How to Be an Activist Living with Anxiety

Note: I first published this in 2018. Links updated and pandemic information added in July 2022.

For many people the Women’s March on Washington was an exhilarating chance to show dissent through mass protest. But for people who live with anxiety disorders, the decision to attend or not attend an event like the Women’s March — where large groups of people will be present — can be a fraught one. The desire to attend can be at odds with the need to stay away from crowds that can trigger anxiety, but not being able to participate might bring feelings of guilt or sadness. As rapid response actions multiply in response to the current political situation, you might find yourself torn between wanting to be a part of something yet also needing to find space for yourself. This guide was created to help those living with anxiety find a place in the resistance movement.

Rule number one — You know yourself best. Make decisions on what to participate in based on your own need for self-care. It’s OK if you had planned on going to that protest but couldn’t because of your anxiety. It’s OK that you picked up the phone, but couldn’t complete the phone call. Find things within your comfort zone and go outside of your comfort zone when you feel you can.

If you decide the time is right to try attending a rally or protest:

  • Bring a friend who knows about your anxiety with you
  • Have a safety plan* in place
  • Stay on the outskirts where it will be easier to find space for yourself should you need it
  • Set a time limit for yourself on how long to be there. You don’t have to attend the entire event, do whatever you can
  • If you decide at the last minute that you are not in the right mental space to go, try not to feel bad about that

*A safety plan can include:

  • What you might need before and after the action
  • Self-care boundaries like pre-determining how much time to spend on the street
  • Having an idea of what might help prevent or delay anxiety
  • What signs to be aware of regarding onset of anxiety
  • Permission to exit early upon first signs of onset
  • What to do/where to go if anxiety is triggered and what will be comforting post-march that you can prepare ahead of time

The safety plan and some of the other ideas on this list come from this resource:
26 Ways to Be in the Struggle Beyond the Streets

Protesting During a Pandemic

  • Public health means taking care of folks at the community level rather than the individual level.
  • Because COVID is spread via airborne transmission, wear a mask at all times when protesting indoors. For the safety of immunocompromised and disabled people*, wear a mask outdoors in crowded spaces.
  • If possible**, use a rapid test before any large events to make sure you are not asymptomatic but still able to transmit the virus.
  • If you have recently tested positive for COVID, try not to attend any events until you rapid test negative.***
  • If you are exhibiting any cold-like symptoms or flu-like symptoms, stay home. Even if it isn’t COVID it is best not to expose folks to unnecessary health risks.

*Please read Ed Yong’s essay for The Atlantic about the impact of “back to normal” policies on the immunocompromised community.

**This guide recognizes the cost and access issues that can impact one’s ability to rapid test frequently.

***While CDC guidelines do say that one can exit quarantine at day 5, be aware that as long as you test positive on a rapid test you can transmit the virus to others. Most folks will remain positive for a range of time that frequently extends 5 days. Note that the use of a rapid test is important here because a PCR test will show a positive result even after you are no longer likely to transmit the virus.

But I really don’t think I can attend a rally or protest, are there other things I can do?

Phone Calls
Phone calls to your representatives work, but this can be a tricky one because making calls makes many people nervous. This web comic from Cordelia McGee-Tubb gives tips on how to make calls to your representatives when you have social anxiety.

Having a script is always important when calling your representative, but it’s truly a lifeline for those with anxiety. 5calls.org is designed to help you make 5 calls a day and gives you a pre-written script to follow for each one. If you want to minimize your time on the phone, you don’t even need the whole script, just give your name, city, zip code, and then a brief sentence that explains why you are calling. For example: “Hi, my name is Barbara Gordon and I’m calling from Gotham City, zip code 53540. I am calling to let you know that I oppose Mr. Dorrance as Attorney General”. It’s that easy.

Write to your Representatives
Writing to your congressperson is another effective tool to make your voice heard, and is a great action to take if you can’t make calls. Use postcard templates or fun stationery to handwrite notes, or just type up some letters on regular paper. To find your representative’s DC address look here for the house and here for the senate. If you would rather send letters to the local office, you can google your representatives’ names to find out local addresses. Don’t forget the importance of writing to your state and local representatives. Open States allows you to look up your state representatives and legislation.

