I often talk with social justice activists who feel overwhelmed. They try to feel excited at the possibilities, but find themselves crumbling to a halt, depressed, restless and at times feeling hopeless.
Some of us feel on edge, overly anxious and quick to anger. Our eating habits might be irregular — eating too little or too much. We can’t sleep or we can’t stop sleeping. What’s going on?
We may be suffering from a form of Post Traumatic Stress Reaction also known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Many social justice activists have seen things a person should never have to see. We may experience first hand or through videos and extensive reading the images of war, famine, violent attacks, death and atrocities to people, to the planet and to helpless animals.
These images become burned in our minds and can haunt us in our nightmares and in daytime flashbacks.
Some sufferers of PTSD overcome their symptoms/reactions within months of experiencing the trauma. But what about those of us who by the very nature of our work continue to put ourselves in the middle of the horror? What will happen to us when we continue to see and deal with these horrors day in and day out for years?
These very real and lucid memories can be emotionally crippling and result in a host of reactions in our attempt to manage the pain. We can be blind-sided by depression, anxiety, anger, sleeplessness, nightmares, memory loss, restlessness, jumpiness, fear and amplified emotions. And some of us may try to cope in unhealthy ways.
One of the more disturbing and harmful coping mechanisms can be a form of avoidance. The intrusive thoughts and resulting depression, anxiety and/or anger become so distressing that we try to avoid contact with everything and everyone who might trigger the ill feeling. We may withdraw from our activist friends, we may get less involved, we may threaten and destroy relationships all in an unconscious and sometimes conscious attempt to end the pain.
What can we do?
- First, recognize the symptoms in yourself and in your friends and fellow social justice activists. Be supportive of yourself and of each other.
- Know that your reactions are not at all abnormal. Caring people have open hearts and open minds — those open hearts and open minds can be easily hurt. The very definition of compassion means “to suffer with.”
- Seek the help of a counselor, a healthcare professional, a spiritual advisor, a mentor, a family member, a close friend and/or a support group of your fellow activists.
- Take time to look at the sky, to meditate, to breathe, to laugh, to find the joy in life.
- Turn off your television and tune out the violence. Much of the media is designed to keep the public hyper-aroused, anxious and consuming. Tune out the violence and make room for Nonviolence.
- “Shut off” with your friends. You may have friends that deal with the same tough issues. When you’re together recognize that together you already “get it.” You don’t have to convince each other of anything. Help each other find the positive, look for the good, get creative and build on the joy of having a friend who understands.
- Read a good book. Listen to music. Take a walk.
And, maybe most importantly, recognize that you have awakened. You are doing your best to no longer be a part of the cycle of pain. You are part of what is right in this world. Join with others in that joyful awakening and invite others to join us not in painful awareness, but in joyful activism — knowing that from this day forward we are going to make the world a better place for all.
Consider visiting the PTSD link at Activist-Trauma.net.