To be an activist or advocate working to bring about positive social change in communities worldwide is to have one of the most rewarding jobs in the world as one is helping to usher in and build a kinder, more just and more equitable world for all. However, change is also difficult and slow to bring about, frequently requiring long hours at work, dealing with individuals and communities that are entrenched in their ways, and a long-term single-minded commitment to the cause. This makes social justice work daunting, stressful, exhausting and sometimes downright dangerous.
Activists and advocates working on women’s rights and issues face a particularly uphill battle due to a combination of job hazards: not only are women’s human rights activists and organisations some of the most severely underfunded in the world but female women’s human rights activists and advocates also frequently receive everything from death threats to rape threats as a routine job hazard. Some are murdered or raped in order to silence their changemaking efforts. For those who remain alive and fighting on, the potential for burnout is particularly high due to a combination of overwork, financial stress and constant harassment from the patriarchal establishment.
To counteract and stave off burnout while carrying on fighting the good fight, activists and advocates need to take care of themselves but many struggle to do so because of the overwhelming demands on their time and energy by the cause.
Nevertheless, self-care doesn’t have to be an insurmountable obstacle, nor does it require lots of time and money. In fact, one of the key ways to integrate self-care into your routine is to make it part of your daily rituals. So here are 16 ways you can care for yourself wherever you are, without disrupting your everyday life. This list is by no means comprehensive and not every suggestion may fit every activist or advocate, but we hope it’s a good starting point.
Introduction by Regina Yau; Written and compiled by Elizabeth DeHoff and Regina Yau
Part 1: Back To Basics
Self-Care Suggestion #1: Sleep Is Sacred
Countless studies have found that inadequate or poor sleep can throw everything else in your life off-kilter. One recent report indicated that even just 6 hours sleep is not enough. Try to stick to a regular bedtime and practice good sleep hygiene including making sure you have at least 30 minutes of quiet time to wind down before bedtime. Disengage your mind from work if you can. If you have a smartphone, tablet or laptop, banish screens from your sleeping area for at least an hour before you go to sleep – or use apps that gradually shift the light on your screens from blue (which keeps you awake) to orange (which signals your brain to slow down).
Self-Care Suggestion #2: Nourish Yourself
A big part of staying healthy while on the job is to eat as well as you are able to within your budget and circumstances. Eat fresh food and home-cooked meals whenever you can – learn the basics of cooking if you don’t already cook for yourself. Choose wisely if you have to eat out. And to keep your energy and concentration levels constant and optimal, try not to skip the main meals of the day. At the very least, take your lunch hour – both to have some food as well as some mid-day breathing space from work. Going on a diet? Make sure to get professional guidance from your doctor or dietitian to ensure that you’re getting the nourishment that you need.
Self-Care Suggestion #3: Bathe Your Cares Away
Whether you start or end your day with a shower or bath, you can integrate elements that soothe your senses: a fragrant soap, candles, a hair treatment, soothing music. If you’re going to be in the shower anyway, you might as well make it a pleasant experience. In the evenings, warm showers can also help with relaxation. In addition, regular baths help ensure your personal hygiene is on point and one less thing to stress about.
Self-Care Suggestion #4: Get Moving
You don’t have to run a marathon in order to benefit from exercise. Even as little as 10 minutes a day can boost your mood and improve your cardiovascular health. When you’re at work, take a break every hour to walk up and down a flight of stairs or walk briskly around the block. Ideally, you should aim for 45 to 90 minutes of physical activity per day, but you don’t have to do it all at once – it can be easier to approach if you break it up into smaller blocks. Even if you don’t have time for a full-on workout, you can set aside five or ten minutes to stretch every morning and evening. Your body will thank you! If you’re not sure how to get started, search YouTube or Vimeo for instructional videos.
Self-Care Suggestion #5: Get Out and About
Exposure to sunlight can boost your mood along with your Vitamin D levels. Try to get at least 10 minutes per day. Be sure to wear sunscreen and cover up, though – too much sun is the opposite of self-care! If you live in a place where you don’t get much sun, consider buying a SAD light, which mimics the positive effects of sun exposure indoors.
Take it a step further by searching for ways to connect with the natural world while getting your daily sunshine quota. Do you walk or bike to work? Detour through a park on your way. Do you spend most of your time at home? Cultivate a garden or even just a potted plant – any flower shop will be happy to sell you something low-maintenance if you have no talent for greenery.
Self-Care Suggestion #6: Get That Check-Up
Due to their hectic and overextended work schedules, one of the ways in which activists and advocates inadvertently slip up on their personal healthcare is to not go for their annual medical check-up. If you have done this in the past, try this: call your nearest clinic or general practice at the beginning of the year to set up an appointment for your annual check-up in January or February so you can get this done before the year gets underway and you get too busy. Alternatively, if you know your doctor well, ask them to send you a text message or email reminding you of your annual check-up. If you are a woman, remember to also schedule and attend an appointment to check your breasts and have a pap smear – it’s better to catch any health issues early.
