Illustration by Daniel Zender
There’s a reason they call it “hitting the wall.” Burnout really does feel like a whole-body experience, like physically running into an impassable barrier. You may be chugging along, telling yourself that you can push through whatever it is that’s plaguing you: the isolation of quarantine, the election stress, the exhaustion of racial justice organizing, the difficulty concentrating on work from home while teaching a child, the late nights in the ER with coronavirus patients.
As election season continues to heat up, and doubts about the peaceful transition of power add to our anxieties, many of us are approaching political burnout. That’s no surprise, considering everything we are facing — a global pandemic that has disproportionately affected marginalized people, months of economic recession, racial justice protest, and heightened police brutality — would be enough to push anyone to the edge.
Election Tension is Increasing the Strain
Camesha L. Jones, LCSW, founder of Sista Afya Community Mental Wellness, a Black-woman centered mental health group, has seen worries about the election increasingly affect her clients’ well-being. While elections are always stressful, this one is particularly rough. “People are worried about the future of the country,” said Jones. “We’ve seen what’s happened in the past four years, people are very concerned with future generations.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has also been a stark reminder of the tragic results of political decisions that neglect people of color, particularly Black and Ingenous people; people living in poverty; and women and LGBTQ+ people. “Political decisions are also shaking people’s lives in a way that, pre-COVID-19, people didn’t pay attention to as much,” Jones said.
To address the strain of the election, and to plan for our own well-being, Jones and her clients are asking themselves: “What do I need to have in place regarding what the outcome is going to be?” “How can I take care of my mental health?”
We can help protect our mental health, whatever the results of the upcoming election, by evaluating how we’re doing now, watching for signs of political burnout, and committing to a self-care routine that truly gives us the space and resources we need to heal.
How to Spot the Signs of Election Stress and Political Burnout
Political burnout can feel like being tired, but it goes even deeper than that. The term “burnout” was first coined in the 1970s to describe the mix of exhaustion, alienation, and reduced work performance that plague people in high-stress, care-oriented positions, like doctors and nurses. The definition directly translates to the difficult work that many organizers and political activists do. A similar experience to burnout, that also plagues many essential workers and activists, is called “moral injury.” That’s the exhaustion and frustration we feel when conditions in our lives or professions aren’t allowing us to live up to our values.
Signs that you are facing high levels of election stress and may be at risk of political burnout include feeling like you are carrying too heavy a load of worry from your political work or life in general, said Jones. Burnout can feel like extreme tiredness, or a lack of desire or ability to connect with things or people that previously gave you pleasure. It can feel like a bubble that prevents you from connecting to others. “You can become more sensitive to other people’s opinions on issues,” said Jones.
Burnout can also take the form of sadness. “Many people who experience challenges with burnout and election stress are also experiencing depression,” said Jones. She lists hopelessness about the future, sadness, and irritability as signs to watch out for. Right now, political burnout may also take the form of “being a little bit more snappy, a little bit more on edge,” said Jones.
Identify What You Can and Can’t Control
If we’re invested in social change, the wrongs of the world can weigh heavy on us. That’s a gift, because it means that we are actively engaged in changing the things we can’t bear. But this mindset can also make it harder to, in the classic words of the serenity prayer, bear the things we can’t immediately change.
“We can’t put out all the fires at once,” said Jones. “If we don’t accept that it is what it is, to some extent it can create more mental distress.” That doesn’t mean we accept injustice as natural or inevitable. “I don’t mean accept as far as not to do anything about it,” said Jones. But it does mean accepting that we can’t fix everything right away.
By identifying and making peace with what we can’t currently control, we can take some of the pressure off ourselves to be perfect or to measure up to impossible ideals — a tendency that can cause us to be more burned out. “People who are in social justice spaces are always feeling like they’re not doing enough,” said Jones. But we need to celebrate everything we are doing, rather than dwelling on where we feel like we have fallen short.
