Mental Hygiene for Woke People: Tips for the Anxious or Depressed
I am a major politics junkie, which is an unsettling occupation even under the best of circumstances. My fascination with politics only slightly outstrips my distaste for Mr. Trump, who hit the ground running on dismantling environmental protections, excluding Muslims and Mexicans, and gradually restricting a woman’s right to choose. I also have a history of suffering from depression and anxiety and have been unusually prone to those emotions. There is a silver lining to this — I have learned some techniques that enable me to stay political yet keep my calm. Right now, it’s honestly difficult to know which direction to address one’s outrage. These are trying times, and like Londoners during the Blitz, those who want to survive and possibly prevail are going to need to adopt mental hygiene practices to forestall giving in to despair.
Watch How you Get your News and How Much
How much and what kind of news we consume is a critical issue. In terms of intensity, television news is definitely the most visceral, including both sound and visuals. This may not pose a problem for many, but for people with anxiety disorders or those who identify as highly sensitive may find this medium overwhelming, especially in large doses. Simply stated, watching a lot of television news can be harmful to one’s mental health. Graham C. L. Davey’s 1997 study illustrated that people who watched negative news stories felt a significant increase in their levels of anxiety. He also found that people exposed to negative television news were more likely to focus on personal worries that weren’t even related to the stories they saw. In short, too much TV news will bum you out.
Social Media, can be iffy. It’s appealingly convenient, and a person can operate a fair degree of control over what he or she will see on his or her feed. Be wary of subscribing to too many political pages, as they will crowd out pictures of your nieces and nephews, your aunt’s garden, and other posts that foster social connection. The danger of Facebook and Twitter is being barraged with alarming click bait, and the additional stress of not knowing if one’s sources are actually legitimate. I think the key is moderation. In all news gathering forays, pay attention to your gut — if it’s twisted with impotent rage, it’s time to take a break and look at some flowers or puppies. A less intense alternative is radio news. I find NPR informative yet soothing, and can withstand obtaining my news delivered in dulcet tones. It also has the added benefit of being conducive to multitasking — one can listen to it while driving or doing housework. A study in Britain indicated that listening to the radio made people happier and more energetic when compared with similar times spent surfing the web or watching TV.
For high quality, lower stress news, reputable print journalism is a person’s best choice. The Washington Post, The New York Times, Reuters, The Associated Press, as well as British news sources such as The Guardian and the BBC tend to steer away from histrionic presentation and cover a wider range of stories. Reading is quiet, and it allows a person to dictate the pace of their own exposure to the greatest extent of all media. A good way to tone up your social media feeds is to subscribe to some of these news outlets and discipline yourself to turn away from shrill talking heads and just read your news.
How much time spent exposing oneself to current events is another factor in preserving mental resilience. This is an individual variable, and so the wisest way to determine how much is too much is to pay attention to your own levels of distress. Find a pattern and decide on a time limit for yourself if you have difficulty keeping your phone off the latest updates. Find a personal detox to help you recenter when you feel overwhelmed. Yoga, refocusing on positive images and events, journaling about gratitude, or engaging in a different hobby for awhile are all effective ways to reset and regroove.
Pick your Battles, but Do Something
I’ve never lived in a time when there was such a varied barrage of outrages. That in and of itself tends to send the thoughtful activist into a spin — too many directions to know how to choose where to put one’s energy. Too many options make your outrage ducts dry out and are conducive to burnout and despair. Here’s an easy three rule metric to help — pick what’s close to your heart, pick what’s timely, pick what’s doable.
We’ve been instructed to pick our work based on our passions, and this advice works even better for picking what causes we want to give our support. Generally we choose what interests us or affects those who we identify with or care about. One method is to pare down on what you choose to take action on — pick something close to your heart and something universal like Climate Change. However; this isn’t the only way to make activism part of your life while simultaneously keeping it healthy. You may prefer to pick what’s timely and pick what’s doable.
