Radical self-care for activists in the time of Trump

[Content notes: disordered eating, exercise]

Like many of you, I’m struggling to take care of myself in the aftermath of the 2016 U.S. election. My friends and I are having stomach pain, trouble sleeping, difficulty staying focused on work, and many more signs of fear and stress. To add to it, as activists many of us feel a sense of urgency and obligation to act now, to push ourselves to our limits in an attempt to avert the coming disaster. I find myself thinking irrational thoughts, like “Maybe I should start sleeping less so I can write more. Do I really need to keep doing my physical therapy? Why bother keeping tax records when I’m worried about mass deportations?” Then my rational mind points out that it’s hard to write if I’m tired, or in pain, or having my tax returns audited.

This post is a collection of tips and strategies for radical self-care in the time of Trump. It’s radical self-care because taking care of yourself is crucial to being able to resist fascism and injustice. But it’s also radical because the very act of self-care is a rejection of cruelty, injustice, and oppression. We are in the process of creating a world in which we recognize every individual’s right to love and care and respect; we must treat ourselves the way we want others to be treated if we are true to our beliefs.

This post starts out with general considerations and strategy, then gets into specific concrete recommendations you can do today. Some of the advice might accidentally trigger disordered thinking around food; we tried to write it in ways that avoid that, but if this is a concern for you, that section is last in this post and is prefaced by a separate trigger warning. If after you finish this post you’re looking for more self-care tips, try this interactive self-care guide. Thank you to the many people who contributed to this post, David Bacome, Kara Sowles, Molly Wilson, and several anonymous contributors.

General strategy and considerations

Stressful times can bring back old fractures – things like old mental habits you thought you fixed a long time ago, or disordered eating patterns you think you have recovered from. If you have these fractures, it helps to be vigilant for the signs of them coming back, and to take those signs seriously when they happen. Don’t be too hard on yourself for relapsing to old ways under stress, especially if excessive self-criticism is part of the old mental habits you are trying to get out of. The weird thing is that stress from external sources (such as an unjust and terrifying political climate) can be a motivation to get better and to work hard on your self-care. If it helps motivate you, you can tell yourself you need to take good care of yourself so that you can help others. (It happens to be true, too!)

Many of us feel a tension between self-care and activism. Many forms of activism are costly and difficult for some people (e.g., joining in-person protests that could result in violence, or simply making phone calls when you have social anxiety). Situations of fear and urgency about societal-scale problems may activate a pattern of martyr-type thinking that goes something like this: “If I make this huge self-sacrifice and harm myself deeply, the universe will notice and be fair and reward me by fixing the bad thing.” Unfortunately, this rarely works out in the way we hope, and the end result is too often only self-harm and a reduced ability to work for good in the future.

One way out of this trap is to make a conscious search for the kind of activism that works best for you. Here are some starting ideas: engaging political representatives, joining political parties, participating in street protests, joining or forming local organisations, donating money, amplifying news, correcting misinformation, writing, educating family and friends, beginning or continuing an activist career, reaching out to groups targeted by hate, connecting folks in need with resources (like lawyers or funds for documents or hotlines), and providing background support to other people doing these things.

Try a few different things and pay attention to which forms of activism you believe are effective, and which of the possibly effective things energise and nourish you, as those will be sustainable. Don’t worry about who will do the things that you don’t like; for example, if you are terrified of public speaking, remember that more people want to speak in front of a huge audience than there are audiences who want to listen to them. Or if crowds make you anxious and fearful, don’t join the street protest – plenty of other people feel comforted and happy in a crowd.

In a tough time or an emergency, you may not limit yourself only to sustainable forms of actvism, but you can at least pay attention to what they are for the longer term. Try to avoid criticizing others for choosing different forms of activism, unless the actions they are taking are actively harmful to the overall cause (such as the safety pin movement) or if they are seriously diverting energy and resources away from crucial goals. Diversity of tactics – both in its scholarly sense and in the general sense of many people doing many different things – is key to any successful social movement.

One of the major challenges to self-care is when you are caring for others who are dependent on you: children, or disabled family members, or other folks who depend on you. Carers need to take care of themselves if they want to continue caring for others over the long term, but often the needs of those we are caring for don’t change during times of stress for the carer.

