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Why Self-Care Is More Important Than Ever For Activists And Campaigners

Keep fighting the good fight.

08/03/2017 08:21 SAST | Updated 08/03/2017 08:31 SAST

News of Donald Trump's blanket ban on refugees and travellers from Muslim countries left many in a state of despair and disbelief. Cerian Jenkins, a 29-year-old activist from London, was no exception.


"I spent a good couple of hours alone in my room sobbing. I felt useless, lost, and utterly exhausted," they told The Huffington Post UK.


Jenkins has been an activist for a decade, campaigning on politics, social justice, intersectionality and mental health.


As a sufferer of depression and PTSD, they know better than anyone that activism can take its toll on emotional wellbeing and mental health.


"It's easy to get so involved in the fight for equality and justice for others that you forget to take care of yourself, and for your mental health to suffer as a result. It has taken me years of hard-learned lessons to start thinking about my own wellbeing - and I still often slip up on this," they explained.


"Many of us are also trying to cope with our own everyday struggles as well - particularly women of colour, trans women, disabled people, Muslims, and other targeted minorities. Sometimes it can feel like the world is against you, and you just don't have the energy to do something about it."


Upon hearing news of the Muslim Ban, Jenkins was inspired to mobilise but from a more holistic point of view.


"What I really wanted in that moment [of learning about the Muslim Ban] was to be around other people who were channeling their energies into social change and activism, to be able to talk openly about the pitfalls of this life, and to relax amongst people I knew understood me."


And so Recharge and Resist was born, a network for activists that champions self-care and hopes to grow alongside the fervour around social activism.


While protesting is nothing new, the scale of global mobilisation, speed and frequency, is unprecedented.


Hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered around the globe earlier this week in protest of Trump's Muslim Ban. The women's march attracted similar numbers.


But with the new appetite for social activism and fight for social justice risks coming at a price for some.


While we have a duty to mobilise to safeguard human rights, it is equally important to make sure we are keeping on tabs on mental wellbeing.


Mark Williamson director of Action For Happiness, told HuffPost UK that people who spend their lives working on social issues often find it really hard to disconnect because they are so committed to the cause.


But actually, he believes that self-care is "essential" for activists and helps them be more effective in fighting the good fight.


"When you treat yourself compassionately, manage stress levels and get enough sleep, you are far better placed to make a lasting difference. Taking time to look after yourself too can improve your energy levels, concentration, decision making, empathy and relationships - as well as your overall physical and mental wellbeing."


Robert Hutchinson, a coach and wellbeing consultant, who runs the Authentic Life Company, agrees that activists' mental wellbeing is at risk.


"While activism can be highly rewarding, activists may face physical threats or threats to their belief system and identity which could lead to them becoming despairing and burnt out," said Hutchinson.


"The body's threat response over a period of time leads to anxiety, stress and a decrease in cognitive ability. Activists may also be angry - a short burst of anger can be motivating, but anger as a driving force is not sustainable long-term."


Jonny Benjamin, 30, is a well-known mental health campaigner, who was spurred into activism after a stranger famously saved him from taking his own life.


For Benjamin the work of an activist never stops. He is acutely aware of the scale of mental health "injustices" in society.


"You want to help everyone. Every story I hear of someone struggling..it breaks my heart and I want to solve their struggle," he said.


"People always say to me 'you can't help everyone' and 'you can't change the whole world' - but I think I can."


For Benjamin, who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at 20, this commitment takes its toll - often overnight.


"I go from thinking I can save the world to falling apart because of my own mental health and not being able to leave my front door within 24 hours."


Isabel Adomakoh Young, 24, an actor and writer describes activism as "exhausting", whether that's keeping abreast of topics and issues, fighting trolls and dealing with daily personal experiences of personal intersections of oppressions.


"Often the realities of the issue you're fighting for are distressing; be that domestic violence, disability welfare cuts, institutional racism or callous policies. By staying informed and active you're exposing yourself to saddening, tiring facts, and it's incredibly important to recognise that that will take a toll on you."


For Williamson, the need for self-care is simply explained by the Oxygen Mask principle.


"Put on your own 'mask' first and then you're much better placed to help others in a sustainable way."


Top Tips On How To Practise Self-Care


Get The Basics Right...


Hutchinson says: "Exercise, nutritious food and plenty of sleep will boost physical wellbeing, and developing a regular mindfulness practice will boost mental wellbeing. Mindfulness, compassion and gratitude practices are especially helpful in reducing stress and anxiety while increasing positivity, creativity and focus."


Benjamin says: "For me mindfulness is very important. At the moment I'm waking up at 4am every morning with my mind buzzing! Mindfulness helps stop that buzz for me. Through yoga or swimming or walking I can get out of my head for a bit and find some peace of mind."


Be Kind To Yourself...


Williamson says: "Don't be so hard on yourself. This isn't about indulgence or narcicissm; it's about showing yourself with the same kindness that you would a loved one."


Know When To Switch Off...


Jenkins says: "I take a long, hot shower. It sounds simpler, but the very act of being in the shower means I can't be on my phone, or on my computer, where I do all my campaigning work. It forces me to step away and be in the moment."


Have A Strong Support Network...


Young says: "I can't emphasise how much better activism is when it's shared, both the good and the bad bits. And that can mean an organising group on Facebook, a text thread sharing funny placards, or just getting a coffee and setting the world to rights. I'm in this to help people, so seeing people helps."


Do Things You Enjoy...


Hutchinson says: "No matter how passionate they are about their cause it's important for activists to take a break from their work and to focus on unrelated, enjoyable activities that make them feel good. To recharge their positivity batteries."


Young says: "I try not to judge what I enjoy. I play Pokemon Go! I'm no longer ashamed. It makes me happy and that's something to value, as long as it doesn't take over all my free time."