Burnout 101 for activists

People who advocate against torture and violence, especially those who are involved in rescue missions, are at heightened risk of suffering from some degree of Secondary Trauma and/or Vicarious Trauma.

Secondary trauma results from indirect exposure to a trauma through a firsthand account. This may include witnessing abuse, torture or killing on video, in-person, or as told by the victim.

Vicarious Trauma is the result of empathizing with the traumatized individuals. This means involuntarily taking oneself through what they perceive as the victim’s experience.

Images of abuse and torture can get stuck in our mind and end up having a surprising short and/or long term impact on the nervous system. Namely, hyper- and hypo- arousal.

Symptoms of hyper-arousal include: Anxiety, insomnia, anger and exaggerated startle response.

Symptoms of hypo-arousal include: Dissociation, poor self care, numbness, depression and fatigue.

Under normal circumstances, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) prepares the body for action in a dangerous or stressful situation. For the body to attain homeostasis, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) undoes the work of the SNS after a stressful situation. 

Burnout occurs when the SNS has been hyperactive for too long and the function of the PNS has been reduced for too long. This happens as the result of repeated exposure to trauma and ongoing activism without an adequate amount of quality of rest.

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The methods to prevent burnout and the methods to treat burnout are not different. Of course they involve prioritizing one's self care. Optimal self care differs between people and changes over time as we age and as our circumstances evolve. For most people, self care involves adequate sleep, nourishment, outdoor time, social time, solitary time, exercise, yoga, leisure time, intimacy etc. It may also include vitamin supplements and natural or pharmaceutical medications.

Less obvious is the effectiveness of Intentional Breathing Techniques (IBT) and Psychotherapeutic Meditation (PM). As simple as they seem, IBT and PM take time and practice to accomplish. But once these techniques are in your toolbox, you'll use them all the time and they are yours to keep forever. (Instructions soon to come on Psychotherapeutic Meditation.)