When time and energy is tight, as in a time of crisis, it helps to think explicitly about what non-self care things you can stop doing, and where you can get more help or resources with caring for others. Society has trained us to go straight to self-sacrifice as a solution, especially for carers. Instead, explore a broader array of solutions: are there things you can stop doing without harming yourself? Maybe now is the time to call in the favors you’ve been saving up for when you need them. Are there creative ways to pool time and energy and resources? Fear is the enemy of creativity, and creativity is key to problem-solving. Don’t let your fear lock you into a sub-optimal solution.

Physical health

If you suspect you might have something physically wrong and untreated that’s making you feel bad, take this time of great stress as extra motivation to go to a doctor and work with them on it. Small health annoyances can become big life problems under conditions of stress, so caring for your health should become more of a priority, rather than less. Pay attention to what your body is telling you and don’t ignore important signs because you’re too worried about world events.

Some health problems are not obvious. For example, it’s not uncommon for people to be low in vitamin D without knowing it, which can contribute to feelings of inertia and decision paralysis. If you might be low in vitamin D, B12, iron, or other vitamins and minerals, you can ask a medical professional for a blood test to check. Deficiencies can contribute to mental health difficulties, and they can be relatively simple to improve with food and supplements. (Note: vitamin D, like many other supplements, can be harmful to people with certain rare medical conditions – be thoughtful, do your research, and talk to a medical professional before trying any medical advice.)

For many people, regular physical activity is crucial to health and happiness – and it’s even more important during times of stress. Physical activity can be a good way to reconnect with your body, especially if stress weakens that connection for you. The right activity can also help you reduce stress and anxiety getting in the way of caring for yourself and taking action. Whatever your preferred physical activity is – walking, rock-climbing, deep breathing – keep making it a priority. Some ways you can do this is are: schedule a specific time each day for it, combine it with some other activity (grocery shopping, listening to podcasts, spending time with your family), make plans to do your activity with a friend, or make some kind of commitment (like paying for a nonrefundable class). When your body feels good, it’s easier to make good decisions, get important work done, and care for others.

If you use Twitter, following https://twitter.com/tinycarebot is a good way to get small reminders to check in with and care for your body throughout the day (or for a funny approach, try https://twitter.com/hydratebot). Tons of apps are out there to remind you to stand up, take deep breaths, drink water, stretch, or whatever works for you.

For many people, some kind of physical self-care that resembles grooming is really helpful. This might look like getting a massage, taking a long bath, getting a pedicure, doing your makeup, shaving or clipping a beard, going to the sauna, showering more often than usual, using pretty-smelling bath products, applying lotion, or anything else in that realm. Try not to let yourself feel guilty for doing these things – if they make you feel good and they don’t take an enormous amount of time and energy, it’s worth it. Small acts of self-care can often have outsize returns.

Mental health

One of my irrational thoughts was “I should stop seeing my therapist so often, my mental health isn’t a high priority any more.” This is like saying, “I’m going on a month-long road trip driving through snow and mountains and sand, I should skip oil changes and ignore any engine warning lights during that trip.” Hopefully this sounds ridiculous!

If you are already seeing a therapist or mental health counselor of some kind, keep going to them. Tell them what you are feeling and ask for help with coping with stress and fear and anxiety. If you used to go to a therapist but stopped, consider restarting therapy with them. If you’ve been meaning to start therapy but never got around to it, now is a fantastic time to start. If your therapist isn’t helping, consider finding a new therapist. Here are some tips on finding therapists, figuring out how to afford therapy, and managing your relationship with your therapist.

You might also try a cognitive behavioral therapy app (like Moodnotes), an anxiety management app (like SAM), or a meditation app (like Headspace or Insight Timer).

Art is an important way of making sense of the incomprehensible, and of communicating it with others. If you have a creative practice of any kind, you may be surprised by the new meaning and value that it has for you in an uncertain and complicated world; creativity has a way of being both escape and engagement at the same time. You might try revisiting arts you left behind, or assigning yourself a creative routine. That said, don’t punish yourself if you don’t feel like doing anything creative right now.

One simple but highly recommended method is to stop and be aware of what is happening right now, right here, in this exact moment. Don’t think about the future, or things that aren’t right there, just use your senses to fully perceive what is around you for 10 seconds, or 30 seconds, or longer if you are practiced at it. You should feel calmer and more relaxed at the end of this exercise; if not, don’t do it.

