By Kitty Jones, VRG Intern
First of all, you deserve serious props for everything you do and have done for the vegan and vegetarian movement. Being veg in and of itself is a marvelous achievement. Nevertheless, perhaps now more than ever, there are so many causes and issues worth fighting for around the world. There are also countless actions you can take and decisions for you to make to address these issues. The vegan movement ties in not only animal cruelty issues, but also human health problems and environmental degradation. Being an activist opens you up to all kinds of new information, a lot of which is negative and can be completely overwhelming at times. However, keep in mind that you are a single individual and can only do so much; yet you can do something and make a significant difference in the world. Maintaining your optimism and emotional health is very important if you’re going to be an effective, long-term activist. Luckily there are many ways to avoid burning out.
Burnout refers to when an activist is overwhelmed with stress or feels unable to deal with the challenges or workload of being an activist. People may feel more irritable and cynical or depressed and simply exhausted, or have other painful emotions that hinder their effectiveness as activists. Some people do not fully realize that they are burning out and how much it is affecting them emotionally or physically. If you know of someone who may not be handling their stress very well, perhaps you can offer them help and some advice. There is a lot to deal with, even on a daily basis being an activist; burnout is hardly the individual’s fault. I know that I sometimes feel defeated and disheartened by simply checking my e-mails from various animal rights, human rights, and environmental protection groups each day.
In order to overcome and proactively prevent burning out, you will need techniques to manage stress and healthy coping mechanisms. One of the best things I can recommend is exercise. Exercising, whether it’s running, walking a dog, hiking in the woods, or going to the gym, boosts your brain’s production of feel-good neurotransmitters (called endorphins) and has been proven to reduce feelings of depression. In addition, exercising is a form of meditation in that the concentration on movement helps you forget your day’s tensions. People literally feel happier and often more self-confident when they exercise.
Exercise has helped me personally. I experienced a deep depression early on in my activism. I refused to allow myself to relax, watch a movie, play a game, or do any other activity that I felt was a waste of time because it wasn’t helping the world. I didn’t stop my activism, but I was being completely overwhelmed by all the torture animals endure, all the rainforests being clear-cut, and all the people in sweatshops. I was developing very harmful coping mechanisms until I tried running. A few summers ago, after volunteering with the Humane League on Warped Tour I went for an hour-long jog and I found it to be very relaxing and helpful for me. I now literally jog everyday and it alleviates a lot of my stress. I realize exercise isn’t everyone’s bag, so here are some other ideas.
Taking care of your body can do wonders for your emotional health, which is why eating healthier is also beneficial. Although a vegan or vegetarian diet is usually healthier than the average American’s, there are probably some foods you could add to or remove from your diet that would make you feel healthier and happier. Try to reduce your consumption of junk foods that are high in sugar, salt, and fats. You’ve heard it a million times; but you can’t have too many raw fruits and vegetables as well as whole grains like brown rice and quinoa.
Getting good sleep is crucial to your overall health. There is a biochemical connection between sleep and stress. Lack of sleep puts extra stress on your body, increasing the levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Most people need seven to nine hours of sleep, so try to be within that range.
Socializing is a vital part of a one’s psychological wellbeing. Spend some time with your friends, just “hanging-out” and do things not related to activism such as cooking and watching movies (comedies are best; the more you laugh, the better). Or if you want to do activist-type things together try to make them fun and enjoyable. Many activists tend to surround themselves with like-minded activists. Being with other activists is wonderful and can build up your morale for the cause, provide much-needed support and a sense of community. Some people, however, can marginalize themselves within a small activist community, isolated from other people who are not vegan or vegetarian. I would encourage activists to maintain friendships outside of the activist circle.
If you’re feeling burnt out and powerless, it can actually help to get more involved in the movement. Volunteer work, protests, vegan bake sale fundraisers, and other events give you a sense of accomplishment. Check out your local shelters, community gardens, bicycle co-ops, non-profits, or vegan advocacy groups. See what you can and want to do to help out. When I’m feeling stressed out I find it worthwhile to volunteer with Food Not Bombs or Action for Animals. I feel so satisfied that I’ve ‘done my part’ that I feel more relaxed.
Remember that you are not alone in your efforts and that you are helping to make the world a better place. There are other activists out there and we’re all doing the best we can, keeping in mind what we can handle. You cannot solve every problem and you’re not expected to. Relax, smile, laugh, eat some fresh fruit, and go for a walk! You’ve got this. You can do it.