It can be hard to know exactly what to write when there is so much to say. This chapter of The Community Toolbox from the University of Kansas includes detailed instructions on how to write your representatives along with a variety of online resources and examples.

Write Letters to the Editor
Submit letters to the editor (LTEs) of your local paper for the issues you care about. LTE’s help maintain discussion and prevent important issues from falling off the radar. This chapter of The Community Toolbox from the University of Kansas walks you through what to include in a LTE and even has a checklist and instructions on how to throw a letter writing party with a small group of friends.

Donate
Not everyone has the means, but if you can afford it, consider donating to the causes and organization that mean the most to you. In addition to large organizations, consider smaller organizations who are on the ground doing grassroots organizing. To find grassroots groups, try checking to see if your state has an organization that is a partner of The Center For Popular Democracy.

Giving money might seem like the easy way out, but these organization are not able to function without support from people like you. Given the challenges we are likely to face over the next 4 years, they will need your help more than ever.

Volunteer to help with tasks that are less people intensive
Organizations might need help with tasks that are less people intensive, like organizing the action or doing data entry. When making contact with organizations, you might consider letting them know that you are not able to participate in large actions, but would love to help in other ways. If you are not living with disability, but are involved with an organization that has volunteer opportunities, find ways to include people who might not be able to march or attend large events. You can also reach out if you know of opportunities that would be especially good for those who can’t attend direct actions.

Make Art/Buy Art
If you are artistically minded, there are several ways you can use this skill. Consider making protest signs that others can bring to protests. You could also create art specifically to sell in order to raise funds for the cause of your choice. If you are not a creator but an admirer, find an art fundraiser and support your favorite cause that way. Shing Yin Khor is one artist who is finding a place for art in the resistance.

Babysit
Do you know someone who want to participate in a rally or protest but can’t because they don’t have anyone to watch their kids? Consider donating your time to watch the kids while they attend a rally or march.

Provide snacks and/or meals for protesters
Connect with a local organization to provide food for protesters. If you are a cook, maybe you could prepare a pre or post-event meal for them. Even if you don’t cook, consider providing them with pizza and/or snacks. If you don’t have a connection to an organization, but have friends who are attending an event, make care packages for them with extra snacks that they can give away to others.

Amplify the protests
Just because you can’t attend protests, doesn’t mean you can’t help it be successful by amplifying its reach on social media and through word of mouth. Use the power of social media by tweeting, posting, or instagramming pictures from your friends at the rally. You can also boost the signal by sharing information about which representatives are on the fence about issues and might need an extra round of calls and letters. Tag friends from other states, if you know their representative needs action.

Read a book
Educate yourself about resistance movements. In the resources section of this document you will find some great guides that provide reading lists and starting points for getting involved in the revolution. If there is a book you want to read, don’t forget to check your local library first. (And don’t forget that many libraries offer e-books that you can check out from home)

Have conversations with people you feel comfortable talking to
If you have a good relationship with your family, consider letting them know why these issues are important to you. This is a great way to get more comfortable talking with others about the issues. As we’ve become more divided it’s become harder to have civil conversations. Because of that, it can be easier to practice these conversations with the people we care about.

Plan a Disability March
There was an online disability march held in solidarity with The Women’s March on Washington. Find information about it and how to plan your own disability march at the website.

Unplug from the news at least one hour a day
It can seem like your civic duty to constantly be monitoring the news in case something happens, but we are in a marathon not a sprint. Take the time to unplug and do the things you like to do when we aren’t under threat from political apocalypse. Take a walk, play a video game, or read a book (something cozy because you’re unplugging, remember?). If we are going to sustain momentum, self-care is both necessary and revolutionary.

Resources

Indivisible Guide
This guide was put together by former congressional staffers in order to make advocacy easier for folks to understand. Detailed instructions on how to make calls, write letters, and generally make your voice heard.

Libraries Resist
A toolkit put together by librarians. Of special note are the reading lists and syllabi if you are looking for something to read to prepare for the resistance

198 Methods of Nonviolent Action
A list of nonviolent actions. Some are more people intensive than others, but you might find it useful for inspiration beyond this document

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