Published on 7th Jul, 2020
The Social Change Initiative are a deeply impressive group of activists and changemakers, people who are driven by the desire to make the world a better place. They are advocates for the vulnerable and the marginalised, and themes of migration, peacebuilding, human rights and equality run through their work. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt a blow to this type of work. In just a few weeks the vulnerable have become more vulnerable and those already marginalised are cut off further. Any vision of the pandemic as the great equaliser bringing people together failed to fully materialise, and it quickly became evident that the pandemic will exacerbate inequality and injustice. Activism and advocacy is needed more than ever before, but the work is emotionally draining and self care is vital. However activists can struggle with this, particularly in the current climate where the need is greater. The temptation is to “ramp everything up a notch”, to work harder, to shout louder. In this webinar I argued for the need to slow down. I wanted to share my ideas about self care and in some small way contribute to a conversation about self care as the core of creating a better world.
The Kubler-Ross “Stages of Grief” model really resonated with my experience of the pandemic which was initially a series of losses. My initial denial and minimisation of the situation was misaligned with my peers, who were already engaging in safety behaviours. The anger and bargaining as I navigated the guidelines and tried to work out what this would mean for my life. The devestation as I saw each element of my life, my work, my friends, and social life gradually shut down. This was compounded by despair of witnessing death on an unimaginable scale, and of course anger as I struggled to understand the agendas of decision makers. Eventually I reached acceptance, I rearranged my life and office, and controlled what little I could. The journey was exhausting, self-care was very low on my priority list, my brain was in “pandemic mode”, and in the process I made some poor decisions.When we asked the group about their losses, the responses were stark. People had lost loved ones, and the rituals to help them cope. Safety was replaced with fear over what the pandemic would bring, lives and livelihoods were at stake. Many had lost power, agency and the ability to do their work at a time when it was most needed.
Mindfulness was important theme of the session. The ability to step back and observe our own thoughts is a powerful skill because it gives us the insights that allow us to test the validity of the thoughts, and start to change them to change how we feel and act. Of course personal agency is limited by power structures and context, and the participants in this webinar were acutely conscious of this through their work. Mindfulness can give us a framework and a lens through which we can understand ourselves and therefore the power to elicit change. The idea of committed action towards our goals features in many theories of personal development and growth, particularly the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) model. As advocates and activists, the participants in the webinar already had clear goals and a well-defined set of values. In this session I argued that self-care was crucial to enable us to act mindfully and meaningfully to achieve those goals, particularly in this new unstable world of suffering, inequality, and social distancing.
Self-care is necessary because this is a trauma. A trauma is a stressor that exceeds our ability to cope, or an overwhelming blow that must be processed so that we can recover. In order to understand the effects of trauma it is helpful to consider how the body and brain respond to stress. When we know the biology of stress it becomes very clear what we need to do to take care of ourselves and why this is important. The “self-care” bit often becomes unnecessary. The body’s “fight or flight” response to stress allows us to act quickly without reflection, in a very crude way, to fight or run away to promote survival. It is activated by acute stress, or subconscious triggers, and we have limited control over how we react. Overactivation can drive us into shutdown phase where we withdraw and are hopeless or helpless. These are very different states to “safe and social”; when we know ourselves to be in a place of safety, our reflective mind can direct our actions.
These are our circuits of survival and our moving between these states is a sign that our bodies and brains are working. We should never judge the process harshly. We must particularly avoid the type of critical self-talk that itself can serve to traumatise us. However, the ability to recognise stress activation and take steps to regulate is extremely useful. Mindfulness based techniques promote this by allowing us to be a curious observer of our thoughts, giving us little insights that we can use to the benefit of ourselves and others.
We are pack animals and when the stress response system of another pack member is activated we detect that. This neuroception kept previous generations alive. Our natural and normal responses to fear and trauma have a huge impact on others and our relationships. The converse is also true. If we are in a safe and social state, we will direct those with whom we work to a similar state. If we are pack leaders, be that as parent, manager or advocate, the effect is more powerful. This process is mostly subconscious but there are techniques that we can use to facilitate it. It cannot be faked, authentic engagement from a place of psychological safety, and meaningful relationships are healing. We are the agent of change and it is through our own emotional awareness that we facilitate emotional awareness in others. An understanding of the biology of stress will foster the change that is required for us to meaningfully help others. Sleep, exercise and mindful eating promote emotional regulation and encourage the body into a safe and social state. Co-regulation with loved ones is helpful, but it is a huge challenge of this current crisis. Substances and risky behaviour can be quick routes to safe and social, but it is important to reflect on how they are serving us.
The bag of stones technique can be helpful if the worries appear overwhelming. The idea is to name each stone or worry (writing them down is helpful) and place them into one of three categories: those that we can change, those that we have influence over, and those that are outside of our control. Sadly the “outside our control” pile needs to be cast to the side, or we need to learn to stop thinking about them. This is painful and often a period of time, or support for healing is required. For the other piles we need to work out what we can do and consider whether the energy required is worthwhile. These piles can be deceptively difficult, in some cases courageous conversations are required and we must make decisions about what to focus on, in view of our goals and core values.
Our webinar ended with a conversations about the possibility of growth and we discussed whether post traumatic growth was a legitimate concept in a world of inequality and unjust power structures. However, many of the attendees had already moved to a point of making meaning and focused on finding ways of harnessing what COVID-19 had taught us. For others the main message was the one about ensuring that we had dealt with grief, loss and trauma, before trying to be the agent of change, and knowing that, as one participant put it, “we are enough”. I was so grateful for the opportunity to share my thoughts with these inspirational people and hope it was in some small way, useful.