Beyond online movements: What can be done about burnout and selfcare

Sep. 30, 2020 / By

This graphic shows a cycle signifying that self-care, advocacy work, and social media problems are all interconnected and affect each other.

Graphic by Liz Rico.


Good mental health is essential to participating in social activism.

Why? Because health affects how an individual acts and how they execute their goals. In doing this kind of work, people need resources to help their mental health so that they can continue to do their work.

With an immense pressure to either remain silent and side with oppressors, or to speak out against injustice with great care, it is possible for one’s mental health to suffer. The tools that can help activists and allies work are: acknowledgement that their own needs should be important, refraining from a negative “blaming mode,” and a balance between self-care and their activism work. 

Social media is a place where movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and #FridaysForFuture have been prominently featured and boosted by hashtags, posts, and more. And it’s a place that we’ve all come to rely on more as we’ve quarantined due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

A common goal among movements is seeking justice for the suffering communities have endured because of policies or the actions of authority figures. But the way information is shared on social media, can be done in a damaging and draining matter.


Posts like this can be seen on social media:

Post via @supervulgar on Instagram.


The message conveyed is true, but it can also be a bit triggering, though that may be intended. Yes, people should be informed. Yes, this can work. But this can also be overwhelming on the mind.

Instead of such an approach, these messages can be put it in a manner that is less confrontational,  such as this:



Post via @made_by_maddd on Instagram.                      Post via @enbykasp on Twitter.


There is a softer tone used in these posts that doesn’t shame and can be used to inform or persuade. The first image suggests some ways one can support BLM, while the second one asks that people not forget an issue as a  social media feed returns to “normal.” It suggests having a balance of participation and self-care, rather than getting burnt out.


Post via @irismcalpin on Instagram.


This message is hard-hitting, yes. But being a “good person” doesn’t excuse one from contributing to achieving justice. Being a “good person” includes being aware of mistakes and recognizing there is room for more growth and change, identifying what needs to change, and getting to the root of the problems at hand. 

As a human being it should be apparent that advocating for others is necessary. Yet many find this difficult, as they may be ill-informed. This is why we shouldn’t force or shame others into advocating, but instead encourage them in a way that is welcoming, inspires engagement, and uplifting others. This can make our movements stronger, perhaps even compelling the indecisive into action.

This is highlighted in Burnout in Social Justice and Human Rights Activists: Symptoms, Causes, and Implications, by Cher Weixia Chen and Paul C. Gorski. Movements are based on “emotional toll” which can lead activists to withdraw from their work completely. The term “burnout,” coined by Herbert Freudenberger, is not having a “bad day or a temporary struggle with stress,” but rather a chronic condition of at one point having the energy and being “highly committed” but later losing commitment due to getting mentally exhausted.

Aiming to achieve an enormous impact requires “emotional labor,” having to manage emotions while seeking a deeper understanding and undoing of present social conditions. Choosing to set a positive example both for a creator and the audience can help with not getting burnt out by this.

The symptoms of burnout are complex can be identified in 5 categories:

  1. Affective manifestations: “changes in mood” which relate to depression and anxiety.
  2. Cognitive manifestations: finding “lags in” attention, memory, and concentration.
  3. Physical manifestations: faced with physicalities like headaches, high blood pressure, and illness.
  4. Behavioral manifestations: relating to conduct which influences productivity and health, such as increase in “procrastination” or ranging to substance abuse. 
  5. Motivational manifestations: having a “diminishing drive” along with an increase in feelings of isolation and discouragement. 

Avoid these by taking “time-outs” from social media. This isn’t about having “the privilege” to do so. You need to care for yourself to aid in carrying out the message.  But self-care shouldn’t be used as an excuse to completely stepping back. 

As quoted by Audre Lorde self-care is not about “self-indulgence, it is self-preservation.” While it’s important to care for one’s self, it should be done as a way to step back, take the necessary time, and return refreshed.

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