The time to act is when something specific you object to is happening. At time of writing, Trump’s cabinet picks are being vetted by the Senate. Most of Trump’s nominees are questionable at best, so now would be a good time to call or email senators and let them know of your displeasure. One resource I use is an activism cheat sheet produced by Jennifer Hoffmann. In it she lists what’s coming up with instructions on who to call and what to say. It’s an amazing resource. So rather than limit your activism interests, another option is to use Hoffman’s list or something similar to figure out a weekly plan of attack.
This is where the “doable” part comes in. Perhaps you can’t make it to a march, but you can make one phone call three days in a week. That is huge and it counts. Sending an email may not have as much impact as a phone call, but it still makes an impact. Even the much maligned slacktivism of social media honestly counts. Many deride merely reposting articles and sounding off online, but these actions do help shape the public narrative and embolden others to speak out. That said, focus on the “do” of doable. Find what you’re comfortable doing and if it’s only limited to online discussion, try to stretch yourself to something a little higher impact — perhaps an email to your legislator. What is key is finding a sweet spot of activism where you’re taking meaningful action that is personally sustainable. What’s critical is that you feel that your actions are making a difference, that you’re doing something, that you feel that you are using your personal power to help shape society in a positive way.
Get Right With Head
Now might be a good time to take a page from Buddhism, a philosophy mainly focused on learning to avoid suffering. According to adherents of the faith, you can experience negative emotions without suffering with some practice. Buddhists also put a lot of focus on self-love and self-compassion, two skills that are extremely helpful for optimum health and activity. The focus on compassion for others can also come in handy in keeping political conflicts from becoming too destructive. Buddhism provides many practices that are oriented towards developing mindfulness and compassion in oneself.
I’m not suggesting that anyone needs to “convert” to Buddhism — but for those particularly troubled by the havoc Mr. Trump is wreaking, Vipassana or mindfulness meditation might be especially helpful. Vipassana is very simple; you merely focus your attention on your breathing. The point of the exercise is that your mind will wander — whenever you notice that you’ve lost your attention on the breath, you just turn your attention back on it. There are many excellent websites and books on Vipassana meditation, but the reason I’m an advocate of it, is that it will help you detach from your fear, anxiety, and anger. What happens when you meditate is you really see and feel what thoughts cause your negative feelings. You learn to observe them without being enmeshed in them. Start at 15 minutes a day and try working up to a half hour over a series of a few weeks. This practice will help you feel more calm and less distressed without robbing you of your desire to be active about the issues that call your name.
Self-compassion is a handy concept for the activist. It’s easy to feel bad that you aren’t doing enough, or can’t do enough. Sometimes would-be activists are shamed by naughty leftists who give off the vibe that they own “woke.” That is absurd. There’s no room for perfectionism in activism. And a person can’t continue with activism if it becomes yet another unreachable aspirational goal. Be kind to yourself, and remember that you have to take care of yourself and those who rely on you first. Everyday life interferes. That is natural and ok; be kind and patient with yourself over what you can give and how you feel.
Join a Network of Like-Minded People
I have to be honest, I’m a lazy introvert, which is part of why I’m a big fan of phone calls and emails to legislators. But if you find that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, having like-minded friends is amazing for accountability. During Obama’s first administration, my friend showed up at my doorstep and made sure I was up and out for canvassing. I found another group through Meetup with whom I volunteered at a soup kitchen. This works to keep you motivated for many reasons. I showed up because I wanted to see my new friends; usually there was a guy I was interested in, and I was also worried about social judgement. Friendship, lust, or shame — it doesn’t matter what motivates you, as long as you show up. Making yourself accountable to others combined with the fun of hanging out with people you like makes it far more likely that you’ll stay active and stay the course.
Remember, this is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s important to pace yourself so that you don’t burn out. The race does not go to the swift, but to the steady. Decide how much time and attention you can spend, and recognize that America is now a big dysfunctional family with a leader who lies regularly and uses gaslighting as a political tool. This is extraordinary, and requires that we who oppose it take a very intentional approach to protest so that we can preserve our own sanity in the process. With a little skill it’s possible to raise hell without burning yourself up.