Seeing the divides in political positions, opportunities, and lived experiences, many of us have declared that we cannot, in good conscience, passively wait for others to make the world a better place. While this work can be rewarding, it can also be hard. Sometimes it’s anxiety-provoking, and sometimes you might feel discouraged about the progress you are (or aren’t) seeing, or about the state of the world in general. There can be feelings of overwhelm, about all that needs doing, and hopelessness about how things are going. You might find you really want to disengage, or maybe you have disengaged, and now you feel guilty. We have some good news: psychology research has some ideas for keeping ourselves afloat. Let’s start with how to manage the emotions that come along with this work.

Monitor and Respond to Your Mood: Be vigilant, and notice when you’re starting to slide (Snapping at kids? Finding it harder to get out of bed?). You need to stay afloat to do this work and perform your other roles. What works for you, with respect to self-care?  Rediscover knitting, music, candles, or soft blankets. These things don’t have to be hugely time-consuming.

Positive reinforcement: Pick at least some activism activities that are themselves reinforcing (read: enjoyable). Go into the community and work with children. Do something with friends, rather than alone (or, go and make a new friend!). Solidarity, validation, feeling like you’re doing something… these may be pretty powerful rewards!

Social Support: Find an activism buddy who can provide emotional support, help keep things in perspective, and remind you of the importance of self-care. Also, activism may not have to be time away from family and other friends. Finding a way to include them can allow you to spend time with the important people in your life while doing work that matters to you. Added bonus: if you bring kids along, you’ll be modeling for them how to be an engaged citizen. 

Mindfulness: Passions can take over your life. You may find yourself sitting at dinner with your family, thinking about the work you have to do to prepare for a meeting you have that night. It’s challenging to switch gears, and several aspects of your life may suffer. Finding five minutes a day to do a breath-based meditation can help refocus your attention and do wonders for your mood and your ability to be present.

Control your exposure: If you’re doing too much, step back and practice saying no. Remember, hopelessness and despair probably won’t help your cause. Limit the time you spend watching, reading, or listening to news. Have your favorite (soothing?) music handy to play when the news starts to stress you out. Read fiction.

Cognitive reappraisal: Do you find yourself having thoughts that are getting in the way? Perhaps something like, “my whole state feels the opposite of how I do, so what’s the point?” Consider how helpful these thoughts are (or are not). What are the consequences of thinking this way? Is it leaving you feeling hopeless, despondent, alone, and unmotivated? Might there be another way to look at the situation that feels less awful? For example, maybe, “Phew, this is tough work.” Still realistic, but less depressing.

Bottom line: We are not machines. We can’t just keep fighting all the time. Pay attention to your emotions and to your overall health, and find ways to make your involvement in social action sustainable, for the long run.

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Dara G. Friedman-Wheeler, PhD and Jamie S. Bodenlos, PhD, are the authors of Being the Change: A Guide for Advocates and Activists on Staying Healthy, Inspired, and Drivena self-care manual for activists who work in organizations with social missions, and those who are involved in social change outside of their jobs. 

About the Authors:

Dara G. Friedman-Wheeler, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in Maryland and research psychologist at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. She is also on the speakers’ faculty of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Behavior Therapy. She conducts workshops on CBT around the country and virtually and has recently begun conducting workshops on “taking care of yourself while taking care of the world” for those doing work in social justice or advocacy fields.

Jamie S. Bodenlos, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist in New York and professor of psychological science at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. She is a fellow at the Society of Behavioral Medicine. She investigates and publishes in the areas of behavioral medicine, mindfulness, and health behaviors. She teaches courses in cognitive behavior therapy, clinical psychology, and behavioral medicine. In addition to scholarship and teaching, Dr. Bodenlos uses CBT techniques in clinical work she does in the community.

References

Beck, J. S. (2011). Cognitive behavior therapy: Basics and beyond., 2nd ed. New York: Guilford Press.

Burns, D. D. (1980). Feeling Good: The new mood therapy.  New York: Signet.


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