Here’s How to Recover from Activism Burnout

Activism can be as rewarding as it can be mentally and emotionally draining.

The instant gratification of modern technology means it’s easier to stay in constant communication with someone and, simultaneously, never fully be “off.” The news cycle can be unrelenting — social media can spread information faster than news outlets can churn out articles.

For activists, the burnout can be imminent if self-care is pushed to the sidelines. The work of an activist demands an immense amount of selflessness, empathy and compassion in the face of adversity. While unquestionably admirable, consistently tapping into these traits to the benefit of the greater good can leave a person emotionally exhausted.

Are you burnt out?

It’s important to know that burnout isn’t just a word derived from the pop culture lexicon. Writing for Psychology Today, psychologist Sherrie Bourg Carter defines burnout as “a state of chronic stress.” This state of chronic stress can cause “physical and emotional exhaustion, cynicism and detachment, and feelings of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”

Illustration of a mixed group of people holding up "No," "Nope," and "No Way" signs in protest. Rewire PBS Living Activism
Fighting burnout is just as important as fighting for the causes you care about.

There is a big difference between burnout and an isolated incident of stress, as writer Aliya Khan pointed out in Everyday Feminism. Burnout isn’t something that pops up overnight like a fresh pimple. Rather, it’s the culmination of a lingering condition.

Just like someone who is a workaholic, an activist can find themselves experiencing the symptoms of burnout. If you’re consistently engaging in activism, these tips can help you stay burnout-free.

1. Identify your feelings

In order to fully know how to fight burnout, it’s imperative to recognize the signs.

“In those situations (of burnout), the demands being placed on you exceed the resources you have available to deal with the stressors,” psychologist David Ballard, assistant executive director at the American Psychological Association, told Forbes.

Ask yourself these questions from the Mayo Clinic:

  • Have you become cynical or critical at work?
  • Do you drag yourself to work and have trouble getting started?
  • Have you become irritable or impatient with co-workers, customers or clients?
  • Do you lack the energy to be consistently productive?
  • Do you find it hard to concentrate?

If you answered “yes” to a lot of these, you might be burnt out. Thinking about your answers to these questions might be your first step to tackling the problem.

2. Talk to a trusted confidant

It’s important to talk about your feelings with someone you can trust. Holding in stress can have negative effects on your mental health, but it can also hurt your physical health.

According to the American Psychological Association, “chronic stress causes the muscles in the body to be in a more or less constant state of guardedness.” And “when muscles are taut and tense for long periods of time, this may trigger other reactions of the body and even promote stress-related disorders.”

Talking about what’s stressing you out is the best way to release the tension and stay healthy.

3. Find healthy outlets outside of activism work

Self-care isn’t just about spending money on products or participating in consumer culture’s definition of the word.

Utah State University’s Counseling and Psychological Services defines self-care as “a way of living that incorporates behaviors that help you refresh yourself, replenish your personal motivation and grow as a person.” Taking up a hobby or activity outside of activism can be a form of self-care.

Carmen Perez, activist and director of The Gathering for Justice, a nonprofit organization that aims to end child incarceration, explained to Self how she tackles activist burnout.

“To stay energized and engaged, I drink a lot of water, I practice gratitude by listing three things I’m grateful for in the morning, I work out and eat healthy, watch comedies, send myself positive affirmations and surround myself with people I love and admire,” she said. “And when I’m feeling discouraged, I pray — a lot and for everybody.”

Finding ways to manage your stress via healthy hobbies and coping techniques can prevent the feeling of burnout.

4. Exercise

Daily exercise is good for everyone, but it can also serve as an efficient tool for activists. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, exercise can lead to the production of endorphins, which not only help a person’s ability to sleep, but can decrease stress.

The American Heart Association says we should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity every week. That’s 30 minutes a day, five days a week.

5. Learn when to step back and say no

At the end of the day, it’s important to know when you are stretched beyond your mental, emotional and psychological means.

Taking on more work than you are capable of handling may seem like the “right” thing to do in the moment, but it can end in burnout. Listening to your body and knowing when to say no could be the difference between preserving your mental and emotional health and suffering through the inherent stress that accompanies the role of a dedicated activist. After all, a burnt out activist isn’t much good to anyone.

Vanessa Willoughby

Vanessa Willoughby is an editor and a writer. Her work has been published in The Toast, Vice, Broadly, Allure and other publications. She is a fiction editor for the independent publisher Brain Mill Press.