Self-care for Social Justice Warriors

A little more than year ago I wrote self-care guidelines for social justice workers as I watched the events unfold at JFK airport following Trump’s travel ban. The scene looked strikingly familiar to the scenes of crisis I have witnessed personally. The faces of anxious family members trying to process the swirling deluge of information. The palpable strain of trying to separate useful answers from unfounded gossip. Fear and worry choking their throats and ringing in their ears. The airport floor scattered with pro-bono attorneys and advocates hunch-backed over laptops pecking for the scraps of truth that might allow them to take action. Hungry, tired, confused, agitated…and then feeling guilty for feeling hungry, tired, confused and agitated knowing that those they are working for and waiting for have suffered greater pains of insult and injury.

As a former therapist and crisis responder, I have worked directly with those who have suffered great trauma, as well as worked with the first responders and humanitarians who come to their aide in the minutes and days that follow. Some traumas are acute blows: singular and shocking. Others are sustained and long-term, slowly gathering weight like an executioner adding rocks to one’s chest. One rock alone is a discomfort; added up, they are crushing. What I have discovered is that it is the long term strain and crushing weight of being a “helper” is the trauma that often goes unnoticed and untreated.

In the last year we have seen the sharp rise in need for helpers and humanitarians. They are the therapists and teachers working with children and families to allay fears, the government staffers responding to frantic constituents, first responders, and even every day citizens who have been activated toward advocacy. To them I say, “I see you. Breath with me.”

We have learned since the travel ban and the chaos that ensued that it was not  a singular, acute blow that we can grit our way through. We’ve lived through Charlottesville, more bans, more divisive rhetoric, more confusion. This is a piling of rocks and we must take heed to push each one off before another one comes. Working toward social justice takes resilience and repair. We must be aware of our own needs, we must be willing to care for ourselves and we must be willing to let others care for us. Here are some ways to do that:

Check Engine Light: How Am I Doing?

Helpers (my generic term for a myriad of people who does just that: help) are often other-oriented when it comes to assessing need. This is what makes them good at what they do. All too often, they are terrible at assessing their own needs. It is also a major contributing factor for what makes them burn out from doing what they are good at doing. If you are a helper in anyway, you need to check your engine at least once a day. Stop. I mean literally stop. Step aside, preferably somewhere private, and put one hand on your head and one on your heart. Close your eyes. Take three slow deep breaths and scan your body. Is your head aching or your stomach growling? Is your heart racing faster than it should? Did tears unexpectedly start burning the back of your eyes the minute you allowed yourself to breath? Those are your check engine lights flashing.

Fix-it: Ain’t Nobody Got Time for That

Yeah, I know you think you don’t have time for that. But here’s the thing: a car might be able to lurch forward on a flat tire, but it’s going nowhere on an empty tank. Here is a quick way to add a couple of gallons to your tank before you need to completely refuel. Did you feel tears welling up when you checked yourself? Good. That’s your pressure release valve. Throw that valve wide open. Emotional tears are found to have more stress hormones than tears from when our eyes simply water for physical reasons. They also activate your parasympathetic nervous system to physically relax tense muscles. In other words, tears literally drain stress from your body.

Feed What You Want to Grow

We all know about Maslow, right? There are just some basics that we need and there is no getting around it: water and food. Yet, those are the things we toss out the window first when we are in a stress inducing crisis. Our fight or flight response knows that we can’t wrestle a lion on a full stomach of chicken parmesan. Which is great except that sometimes our fight or flight response doesn’t know that there actually ISN’T a lion in the room. There are, however, a bunch of really nasty tomcats that we need to deal with and that takes sustained energy. Even if you don’t have the luxury of a home cooked meal, or even anything that could constitute the word “meal” for that matter, feed your body. Eat something. You have the time. Yes, you do. And drink some water while you’re at it. Those tears you just cried aren’t going to replenish themselves. A well-fed and hydrated body is not only stronger physically, but stronger emotionally and intellectually. It repairs the damage from previous stressors and builds your resilience for the next wave.

Give It a Rest

Speaking of Maslow, turns out that we need sleep, too. Crazy, right? Sleep can be elusive for helpers. Sometimes it is because our physical environment is not conducive to sleep, other times because our mind won’t slow enough for sleep to find us. In either case, creating restful routines can help us get either a solid 8 hours or at least a break enough to recharge. Find your space and make it sacred. Whether it is a room in your home or a corner in a quiet spot of a crowded venue (hospital, airport, government building), seek a place where you shut down. Take a break from the phone, email, and news. Allow yourself to not be hyper-vigilant for a time. Give yourself a bonus point if you find some of that space outside with fresh air occasionally.

The Buddy System

Helpers are also pretty good rule breakers, rebels and all-around bad asses. That means these suggestions might be met with the response “Yeah, fine, I’ll do it when I get around to it or really need it,” (subtext, “But I probably won’t.”). Here’s where your buddy comes in. Choose a person who you will listen to when they tell you that you’re due for a time out. Someone who’s not afraid to hold you accountable and whose wise counsel you trust. Give them your stress “tells” ahead of time so they can recognize them when they show up and what you are likely to need most when it starts to feel overwhelming. In other words, be proactive.

And while you’ve got your buddy there, ask for a hug, a back rub, hand massage or even to sit quietly shoulder-to-shoulder. Human touch is proven to lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels and increases a sense of connection and safety (there’s that guy Maslow again, btw).

No one is perfect in the practice of self-care and all too often it’s the case of the cobbler’s children having no shoes. Remember, though, that even the smalls stones stress and pressure will add up to make a mighty weight. Starting with a daily self-check and then replenishing your most urgent need first can keep you resilient and responsive. We need you…and more importantly, you need you.

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