With the lives of women and girls literally at stake, anti-violence against women activism is basically a round-the-clock job and many activists typically work a 7-day week, whether it’s helping women escape their abuser while he’s away one weekend, building a case against a rapist or handling intensive time-sensitive online petitions. Working non-stop for weeks or even months on end can result in burnout, so set aside one day a week to rest and recharge. If your schedule is irregular or includes shift or cyclical campaign work, make sure that you take at least a couple of days off per month. Set the date(s) then defend them from colleagues who ask to swap slots or any work matters that intrude on your time off.
Self-Care Suggestion #8: Curate Your Consumption
Today’s fast-paced hyperconnected social media-driven world is a double-edged sword. On one hand, social media provides opportunities for activists and advocates to campaign, educate, fundraise, and connect to the wider world at a keystroke. On the other hand, social media can batter everyone with a deluge horrible news, especially when high-profile VAW stories such as the Weinstein and Cosby cases or VAW-related hashtags such as #metoo and #notokay go viral. While it’s imperative for activists and advocates to stay aware of developments in order to respond accordingly, make sure you carve out some news-free time to avoid the information overload and unwarranted emotional and psychological stress from a negative news cycle. Curate what you watch for entertainment too – for example: if you work for rape crisis services, try to avoid watching movies and series or reading books where rape is featured as it may compound the secondary PTSD you face from work.
Part 2: Beyond The Basics
Self-Care Suggestion #9: Meditate (or Get Spiritual)
Meditation requires no special skills, and you can do it anywhere: at home, at work, on the bus or train, in bed. New to meditation? Free or low-cost apps and websites like Headspace can guide you through the basics. If you don’t fancy meditating but are religious, try dedicating even a few minutes a day to quiet prayer to clear your mind and focus your faith, especially when times are tough on the work front – regardless of your religion you will benefit from having a moment each day to just breathe and connect with your spiritual side.
Humans have used music as an emotional outlet or a way to regulate emotions for centuries. Make a playlist of music that soothes you, or look for mood-based playlists on services like Spotify or Pandora. And don’t be afraid to sing along if the urge hits you! If you do perform music, be it playing a musical instrument, singing, or even DJ-ing, be sure to work time into your weekly schedule to do so be it private violin practice time, singing with the local choir or DJ-ing at the local club.
Self-Care Suggestion #11: Get Artsy or Crafty
Creativity can be a satisfying outlet even if you aren’t particularly skilled. You don’t have to make a quilt or crochet a pair of socks – the main idea is to create something even if it’s small or flawed or simple. Ready to level up? Channel your emotions into your crafts by making a naughty cross-stitch or clever protest signs.
Not a fan of crafts? Then tap into your inner artist – write, sculpt, dance, paint. As with crafts, your art can act as an emotional safety valve that will help you express your stress, fear, sadness, and anger safely and effectively.
Self-Care Suggestion #12: Learn Something New
Take a few minutes each day to learn something new – your brain will be too busy processing the new information to dwell on things that are bothering you. Try an app like Duolingo, which will teach you a new language in a fun way, or take a free online course via Khan Academy.
Self-Care Suggestion #13: Animal Magnetism
Spend some time playing with a pet if you have one or watching cute animal videos if you don’t. Interacting with animals boosts the chemicals in your brain that trigger feelings of contentment. If you have some time to spare, see if your local animal shelter needs volunteers to take their dogs for walks! Bonus is that this ties in very neatly with Self-care Suggestion #4 and #5 to get enough exercise and to get fresh air and sunshine outdoors!
Do something fun for your appearance – whatever form that takes for you! Treat yourself to a haircut. Paint your toenails a funky color. Pick up some cheap yet chic lip gloss from the drugstore. Wear a skirt that makes you feel awesome about yourself (or your favorite pair of Doc Martens, or your sharpest suit, or your geekiest T-shirt). This isn’t about dressing up for other people – it’s all about YOU. Treat yourself!
Self-Care Suggestion #15: An Indulgent Cuppa
Sit down and enjoy your favorite drink. Coffee, tea, wine (in moderation) – any beverage that calms you can be turned into a ritual of enjoyment and luxury. Close your eyes and luxuriate in the taste, smell, texture and temperature. Enjoy something warm when the weather is chilly; indulge in a cool drink when it’s hot outside. If you’re feeling sociable, share the experience with a friend or your partner. Stopping for a relaxing cup of coffee or tea at some point during the day is also a way to mark a few minutes of time out from a hectic day.
Self-Care Suggestion #16: Small Random Acts of Kindness
Brighten up someone else’s day! Buy coffee for the person behind you in the queue, write a thank-you note to someone who inspires you, offer to watch a neighbor’s kids for a few hours so they can take a break – the goal is to do something nice for another person… within reason. Don’t martyr yourself. Kindness can be self-care as long as you set reasonable limits on it.
Most of all – be kind to yourself… because that is what self-care is all about.