Updated: Jan 14, 2021
You are an environmental justice warrior, a leader, an advocate. You work tirelessly to educate yourself and others on the climate crisis, coordinate activism efforts, and advance environmentally responsible policies. When you look in the mirror, is this what you see?
If you feel discouraged, frustrated and fearful about the climate crisis and our response to it, you’re not alone. A 2018 Yale University report suggested 60% of Americans are “worried” and 21% are “very worried” about global warming, while 45% report feeling helpless. Other common (>35%) emotions reported include anger, fear, outrage, and disgust…. with good reason! Climate change is the “biggest global health threat of the 21st century” (U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2016). It’s understandable that you feel this way. Famed psychologist Abraham Maslow posited that humans have a hierarchy of needs, with physiological needs like breathing, food and water at the very base of the pyramid. Only after satisfying physiological needs and safety needs (like adequate shelter) can we start worrying about achieving goals related to love and belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization. The climate crisis threatens us all the way to the bottom of the pyramid, from air pollution and contaminated water, to increased extreme weather events that destroy thousands of homes.
It is good, right and necessary to take action to solve this urgent issue. But it’s equally important to maintain our own physical and emotional wellness so that we can sustain our efforts long-term. Environmental activists must work hard to contribute to solutions, while also maintaining healthy boundaries and making space for rest and rejuvenation. If self-care is neglected, you may be at risk for burnout, “a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity” (Mayo Clinic, 2020, p.1). Environmental activists often identify with some warning signs of future burnout, such as feeling overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem, getting frustrated by the pace of process, lacking resources to achieve their goals, or taking on many hours of volunteering in addition to significant work or family responsibilities. Your body, mind and spirit should be renewable resources, too. Think of self-care like the airplane safety demonstrations: you must put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.
Why? Because it’s hard to serve others when you are dead! Are you like a ray of sunshine, that may need to hide behind the clouds every now and then, but never runs out of energy, or coal whose energy gets all used up and can’t be replenished!
So, what does self-care look like, in practical terms? Here is an acronym I created (UP STREAM) to get you thinking about strategies that might work for you:
U- Understanding & self-compassion
Feeling tired or discouraged doesn’t make you weak, it makes you human. Be kind to yourself and others.
P- Participate in the solution
Taking action and taking care of yourself are not mutually exclusive; you can and should do both! Self-care is not an excuse to bury your head in the sand and never act, nor is working hard to solve the climate crisis an excuse to totally neglect your own needs.
Avoid cognitive distortions that might lead to you feel overly negative or critical of yourself and others
T- Thankful thoughts
Numerous studies have shown the benefits of developing an attitude of gratitude. Celebrate the little victories in your climate activism and be intentional about recognizing all the good things in your life.
R- Reduce isolation
Experts say that the number one factor that impacts a person’s happiness is the quality of their close personal relationships. Make relationships a priority and surround yourself with a network of like-minded activists who can inspire and encourage you when you are down.
Combat ecogrief and ecoanxiety by finding a mental health professional that can walk you through ecotherapy techniques such as forest bathing (Shinrin yoku) or nature-based mindfulness exercises.
A- Acts of self-care
Make time for activities that make you feel energized and happy. Common examples include exercising, taking a bath, journaling, playing a musical instrument, watching comedy, participating in a spiritual community, and spending time with friends or pets.
Mindfulness is the intentional, nonjudgmental attention to the present moment. When your climate worries threaten to take your mind on a runaway train ride of doom, gently bring your focus back to the here and now. Meditating has been shown to be very effective in reducing stress.
I challenge you to make self-care a priority this week, and I will see you on our shared journey UP STREAM!
Visit the Chapter's Working Group: Self-Care for Activists
Karen Magruder, LCSW
Membership chair, Climate Reality Project DFW Chapter