Over the last several months, I imagine you have been experiencing a cascade of emotions, in response to what can be described as, on-going sociopolitical unrest, to say the least. This theme of unrest has been a result of an evolving global pandemic, a growing movement to challenge the long-standing systemic structures and traditions that support injustice and inequality, the underlying existential threat of the climate crisis, and most recently, the domestic terrorist attack on Capitol Hill. As a result, we continue to face uncertainties and threats to our physical, emotional, and mental health. Many of us are experiencing heightened feelings of anxiety, insecurity, hopelessness, and general emotional exhaustion. It has become imperative to learn how to develop the awareness and tools needed to help cope with and maintain our emotional mental well-being, as we continue to face these challenges and uncertainties.
Disclaimer: It is important to acknowledge that how I suggest we can cope with sociopolitical unrest is impacted by my social location and the privileged experience that I have been afforded as a middle-class, white, cis-male and therefore there will be some limitations to the scope of this article.
The feelings experienced as a result of these on-going and evolving sociopolitical challenges should not be dismissed as irrational, but rather something to engage with. You don’t need to find the silver lining or replace your difficult emotions with gratitude. It is completely fair and healthy to experience a challenging emotional response when faced with existential, social, and physical threats. You should not project guilt on yourself for having this difficult reaction or suppress the feelings that you are experiencing. These feelings and this reaction are warranted. You must be able to develop your emotional awareness so that you can monitor your emotional response on an on-going basis. It is valuable to stay aware and mindful of any indicators that might suggest you are struggling to cope with these challenges. Some possible indicators might be that you are withdrawing from your friends or activities, finding it hard to sleep, or facing overwhelming feelings of hopelessness. By practicing self-monitoring, you can develop an awareness of not just the emotions you are experiencing, but also develop control over the trajectory of those emotions.
Developing emotional awareness is crucial in managing our emotional regulation and preventing our emotions from spiralling into heightened anxieties or feelings of depression. Also, when we can accurately identify our emotions, we can better identify our needs and our values. We can use this engagement as an opportunity to explore what our needs are at that moment, as well as how we might be able to propel ourselves closer to our values. Otherwise, we might react in a way that is based solely on an emotional response, which might contradict those needs or values. An accessible tool to use to help engage and understand your emotional experience is through the use of reflective writing. Through reflective writing, we can more accurately understand our experience and process the difficult emotions we are experiencing, rather than suppressing or deferring them.
As with many other threats that are out of our control, an effective strategy to manage those feelings is through the practice of radical acceptance. When I say radical acceptance, I am not suggesting that we submit to those that promote and perpetuate sociopolitical unrest, I am more so suggesting that it can be healthy to accept the terms of our reality and take the time to accept what you do not have control over. It can be easy for us to become hyper focussed on the things we cannot control, which will, in turn, heighten the risk of cynicism, anxiety, hopelessness, and feelings of depression. It is valuable to shift your focus to what you do you do have control over and with that insight, explore how you can make a difference.
You won’t always be able to impact the actions and attitudes of your peers or control how our leaders or the corporate interest responds to these events, but what you can control is how you respond to your emotional response, how you take care of yourself, and the degree to which you engage with toxic information outlets. One way that is often helpful in promoting feelings of agency and control, is to redirect the difficult emotions from the situation, into civic action.
Activism is often a daunting endeavour for those with no prior experience. It is best to start where you feel comfortable. Explore efforts and initiatives that are accessible to you as an individual. This doesn’t mean you have to join marching protests (though this is never a bad idea!), but maybe you can create posters, sign petitions, or join a local group with similar objectives. As previously mentioned, reflective writing can be a very useful tool in our development of emotional awareness, but this also can be a very useful tool within your approach to activism. You might want to use your reflective writing practice, as an opportunity to write a letter to your local government representative or an opinion piece for a news outlet.
Perhaps you already have individuals in your life who are actively engaged in working to resolve current sociopolitical challenges. Access those available in your social network, they will likely be enthused to have you join. If not, I would recommend that you connect with your local community, and more importantly your neighbourhood. Becoming more involved in initiatives within your neighbourhood, is not only one of the most practical approaches to change and action but also a valuable approach to connect with your community. With that said, it is valuable to find others that you can connect with on a personal and emotional level.
Connecting with Others
Strong social and emotional support is vital for your maintaining your mental well-being and capacity for resiliency. When facing challenges such as anxiety, cynicism, and exhaustion we may feel inclined to isolate ourselves and retreat from socialization, and this, unfortunately, is only going to exacerbate those thoughts and feelings. As discussed, it is fair to feel cynical, apathetic and discouraged when engaging with current events, but you do not need to experience that alone. It can be helpful to explore these thoughts and feelings with others. Likely, those around you are having very similar experiences. Not only will talking with others help validate your experience, but it might also offer the opportunity to discuss different approaches for you to get active and involved with your community.
On the topic of connecting with others, it is important to reflect on who you choose to engage with. You want to make sure that you aren’t using your emotional energy to engage with individuals that contribute to the difficult emotions or that perpetrate sentiments of social toxicity. This is not to say that you should dismiss those with opposing opinions or perspectives, as I believe there is great value to be found in having those conversations, but rather you should try to evaluate how engaging with that person is going to serve you as an individual.
As with any sociopolitical issue that continues to plague our societal development, it is important to find a balance between staying informed and being overexposed. Staying informed is vital and having an educated understanding of the current events can help in promoting positive change and informing your activism. Though with that said, it is not helpful to constantly refresh your Twitter feed or to have the news cycle incessantly playing in the background. Often news headlines sensationalize, misreport, and misrepresent current events.
This is not to say all mainstream media is fake news, though we should be wary of the narratives that are being construed and how we consume news media. In addition to news media, the same can be said about how you use your social media. Using platforms such as Instagram often gives us the feeling that we are connecting to like-minded and individuals, and although the use of the infographic threads can offer an accessible source of information, this also can come with its own price of emotional exhaustion. You are allowed to take a break. As much as you may feel like certain issues warrant you to spend every waking minute and ounce of extracurricular energy to dedicate to these issues, you will be able to create greater change if your efforts can be sustainable. At the end of the day, you need to take care of yourself, to help others.
As this article describes, we are currently living during a time of unprecedented social and political unrest and you do not need to feel like you are in this alone or need to cope with this in isolation. Seeking peer or professional support is necessary through these times and if you are finding it challenging to manage on your own, that is expected. Allow yourself to receive support from others and challenge any thoughts or feelings that are preventing you from seeking the support you may need.