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How to Cope with Anxiety in Activism

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November 18, 2014

warningAs social justice activists, we often talk about and fight for serious subjects. Often, these subjects aren’t happy, and might trigger bad memories or anger in the people discussing them. For example, I sometimes are triggered by discussions of sexual assault, and will often have a panic attack, or another form of anxiety.

It was important for me to try and find a way to cope with this, because I wanted to still participate in these conversations. I found some ways for dealing with my own anxiety toward activism issues that might bring you some relief if you react to certain subjects as well. These fixes might also be helpful for those who get angry easily during debates, as the goal for them is to calm you down, whether from anxiety or anger.

  1. Take a deep breath. Breathe in for seven counts and out for 11. Not only does this slow your heartbeat, calming you down, but it makes you focus on counting, which can serve as a distraction from whatever was triggering you. If I’m having a panic attack, I like to get to an empty area, preferably one that’s dark, and sit with my head between my knees. If you’re trying to calm down during a debate or argument, that might not be possible, but deep breaths will alleviate some of your anger.
  2. Develop a self-care “toolbox,” complete with support system. The great thing about this is that it can be totally tailored to your personal needs. You might want an actual physical kit that has things like photographs of happy memories, or a passage from your favorite book. If you are generally at home when you are triggered, maybe some candles and bubble bath might help relax you. If you’re on the go and just want something that will distract you from your panic or anger, consider downloading a puzzle app that you can play anywhere. I like doing the “easy” Sudoku puzzles because they make me focus on the task at hand, but aren’t hard enough to frustrate me. Just as important is your support system. It can often be really helpful to have a designated person to talk to when you feel stressed. This might be a person who could come pick you up if you’re having a panic attack, or someone who you can vent to about the patriarchy, misogyny, racism, etc.
  3. Be proactive. This might be easier for some, than others. If the issue is that certain aspects of social justice trigger you, try and remove yourself from the conversation before it comes up. This might sound silly, but you don’t have to sacrifice your mental health just because you want to be part of the conversation. It might also be helpful to give people a heads up (only if you’re comfortable disclosing that information!) so that if you do panic or leave during the conversation, they know why. On the same vein, if you’re comfortable with the people you’re with, consider coming up with signals that tell them how you’re feeling, as a way to check in. If you’re issue is more that you get angry, consider looking at ways to funnel that anger into a more productive outlet, rather than just being totally debilitated by it.
  4. Consider using trigger and content warnings. Everybody can incorporate this into their life, not just those with anxiety or anger. If you’re writing a blog post, consider adding, “Trigger warning: XYZ,” at the beginning so that people can choose whether to continue reading or not. For verbal conversation, check in before you discuss a serious subject: “Hey, are you okay if we talk about XYZ for a little bit?”

I hope that someone else might benefit from these steps as much as I have. It’s important to note that everyone is different, though. What works for me might not work for you, and that’s totally OK! While anxiety and anger might be frustrating, you’re still an important part of the fight for social justice.

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