Disclaimer: this article specifically addresses vegan activism, although the points here are relevant to all forms of activism – whether animal liberation, gender equality, same sex marriage, or any of the myriad causes towards which we can lend ourselves.
Activism is stressful.
Whether it’s attending protest rallies, rescuing abandoned animals, or capturing footage of terrified animals as they are dragged to their execution.
Of course, some forms of activism are relatively benign, while others are more traumatic.
With activism, comes the potential for our own distress. Post-traumatic stress, to be precise.
In some people, the stress symptoms become so extreme that a diagnosis of “acute stress disorder” or “post-traumatic stress disorder” can be applied.
Clinical diagnoses aside, post-traumatic stress is very real amongst activists. Witnessing violence can have the same emotional impact as experiencing it. Stress is insidious, and it accumulates. Burnout is common amongst activists.
According to SANE Australia, a quarter of people who witness a traumatic event will experience post-traumatic stress symptoms.
As activists, there are several ways we can avoid post-traumatic stress and burnout. Here’s how:
Tip 1: Remember that your feelings are your friend, not your foe.
There will never be a time when we become emotionally immune to the plight of animals. In fact, from my own experience, as the years pass we may become increasingly empathetic to the suffering of others.
It never gets easier. And that’s a good thing.
Being an activist means that we regularly experience many uncomfortable emotions, like horror, sadness, despair, anger, rage, guilt, shame, and grief. The plight of animals is tormenting. Every traumatic event pierces our heart like a knife – a heart that already breaks from the injustice and outrage that is the “animal agriculture” industry.
Always remember, though, that our feelings fuel our mission. They give us the drive, motivation, and courage to persist with our activism, even during our darkest moments.
Tip 2: Release the valve
Too often, our emotions become so uncomfortable that we feel compelled to avoid them. And there are hundreds of ways to do so, whether through distraction with food, alcohol, and drugs, or compulsive behaviours like gambling or endless hours surfing the internet.
Avoiding emotions is a losing game, because emotions don’t just go away.
Ignoring our feelings is like ignoring the wild pack of dogs in the basement. Eventually, the dogs will get hungry, and they’ll find a way out. And then, anyone and everyone is at their mercy.
Too often, we bottle up our feelings until they become uncontrolled and untenable. And we feel out-of-control, too.
We hit our breaking point and we “snap” and unleash our emotions – perhaps an altercation with a coworker, or an argument with a loved one. Perhaps we experience road rage, or we direct vitriol towards a faceless stranger on Facebook.
Uncomfortable feelings need to be experienced, not ignored. Accepting and recognising our feelings, and their source, is paramount.
A physical outlet can be useful, since strong emotions (like rage) cause an adrenalin rush. Creative outlets like writing, drawing, singing, and dancing can be useful for some. (I personally find writing to be cathartic. Which is fortunate since I can’t draw, sing, or dance).
Tip 3: Make sure you vent, vent, vent
Another way of releasing emotions is to talk them over with a group of like-minded individuals. People who will understand and empathise with our feelings. It’s important to have a safe space where we won’t feel judged for feeling the way we do – so we must choose our audience wisely. Venting to a non-vegan family member is unlikely to generate the same emotional release as venting to a fellow vegan activist.
Note that online interactions are just as valuable as those “in real life” – and perhaps even more so, as it can be far easier to communicate via an email or message, than face-to-face.
Being a part of a community means that we feel less isolated with our experiences. Our community also helps us recognise and accept our emotions, because we know that we’re not the only ones feeling this way.
Tip 4: Consider this. What’s your point?
We all have a reason for choosing specific types of advocacy and activism. It helps to be clear, and specific, about those reasons. Why do we do what we do? And, what is our role, to that end?
For many of us, our noble goal is to save the animals. The question is: what is our role in saving the animals?
Is our goal to provide education to those who have not yet become vegan?
Is it to liberate the animals – literally, one slaughterhouse at a time?
Is it to create delicious vegan meals that everyone will enjoy?
Is it to raise funds to build an animal sanctuary?
Is it to become educated about vegan nutrition, for the inevitable questions about protein, iron, and calcium that are asked of every vegan?
Being clear about what we’re choosing to do, and why, helps maintain our focus – and helps keep our motivation high – during times of struggle.
Tip 5: Take stock, and step back.
Caring for others means that we need to care for ourselves. This means evaluating our activism, and the impact it’s having on other facets of our life – our health, our relationships, and mental wellbeing, amongst others.
And, taking stock means that we recognise that we’re human, and that we too have our limits. We’re not superheroes, although I know plenty of activists who indeed do quite heroic acts.
There may be times when we need to take a step back from activism. And, there is no shame in that.
Stepping back can be exceedingly difficult for an activist. We want to attend every event, and rescue every animal, and offer our support to every worthy cause. But, we must refrain. Just as we physically cannot save animals 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (we have to sleep sometime), we also cannot mentally and emotionally dedicate ourselves to activism without respite.
What is the right amount of activism? Only we can decide, for ourselves. After all, there will be times in our life when we can handle far greater levels of stress than others.
The important point is to know the limits – and have the courage to step away if we must. Always remembering, of course, that pause doesn’t mean permanent. Taking a break does not mean that we’re giving up on the animals. In fact, it’s precisely because we care so much for them, that we must stop every so often to care for ourselves – so that we can become even stronger activists than before.
Like this article? Feel free to share amongst your networks. And, check out this post on why everyone hates vegans.