Keeping lists of things to do or that you have done may be helpful to ground yourself in reality instead of anxiety. For example, you might start keeping a personal list of what you’ve done to fight oppression. The feeling of “we’re not doing enough” probably won’t go away as long as the problem is still there, but keeping a list, and the act of updating it with each action, can help some people remember they’re taking what concrete steps they can – and can help distract from the feeling of overwhelming powerlessness. If keeping lists makes you stressed and anxious, don’t do it.

Social self-care

Different people react to stress in different ways. Sometimes we reach out to friends and loved ones and strengthen our support system. Sometimes we isolate ourselves and withdraw from our support system. Often isolating ourselves seems like the solution when really it just makes the problem worse. People mistakenly isolate themselves when they are in need for many reasons. One is the idea that you are the source of the problem, and you are hurting other people by bringing the problem to them. Another reason is overemphasis on self-reliance and independence, leading to the idea that asking for help or support is shameful and weak. Whatever the reason, times of stress are often a good time to reach out to your friends and loved ones more, not less.

In this case, many of your friends and loved ones are under stress as well and would welcome hearing from you. Pick which of these things you are most comfortable doing and do one or two per day: texting a friend, emailing a friend, calling a friend, inviting a friend to coffee, inviting a friend to your house, organizing a dinner with friends, organizing a party, offering to help someone else organize a meetup, or saying yes to an invitation you receive.

One thing that can help reduce stress around being around other people is to set some kind of structure around what you talk about or for how long. For example, you can suggest taking a walk for one hour and and agree to talk about politics only during the last 15 minutes. Or you can have a dinner and say that no one can argue about the history of fascism, only share information about what actions they are taking now.

Situational awareness

While for many people at this time it is crucial to keep up with the news for safety reasons, this doesn’t have to mean reading the news at all time. For some, self-care means choosing to catch up on news and politics only during certain times – say, for an hour a day. This can enable you to prepare yourself before you learn about the news, and take care of yourself afterwards. For example, if you use Twitter, you might filter news about the election out of your Twitter stream for most of the day, and then turn that filter off during the set time in which you catch up on that topic. It’s not a perfect system, but it can enable you to skim past that crucial news article when you’re not in the right place for it — knowing you’ll be returning for it the next day. Or you could use a bookmarking service like Pinboard to collect links about upsetting topics to read during the 20 minutes you catch up on the news. Google Alerts are a good way to get a once a day roundup of news stories with certain keywords emailed to you.

You can also ask a trusted person to keep an eye on the news for you. You might ask them to tell you if anything happens that you need to know about – any major events, or anything that’s directly relevant to your safety.

Food stuff

[TRIGGER WARNING: Food-related advice below]

If you are reacting to stress by losing your appetite, it’s a good idea not to skip meals entirely. You don’t have to eat as much as you usually do – set some kind of achievable goal (like “half this bagel” or “one apple”) and let yourself stop after that. Look for tasty, nutrient dense foods that are easy to eat and make your stomach feel calm – this might look like smoothies, nuts or nut butters, hard-boiled eggs, bacon, chocolate, cheese, coconut, avocados, dried fruit, broth, etc. Keep easy to eat, easy to prepare foods around and available so you can take advantage of the times when you are hungry.

If you’ve internalized a lot of training (including training yourself) to only eat the “right” healthy foods, this can be unhelpful at times when you’ve lost your appetite and are low on calories (and possibly low on blood sugar). Eating a bit of anything that seems appealing to you (even if you ordinarily consider it not your preferred food to eat frequently or over the long-term) can help you bootstrap yourself back to your preferred eating style. This might not work for you depending on your eating habits, but in general this is a good time to be kind and forgiving of yourself.

If grocery shopping is overwhelming, consider a grocery delivery option. Consider stocking your freezer with appealing, easily-microwaved frozen foods, for times when it’s important to eat, but you don’t want to cook, order or shop. For example, supermarkets carry frozen vegetables that you can steam, in the bag, in the microwave. Trader Joe’s, if there’s one near you, is a haven of frozen, microwavable treats. If it helps, you can stock your freezer like you’re setting in for a long winter – so you know you’ll always have something to eat on hand.

Hopefully this gives you some more ideas for how to practice self-care during the months and years ahead. We’re in this for the long-term – learning to take care of yourself now will pay back today and for years to come.