“We can strategize about what to do to move forward,” said Jones. But for now, she suggests validating and affirming all you are already doing. “I am part of the change,” she suggests reminding yourself. “I am being active civically in my community.”
Tune Into Your Body
Burnout is a sign that we have not been taking care of ourselves the way we deserve. If we’ve reached a state of exhaustion, there is a deeper underlying problem beyond the immediate situation: we’re out of tune with our bodies and our boundaries.
With such intense events unfolding around us, and our routines already disrupted due to the pandemic, it’s easy to fall out of touch with our basic needs. But remaining aware of our bodies is a fundamental part of self-care. Practice checking in with yourself, so that you can continue to tune in to your needs when you are in high-stress situations: Am I hungry? Am I tired? Am I nourished by community and social ties?
“It’s important to know what really triggers you,” said Jones. “If you know what really triggers you it can be easier to identify the boundary that you need to set.” Jones gives the lack of indictment of Breonna Taylor’s killers as a frustrating example, especially in light of her own experience and that of the Black women she works with. When such a monumental piece of news hits, said Jones, “There’s going to be a flood of emotions, there’s going to be a flood of people talking about it on social media,” said Jones. If you feel overwhelmed, it’s okay to log out and focus on yourself. “It might be good to detach from social media for a week or a few days,” she said.
Set Healthy Boundaries
Once we tune into our needs and triggers, we can set healthy boundaries. Many of us who are involved in activism find it hard to take time and space to sustain ourselves. “It does take up a lot of your time, and usually the time that is left over isn’t enough to nourish and replenish yourself,” said Jones.
Jones suggests taking concrete steps to create a more balanced schedule, like stepping back from a meeting or campaign event to spend time exercising or connecting with family and friends. She also suggests focusing on doing few commitments well, rather than spreading yourself thin by attempting to take on too much. “That goes back to, really selecting one thing that you really want to dedicate your activism and your time to, rather than trying to do everything,” she said.
Finally, it’s important to reach out for help, especially if you’re feeling overwhelmed or hopeless. You can take some time to make a list of relationships that nourish and sustain you. Who are the people you could reach out to when you need a shoulder to lean on or an empathetic, listening ear? Who do you trust to give you wise advice, and to notice when you need help? “If you feel like you’re at the end of your rope, you really have to reach out for support,” Jones said.
Take Self-Care Seriously
While today, many brands have appropriated “self-care” as a buzzword, without acknowledging its roots, the origins of the phrase lie in the organizing and care work of Black women. As Black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Particularly if you are a woman, LGBTQ+ person, or person of color who cares for others as an essential worker, community organizer, parent, or simply a concerned friend, it’s tempting to neglect your own well-being. But we can’t drive without gas — we can’t care for others without first caring for ourselves. As a therapist, Jones has personally felt challenged to prioritize her well-being as well as that of her clients. “I’m helping someone else. But where is that help coming from for me?” she said. “It can be really challenging, and sometimes people don’t really recognize the toll it can take on us.”
If you do this kind of difficult work, it’s valuable to set the tone for others by modeling care for yourself. Jones, for example, sees a therapist herself. “I can take off the helper hat, and I can be helped myself,” she said.
Hold On To Hope
Amid the turbulence and doubt of these times, remaining hopeful is a daily practice. We must continue to affirm for ourselves that we, collectively, have the strength and wisdom to survive and flourish, despite challenging conditions and constant uncertainty. “Sometimes people go through things and they feel really alone, but I think this is a time when we really need community care,” said Jones. “We really need each other.”
Despite the doubts we are all facing, we can hold on to a spark of imaginative hope for our collective future.
While the dreams we have for ourselves may end up looking different than we thought they’d be pre-pandemic, we can adjust them, not to be less beautiful or ambitious, but to reflect what we have gained and lost in the current reality. “Don’t lose the vision that you have for your life because of this season,” said Jones.