Guest Post: Anxiety and Social Justice

The following is a guest post from Caleb Harper

                Nobody would make the claim that talking about social justice issues is easy.  It takes a lot out of you, it is stressful, and it can even cause rifts between friends.  But when you already have problems with anxiety it can be even more challenging.  Conversations about social issues can easily trigger anxiety, and then you’re caught between needing to take a step back and not wanting to.  It can be hard to accept that you need to walk away.  But there are steps you can take to care for your mental health while continuing to learn and talk about social issues.  I won’t pretend to know the best strategies for each individual, but as someone who experiences anxiety when discussing these issues I have developed some personal habits that might be useful to others.

Witnessing people get angry in itself can be a cause of anxiety for me, especially if I feel like I’m at fault.  Needless to say, marginalized people are often (rightfully) angry about their oppression.  While it’s important to remember that this reaction is never at fault, it’s also important to remember that you aren’t a bad person for getting anxiety from it.  It’s been helpful for me to look at it from a different angle.  I don’t think about those posts as someone being angry at me. I see it as someone telling me not to do whatever it is they are angry about.  It’s advice.  Even if they are in fact angry at me, it’s easy enough to walk away from it anxiety-free while still learning about how to improve myself.  It might seem counter-intuitive to detach yourself from the situation like this, but if it makes anxiety problems more manageable and keeps you listening I believe it is worth it.

I’ve tried a lot harder to stay out of conversations that I’m not impacted by.  It’s a good idea not to do this for multiple reasons; oppressed people have one less privileged person barging into their conversations, and I’m less likely get anxiety from being called out for it.  The fact is I don’t know what it is like to live as a trans woman, or a person of color, or as a physically disabled person.  There are a host of marginalized experiences of which I have little to no understanding of.  My time is best spent listening to people instead of pretending to know that their lives are like.  This has worked out pretty well for me.  Not only have I learned a lot, but I have been called out a lot less for screwing up.  It’s not a matter of disengaging from these conversations; it’s about stepping back and letting others talk for themselves.

I take breaks.  This is something that has been hard for me because for some reason my brain likes to hyper-focus on stressful things, but it truly does help.  If I can sense something is going down, or someone has gotten angry with me because I fucked up, I often reach out to talk to my friends, or do something else that calms me down or makes me happy. I still take the time to address what is going on, even if it’s just reading and thinking about what happened, but I pace myself and make sure I’m doing self-care at the same time.  I try to remember that it’s ok to fuck up, what matters more is how I respond to being called out.  Responding in a respectful and productive manner is much easier when I’m in an ok mental state, so taking breaks never hurts.  And sometimes it might be better to just walk away from a situation entirely, or at least until it blows over.  I still learn from my mistake and try to grow from it, but not all situations warrant a verbal response. 

Speaking of walking away, it’s ok to step away from specific people who induce your anxiety, even if they’re talking about their oppression.   This is another counter-intuitive piece of advice, because privileged people shouldn’t ignore oppressed people.  But your mental health is important.  When it comes to social media, there are other people you can listen to who won’t trigger your anxiety, or at least not as frequently.  People express their viewpoints and anger in various ways and in different intensities. That’s completely ok, but it can be draining to witness every day. I’m saying this as someone who has been on both sides of this situation.  I’ve had people unfollow me on Tumblr because what I post causes them anxiety, and in a lot of those cases I completely understood where the person was coming from.  I’ve also had to unfollow people for similar reasons.  It can be a fine line between trying to ignore your privilege and doing something you need to do for your mental health. But that’s honestly your decision to make, as long as it’s a genuine and honest concern.  It’s ok to step away from something to take care of yourself.

Of course most of this advice isn’t particularly applicable for people who are talking about their own oppression.  In that case walking away isn’t always an option,  and questions of managing anxiety when it comes to expressing anger and sadness poses a whole new set of complications.  Healthy ways of coping with anxiety differ based on each person’s experiences and set of privileges and oppressions.  These are only a few suggestions based on my own experience, but they can be useful for people in developing their own methods of dealing with their anxiety.  Establishing a few rules of self-care to live by can make talking about social justice issues a much more healthy and constructive experience. 
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