If we are going to engage with the world, we need to be healthy enough to do it. Here are ways to practice self-care in challenging times.

How you practice self-care so that you can stay engaged?

I have a question for you—how do you practice self-care so that you can remain engaged with the world when everything just gets to be too much? When we get a war on top of a plague on top of a climate catastrophe on top of racism on top of assaults on LGBTQ+ rights on top of threats to democracy?

When we’re scared, hurt, convicted, angry?  Heartbroken?

How do we not just go numb to all of it without winding up curled up in a ball?

I’m asking this, because the world needs us. This is not the time to shut down, however much we might want to. It’s not the time to walk away. We can’t fix the world, but we can help.

Working for peace and justice

I have participated in causes related to peace, justice, and environmental sustainability for much of my adult life. From early activism in anti-globalization movements and working to prevent/stop the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to opposing the gross injustices wrought by the Trump administration, and a lot in between, I’ve tried to do my part to use my position of relative privilege and safety to help others and the planet.

It’s exhausting

As much as it makes me ashamed to say this, it’s exhausting, and often disillusioning, and most of the time, I really just don’t want to do it at all. It forces me to confront facts about myself and my life that I don’t want to face. It’s pitted me in arguments with family and friends. At times in my life, it left me completely burned out.

And it doesn’t even work a lot of the time. Those wars in Iraq and Afghanistan lasted twenty years.

I walked away for years after that, disillusioned. Eventually, though I returned, as I do believe that no matter how limited my ability to affect change may actually be, I do have a responsibility to try.

What I’ve learned about self-care in challenging times

I’ve learned a few things that can help us to practice self-care so that we’re healthy enough enough to stay engaged. Think of this a bit like the flight attendant telling us before takeoff that in the event of an emergency, we need to help ourselves with the oxygen mask before we help someone else. Some of these things I do better than others (I really need to work on my media consumption), but when I do them, I don’t burnout.

When to use these self-care practices

I offer these seven self-care practices for situations where we do not experience the direct impact of an injustice. This can vary depending on the situation. If you are directly impacted by an injustice, your self-care would look much different from this. 

As a white, middle-aged, educated, professional, cis, straight woman living in safety in the US, I’m rarely the victim in these instances. Your circumstances may be different.

Why do them

The point of these self-care practices is to be healthy enough to stick with it. To be able to have an open heart to those who are suffering and to be able to find the courage to do something to make it right. We need to deal with our own complicated feelings, to take breaks, and to get rest. And then return.

You are needed.

7 things to do to practice self-care in challenging times

1. Acknowledge and feel our (perhaps complicated) feelings—and also examine them

My recent freakout

Judging from memes friends have posted, I’m not the only Gen-Xer who flashed immediately to the Day After and Red Dawn when Putin’s forces attacked Ukraine. A little closer to home, my maternal grandmother’s family fled the Russian army in the early twentieth century. For a time, my Ukrainian cousins (their dad was the child of Ukrainian refugees who had fled Stalin) lived with my family. Between the culture of the late Cold War and family experience, let’s just say that I grew up afraid of the Russians.

I’m also a student of modern history (I have a Master’s), and I’ve been observing in horror I watched democratic alliances break down, especially during the Trump administration. We have a major political party in this country that has gotten way too cozy with Putin, and a leading “news” network with anchors who had, until last week, been Putin apologists (now I guess it’s the vice president’s fault that they were on Putin’s side).

When I heard that Putin had attacked Ukraine, I feared that the damage done to democratic institutions would prove too much and that he would succeed in conquering Ukraine without a fight. From there, other would-be despots would join him, and we could find ourselves imperiled.

I felt guilty about Iraq, our own war of choice. How could we really stand up to this, knowing that we’d attacked a nation under false pretenses?

And then I examined my feelings

Notice something?  The above has nothing to do with the Ukrainian people and what is happening to them right now. Those feelings are all about me. Now, I think that democracy as a value worth worrying about, and I absolutely do care about the Ukrainian people—but they were not top of mind during my freakout.

