As a person who feels my emotions deeply, caring about social issues can be a double-edged sword. Because I’ve dealt with struggles in my life, I feel an immediate empathetic connection to others who have faced oppression or discrimination beyond their control. However, as a person dealing with my own mental health and chronic illnesses, I also have to be careful to find the right balance, so I can continue to keep myself educated long-term without burning out.
I find it easy to get overwhelmed by all the issues that exist in our world today. Whether its racism, sexism, classism, ableism, or any of the many forms of discrimination, it’s easy to find countless examples in the news on a daily basis. At the same time, as our public understanding of these issues is ever-evolving, it takes some time and concerted effort to keep up to date. It gets my anxious mind racing on a regular basis.
Due to my chronic illness and neurodivergence, it can be tough at times to keep my life in order. Organisation, cleanliness and admin tasks have always been the bane of my existence and can be much more draining to complete than for the average person. There have been many days where I’ve had to choose between washing the dishes, brushing my teeth or putting away the clothes strewn all over my room. With these life circumstances, finding additional time and energy to read and research social justice issues doesn’t always make the list of priorities.
On top of this, my mental health issues and past trauma can sometimes make it difficult to engage with specific subjects. For example, I am interested in feminism, and strive to make sure I am up to date on the latest issues and perspectives. However, as I have experience with sexual assault, content that heavily references any details can quickly trigger my stress response, leaving me feeling dizzy and physically sick. Once our brains hit this point of fight or flight, we are no longer able to retain information anyway, so it’s definitely something I try to avoid.
With all this in mind, you might think the solution would be to just ignore the news and live my life with a “good vibes only attitude” – but that doesn’t sit right with me. Despite the difficulties I’ve faced in life, I’m also keenly aware that I am a moderately attractive, straight-passing white woman, who grew up in Sydney in a stable middle-class family. I have some enormous privileges, and these have made my struggles much easier to cope with.
For this reason, I feel that I have a responsibility to be as aware as possible of the many unconscious biases I grew up with and try my best to unlearn them. While I can sometimes be discriminated against or misunderstood due to my issues, I also recognise my power in the world, and want to ensure that I don’t use it to dismiss people in the same way that others dismiss me. I never want to be that person using the wrong pronouns, asking insensitive questions, talking down to people, or making biased assumptions. We all make mistakes, but we also have to take responsibility for our own learning.
The important part for me is trying to maintain a healthy balance, and this changes all the time along with my situation. If I’m having a particularly stressful few weeks at work, it might be a good time to take a little break from my frequent news scrolling. At the same time, if I do have more spare time, I can give myself space to go on a deep dive into a particular topic that I don’t know much about, or to catch up on something I missed. It’s not always easy to judge, but just try to be mindful and look out for strong bodily reactions.
At times when I feel unexpectedly triggered, it helps to have a loose plan of some self-soothing strategies to keep from falling too far into a stress response. Personally, if I start to feel anxious about what I’m reading or accidentally read details about specific topics, I rely on playing simple puzzle games on my phone, doing breathing exercises or even lying on the floor to literally ground myself and help the feelings to pass.
It can help to remember that even though reading about certain topics can be triggering, it is still far worse for the people who are actually experiencing the harm that I’m reading about. For example, if I find an article about racist violence triggering, it is only a fraction of the harm that a person who personally experiences racism everyday experiences, and they don’t have the choice to opt out. It is worth working through some of my own discomfort when other people’s literal lives are at stake.
My last tip to maintain your connection to social justice is getting your news and opinions from reputable sources. These don’t have to be huge corporate news outlets, as first-hand content can be equally (if not more) enlightening, but just try to avoid content that is overly sensationalised or turns essentially neutral content into dramatic and controversial stories. Alongside this – avoid the comments section! At least in my experience, this is a sure-fire way to get myself stressed, frustrated, and hardly ever provides useful input.
At the end of the day, if I am really committed to the practice of challenging my internal biases over time, I need to ensure that I handle it as a long-term project. Allowing myself to burn out by over-exposing myself to triggering material will never have a positive outcome. On the positive side, when I remain mindful and check in with myself on a regular basis, I can maintain my learning and unlearning, and hopefully make more positive change.
As one last note, it’s important to remember that reading and staying informed is only on way to make an impact. If you’re able to, volunteering, raising awareness online, attending marches/rallies and/or donating money to the people creating change on the ground are all great ways to contribute to social justice movements.
We each have different capabilities when it comes to creating change (for example, a chronically ill person may not have the energy to attend a march) but we can all do our best according to our ability.
This piece was written by one of the ICLA eFriend Peer Support Workers. eFriend is an online platform where you can connect with a trained peer support worker whom has their own lived experience of feeling lonely, isolated, stressed or worried. You can speak to your eFriend Peer via video or phone call. Your eFriend Peer will listen, validate and provide hope. If you like, they can also assist you to identify any other services you may like to try or help you create plans to improve your personal well-being. Or they can simply listen.
To book your first call visit: https://my.efriend.org.au/preregistration/