By Stacia M. Fleegal
I’m going to attempt to coin a phrase here: active self-care.
If you’re like me, you are deeply unsettled, if not outright horrified and afraid, about America’s political climate. If you’re like me, you want to help; but in the face of such relentless and pervasive ignorance, have wondered, how can we take care of ourselves and our children and take care of the world at the same time?
Howard Zinn said “you can’t be neutral on a moving train“. That’s what our world is—a moving train. That’s what anxiety is—a loop of worry and fear that moves faster and faster so we feel like we can’t get off, can’t escape.
Imagine the current world as an anxiety loop. We are stuck in a pattern of anti-truth, anti-knowledge, anti-intellectualism, victim-blaming and unfounded hate based on our differences both real and perceived, willful ignorance of our likenesses, and fear fear fear of the unknown and unrealized. The hate and fear pick up speed. We can’t get off, even those of us who don’t (want to) hate and fear.
So what do we do when we feel overwhelmed?
Self-care helps us slow the train; self-care is about breaking out of the loop, so we fall back on our tried and true self-care techniques when we feel stressed. For me, those techniques include taking a walk, matching my breath and footfalls and allowing the rhythm of my thoughts to fall in step while doing the close noticing that makes me a better writer; yoga, because stretching my body distracts me from my contracting mind; coloring, drawing and doodling, sometimes with my non-dominant hand; dancing with my son to the playlist of happy songs I compiled for us; sipping peppermint tea, hot chocolate, or red wine and feeling the warmth move through my core and out to my limbs; baking or prepping fresh vegetables for future meals; and re-organizing my space(s).
My self-care, I realized during a particularly intense bout of post-election anxiety, is all about doing.
Self-care, and the ability to practice it, is different for everyone. My self-care is visceral and active. It’s about moving my body and doing something with my hands. On the most fundamental level, my self-care is about breaking the pattern of my emotional overwhelm and reminding me of my agency and locus of control as I ground myself in the present (instead of reliving the past and/or worrying about the future) and return to a stable mental place—not so I can check out and relax, but so I can be productive again.
Once I made the connection between the loop of my personal anxiety and the loop of society’s regression, it was easy to then connect my feelings of impotent despair (a huge anxiety trigger) to the notion that doing something is healing, that activism can be a kind of self-care; a balm against the helplessness that contributes to a lack of self-worth, the shame spiral, the inner critical voices, and oh look, back on the train again.
Life and creativity coach Liz Connors runs a site called Soul Warriors and is offering a 24-page self-care guide, available for free download if you provide your email address to receive her site updates. I found Soul Warriors via Connors’ self-care chart on Pinterest. Connors breaks down self-care practices into six categories: physical, emotional, mental, social, practical, and spiritual. When I pinned this chart months ago, I resolved to try to do one thing in each category every day. Taking care of self? Check.
But what about taking care of the world? I reached out to Connors via email and she offered more wisdom:
“It is tempting to sink into a place of despair and feel like the world’s problems are too big for any of us to make a difference…I believe that many of us—especially those of us who have been through trauma and recovery—can get caught in a freeze response when facing something like this election. Combining self-care with small, manageable acts of activism can move us out of that freeze response and back into a place of creative action…By combining self-care with activism, we can take needed action with a calm and peaceful heart.”
In the context of activism, I am reconsidering many of Connors’ suggested practices:
- “Take a walk around the block” with a group of likeminded people holding signs with political and/or social justice messages. In other words, go to demonstrations, gatherings, protests, marches, and so on. Be a warm body on the front line. On Saturday, the Women’s March in D.C. and around the country brought 3 million feminists out into the streets, and tens of thousands around the world joined them. I was in D.C., and I still haven’t fully processed what being part of the largest protest in American history means. But I know part of it means we have enormous numbers of smart, passionate, hopeful people willing to do something—and who know that the doing is far from done.
- “Get up and stretch” or “Play your favorite song and dance” as part of a public awareness campaign. A few people dancing in a public space with a sign or some fliers is a fun and non-antagonizing way to spread a message. Or, if you’re around people who are having a hard time, spontaneously declare a 5- or 10-minute dance party to lift spirits.
Social active(ist) self-care
- “Write a thank you note to” or “Write a letter to” or “Call” another activist, politician, or citizen who is doing good work, and ask what you can do to help. Write letters and place calls to representatives about stances and legislation with which you disagree, too.
- “Check in on social media” and with those working toward social justice. Checking in is a loving act. A big part of this work is and must be to understand more about the challenges faced by people whose experiences are different than our own. If you’re bringing your voice to the resistance, bring your ears and your heart, too. Listen to, feel for, those who have less and have been fighting longer. Allow this knowledge to impact your doing.
- “Suggest a gathering,” “Set up a date,” or “Host a party” for a good cause. It could be just to raise awareness, or it could be a fundraiser, or a political poetry reading, or a planning meeting for future action. Social media and the internet are great tools of connection, but I’ve found it very empowering to commune with people who are local. It makes me step out of my introvert comfort zone, and comforts me to know that I am not alone in my community.
Emotional active(ist) self-care
- “Let yourself feel fully for 90 seconds” and then ask yourself what you can do to help whomever and whatever it is you’re feeling for, and do it.
- “Write in a journal” about goals you have for action, and how you might achieve them. Keep track of your efforts and their outcomes, for motivation.
- “Create art to express emotion” and share it on your blog, website, or social media channels, along with what prompted you to create it.
- “Help someone in need.” Yes.
Practical active(ist) self-care
- “Embrace systems whenever possible” unless they are oppressive. Not really a tip, but I couldn’t help myself. Devote energy to dismantling systems that don’t serve you and the people you want to help.
- “Designate a grocery run time weekly” and drop off a few nonperishable items at a food bank, domestic violence shelter, nonprofit HQ, or organization you know to be struggling for resources.
- “Learn about budgeting” and “Learn about investing” and apply your skills in volunteer service with an organization you care about. Nonprofits and grassroots organizations struggle for every dime.
Mental active(ist) self-care
- “Explore a new language” and use it to communicate with people outside your typical sphere. Listen as much as you speak.
- “Read an interesting article” and share it with others. Read articles others recommend.
- “Enroll in a local class” or activist group.
Spiritual active(ist) self-care
- “Read inspirational work” and share it with others.
- “Volunteer in your community.” Yes.
- “Try chanting” “This is what democracy looks like!”
- “Eat lunch outside on the grass” and make that lunch entirely from locally sourced food. Support local farmers, farmers’ markets, and small businesses with the knowledge that you are making better the lives of those in close proximity to you, and strengthening your connection to the earth in the process.
It makes perfect sense to me that doing for others increases both our and their sense of value and worth, and that becoming more engaged and active in social justice work can counterbalance the deflated, defeated attitude that contributes to anxiety, panic, and stress.
We can, we must, do better to feel better.
Stacia M. Fleegal is the author of two full-length and three chapbook poetry collections, most recently antidote (Winged City Press 2013). Her poems have appeared in North American Review, Fourth River, Barn Owl Review, UCity Review, decomP’s Best of 10 Years anthology, Crab Creek Review, Knockout, Best of the Net 2011, and more. Her essays have appeared at Open Thought Vortex, Quaint Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine and Delirious Hem. She co-founded Blood Lotus, teaches online writing courses for the Elizabeth Ayres Center for Creative Writing, works for the Peace & Conflict Studies department of a private liberal arts college in central PA, and serves on the board of her local domestic violence survivor advocacy organization. She’s @shapeshifter43 on Twitter and blogs at anotherwritingmom.wordpress.com.