Our reactions can be complicated, and that’s not wrong. But it is up to us to deal with it

It’s not wrong to be scared when something like this happens. It’s not wrong to think of ourselves. It’s human. But we can’t just leave it there. We have to deal with our feelings, examine them. Determine what’s true, what’s the lie, and how we might look at things differently. How can we change? What do we need to do? How can we work through our own suffering so that we can focus on those who need help?

In other circumstances, we might feel guilty. Helpless. Defensive. Denying those feelings will not help anyone or anything, and not feeling or processing those feelings is going to leave us stuck.

How we express those feelings, and to whom express them is absolutely our responsibility. We should not inflict damage as we work through feelings.

2. Talk about it

Talk to a therapist. Talk to a friend who does not feel the direct impact of the injustice (this is really important—don’t make your friend who is affected by the injustice’s trauma worse by asking them to take on your burden, too).

Be open about how you’re feeling and thinking. Talking helps us to process our feelings, which we need to be able to do if we’re going to be able to stay engaged.

3. Be realistic about what we can do

Most of us are limited in what we can do to affect change. I’m not a political leader. I don’t have a vast fortune. I don’t’ have specialized knowledge or skills in a lot of these areas. However much I feel like everything is my responsibility to fix, I can’t fix everything.

However, I do have a voice. I’m an informed citizen, and I make sure that my elected officials know my views. I have this little platform. I can and do participate in peaceful demonstrations. I have enough money to be able to donate to causes I support and the ability to encourage others to do the same. I can volunteer, and I need to find ways to do more of this. This is where I don’t do enough, and I have set this as something to work on this year.

Being realistic about things I can do, assess what I am doing, and where I can work to improve helps to make what I can do manageable.

4. Take a time out

Sometimes, in order to get ourselves back together, we need a real time out. Take a break, don’t think about it. Go hang out with a friend. Sleep all day. Binge some crap TV. Eat ice cream. Insulate yourself a little cocoon for a day where you just don’t think about anything important.

At the end of your break, remind yourself of what you can do. Consider resolving to take one action.

I did this. I spent a day watching Grantchester and had ice cream for dinner. The next day, I made a sign and went to march in support of Ukraine.

5. Keep informed, but don’t overconsume media

I can’t find it now, but I saw a tweet in the wee hours of last Thursday night that said, “Does anyone else feel like you can’t turn off the news, because if you do, you are turning their backs on those poor people?”

We aren’t helping anyone by staying glued to the TV and social media

Oh yes. That’s exactly how I feel. I must witness everything, take on everything. To know as much as there is to know about everything, right away. Our news industry feeds on this feeling—that’s why disasters get so much attention. We who are safe cannot turn away from those who suffer on the tevee screen, lest we prove that we don’t really care.

Don’t forget to turn it off

We do need to stay informed, with trusted sources of information. Television can be a powerful tool here, if we can limit it. For example, after dinner with one of my dear friends last night, where I took a break from everything for a bit and celebrated cases being low enough around here to chance a little indoor dining, I turned on CNN. Anderson Cooper played a video of the aftermath of Russian bombing of an apartment complex. It was horrifying—and video made it more so. It brought Cooper to tears, and me as well.

I then turned off the news. Continuing to watch would have been tantamount to torture p*^n. I learned what I needed to know—that Putin’s army is attacking civilians indiscriminately and in contravention of the Geneva Convention. I bore witness to the suffering.

6. Take care of our bodies

Think of this as a healthier version of checking out for the day. Go for a long walk. Do some yoga. Dance it out. Eat a salad. Go to bed early. Taking care of our bodies means that we’re rested and ready for what we need to do. This past week, I went to bed early (of course, I sometimes woke up in the middle of the night, but that’s just me and my sleep cycles). I took walks.

7. Go have some fun

We need joy in our lives. Go forth and have yourself a grand-snortin’ good time. You’ll feel better and rejuvenated. Last night, I had dinner with a dear one, and I’m going to see other friends tonight. Last week, I actually went to a movie for the first time in two years. Having some fun restores us so that we can return.

Practice self-care so we can help others

By having a realistic view of what we can do, and then taking steps to ensure that we’re taking care of ourselves, allows us to continue to work toward peace and justice. Please take care of yourself. You are needed.

What do you do to practice self-care in times like these?