Avoid Burnout in the Resistance: Prepare for this Marathon

Diana’s blog entry for Blog March, a “march” of online activism featuring a writer for each day of May.

We’re just over 100 days into the Trump administration, and every day brings new reason to take action, with each new disastrous policy or appointment proposed. It’s easy to either experience overwhelm and disengage, or work too much until your mental health suffers and you burn out.

If you care about civil rights, our environment, or the health of our democracy, we need your participation in the resistance. We can’t afford for you to burnout or sit in despair. This fight is a marathon with no end in sight for at least several years. Claim responsibility for your world, and take care of yourself so that you can be with us now and for the next 1,360 days.

As a busy working mom and activist during this time, I am managing (most days) to feel deeply enraged and called to action to stand up for my country and my world, while also personally still full of joy and laughter and gratitude. That may sound heartless - how can I still laugh and dance at a time like this? Moments of joy are my most effective tool to stay impactful over the long haul. I recognize that these moments of calm are also a privilege for me as a white, middle class, cisgender person who is not as personally under attack as other groups, and that I can use this privilege to keep myself grounded and healthy so that I can stay the course through a long stretch of political activism.

What does self-care really mean? I use the term self-care to describe intentional effort to nurture one’s own mental and physical health, particularly in hectic times when that attention to one’s own needs may be discouraged. From the despair I hear on social media, and the overwhelm and depression I see in the activists around me, I think this conversation about care for self is needed right now, not just once but as a regular reminder to give ourselves permission to make our health a priority.

I’ve learned these self-care skills in academic programs that seemed to demand more work than hours in the day, through caring for my father while he died of cancer and simultaneously teaching my first law school class and running my law firm, through managing an international move with a newborn, and through years of therapy and study. In order to be productive during a time of stress, refocus on what you need to be ok right now. When I hear bad news or I’m having a hard day, I often think: I should go running right now, or I should go to bed early tonight, or I should drink a glass of water. These are just simple first steps in a moment. It is ok when you are distressed by political events to stop thinking about the larger problem for a while and focus on actions that will help you remain physically and mentally healthy.

Actively manage your mental health:

Everyone has different physical and social needs - pay attention to yours. I know that I will do best under stress with at least 7 hours of sleep each night, 3 days a week of cardio exercise, a shared meal with a friendly face most days each week, and platonic loving touch from someone who cares about me once a week. I’ve learned that this is my personal minimum, and when I slide below these levels, I start to unravel. I protect these needs, and I’m willing to, say no to things I would otherwise say yes to, or even put less than maximum effort into existing commitments to make sure that I manage these needs well enough to protect my mental health. No one project is worth knocking out my ability to work sustainably, and it’s better to identify the things I can do in a sustainable manner and do them well than to spread myself too thin, burn out, and break all my commitments.

I also recommend that you educate yourself on how your own thinking patterns are serving you - or not, whether in therapy or self study with great articles like this one. Staying in a place of rage isn’t helpful - transform that rage into one manageable piece of positive action. Keep it bite-sized and something you can do now; not ‘I’ll start a non-profit’ but ‘I’ll contact my local Muslim organization and see if they need volunteer help.’

Create a supportive social network:

The world of law and politics has inherited a self-defeating macho attitude that each person’s well-being is their own responsibility and discussion of individuals’ stress is an unnecessary waste of time. For those of us who have non-movement day jobs, we feel pressure to squeeze in saving the world on evenings and weekends, while within the movement, many non-profits and activist lawyer groups expect members to work around the clock and ignore signs of personal struggle.

We can each take leadership in our places of employment, activist organizations, friend communities, and families by initiating discussions like “How are you coping with this? Are you finding space to take care of yourself? How can I support you in taking care of yourself?”  These conversations aren’t social fluff to cut out of a meeting agenda, but essential to keeping all of us healthy as activists. Our individual and collective humanity and well-being are not a diversion; they are essential to our common cause of working together effectively to make change.By fostering a culture of interdependence and compassion that are inextricable from political work, we can build communities that catch their members when they stumble rather than letting them tough it out or fall.

In order to support each other as a community, learn the warning signs for an acute stress reaction or vicarious trauma in yourself and those around you, so that you’ll know when to step in and offer help. Especially if you work at an organization in which you interface with traumatized people or deal with disturbing material, consider holding a training to demonstrate commitment and gain a common ground of knowledge.

I encourage you to put these conversations on the agenda for any activist meeting in which you take part, and to ask friends to engage in this with you.

Plan your diet of activist time:

Three months ago, many of us vowed to call our representatives daily. Did you make a vow and not keep it? You aren’t alone. Putting something into your calendar as a routine can help allot a manageable amount of your time to activism. Many people find #ActivismForBreakfast to be helpful, such as allotting 15 minutes each morning to calling representatives, signing petitions, making donations, and staying informed, and keeping each other accountable to the pledge by posting about it on social media. Services such as ResistBot will text you notifications and make it easy for you to fax your legislators without having to talk on the phone. Perhaps you want to allot 30 minutes on your calendar once a week and make it a recurring calendar notification. Do whatever works for you, but I encourage you to make it part of your regular routine. Perhaps you could put it as a recurring item in your calendar right now.

Focus on your best means of making impact:

If you live in a conservative district, your biggest impact may be in organizing town halls and lobbying your legislator. If your representatives in New York City are leading the progressive charge already but you have money to donate, perhaps you can focus on donations. If you are a lawyer or have another special skill, your volunteer time may be extra useful. If you’re an event promoter, perhaps you could throw a fundraiser. Which of your skills and attributes will be your best contribution?

It’s also important to remember not to reinvent the wheel. Before taking any steps to respond to what you see going on, take a moment and gather information. What work is already being done? Is there anybody closer to the center of this crisis whose work I can support and learn from? It can feel tempting to jump right in and start something new, but working in coalition is always better than starting from scratch.

Focus on the issues that matter to you:

In a time like this, it’s hard to know where to even begin or what to address. Instead of getting overwhelmed by how much there is to do, remember that you are not working alone. When each of us finds the place of work where we can make the greatest impact, we can move forward on many fronts together. Pick your issue of rage and transform it into positive action. Face-to-face volunteerism and action with kindred spirits on the topics of your greatest concern will often give you hope and energy to keep going and stay inspired.

If you aren’t sure where to focus your efforts in the cacophony of calls for action, find organizations you trust that work on the subject matter of your interest, and they will keep you posted with information and requests for you to make impact. I listen to the ACLU on civil rights issues or 350.org on climate change, for instance. My law firm’s newsletter offers a brief update and call to action on LGBTQ and nontraditional family issues each month. If you have trouble figuring out where to get started, full-time activists on the issues of your concern will guide you.

Laugh, dance, and allow yourself joy:

Don’t feel guilty enjoying yourself during times of pain in the world. Use your expressions of joy and freedom to nourish you, to feel gratitude, hope and inspiration. We’re fighting against forces trying to overwhelm us into compliance, which makes our joy intrinsic to our defiance.

Take care of yourselves out there, warriors. Mama says drink some water.

In solidarity,


P.S. If you’d like more resources:

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