Self-care for the Highly Sensitive Activist


If you are one of the 15-20% of the populace that “have a nervous system that is more sensitive to subtleties” (wikipedia) you might find that you have a strong sense of justice and/or are more sensitive to the suffering that happens in this world, such to the point that you’ve decided to do something about it.

And if you’re someone who feels a strong connection to nature and wildlife, compassion for people you don’t even know and are actively involved in advocating for and protecting these beings, whether you identify as highly sensitive or not, you may be either suffering, or at risk of suffering, from what some people refer to as ‘burn-out’. I can make such a blanket statement because I know lots of activists and I see it happening, and it’s something that rarely gets talked about.

Being highly sensitive is a positive thing, but the world around us is dominated by people who aren’t as finely attuned as we are to these subtleties, and it can be overwhelming for us at times. A word that I have recently learned is ‘triggering’. As in, hearing about someone else’s trauma can provoke strong emotions in sensitive people.

Throughout our lives we have learned defenses against these triggers, some good, some damaging. Before I accepted my sensitivity, I subjected myself indiscriminately to a lot of triggers, and dealt with the resulting emotions by repressing them and numbing myself with drugs, alcohol, food, etc. Being that a state of repressed emotion was the norm for me, I was unaware of my triggers.

I’m learning how to heal myself, how to avoid the trauma, depression, pain and stress that I can be so easily susceptible to.

So I just want to share a few things that I am learning, to share, but to also have written down for my own reference. I would be lying if I told you I do most of these things. Change is hard, but I am on my way. In no particular order…Let me know if I’ve forgotten anything.

Eat well and drink plenty of water.
If you are a highly sensitive person, chances are that you are sensitive to food also. Avoid sugar, caffeine, processed foods, dairy and perhaps gluten. Eat lots of fresh whole foods. Learn about what works for you, but if you can do just one thing (which is ridiculous, but anyway…) this would be it. The importance of diet cannot be understated.

Be aware of the stimulation you subject yourself to

Be aware of your triggers. This is not to say avoid them completely. The point is here that some of us want to continue to be activists, not just go hide somewhere and immerse ourselves in happy things. So we’re going to continue exposing ourselves to the uncomfortable realities of life on earth. They key here is to avoid over-stimulation. Self-awareness, which as a sensitive person you may already be good at, is crucial for avoiding over-stimulation. Wear headphones to limit the amount of auditory stimulus you take in. Close your eyes to reduce visual stimulus. Learn your limits. Try to avoid the mass media, which can be triggering and depressing.

Get involved in some campaigns that you know are going to have impact
This is especially important for environmental activists. We’re used to losing campaigns; it happens far more than winning. The tar sands are expanding, forests are diminishing, the salmon seem more threatened every day. We are desperate for good news, desperate for victory. Find an outlet for your activism that can guarantee a win every so often, (easier said than done, I know), or results that you can predict. I like to give away food. I set a goal, go out and do it, and I see the results…people eating.

Don’t take too much on
Pace yourself. This is another tip that may seem obvious, but it needs to reinforced. We may think we get more done by doing more, but it tends to be the fast-track to burn-out, then we get near to nothing done. So it’s worth being strategic and figuring out what your strengths and skills are and where you are most needed. Quality over quantity. This is another one that can’t be overstated. Whether you are highly sensitive or not, you are at risk as an activist by taking too much on. There are too many issues, causes, projects and collectives and not enough people to make it all happen. Resist the urge to take personal responsibility for this.

Learn from the mistakes and victories of the movement

Chances are you’re working on issues that have been around for a long time. Discover the history of the movement you are part of, try to avoid the mistakes that you and others have made in the past and build on the things you’ve done right. You can save a lot of grief this way.

Understand that change takes time, and results are not often visible
Go easy on yourself. Don’t accept defeat until you know you’ve been defeated. Change takes time, and the results of our activism is not always immediately visible.

Be good to yourself
This tip ties into the last one. You are a special person. Your sensitivity is a gift, and you are using it for good. You’re doing the best you can and you’re trying to do better. That’s why you’re reading this. You don’t just want to give up because you are burnt out. You want to find ways to keep fighting, because you are dedicated, and that is awesome. Sensitive people need to treat themselves gently and with compassion. Love yourself, and you will be a better activist.

Get lots of exercise
Whether you are highly sensitive or not, your activist work is going to cause some stress, and exercise is one of the best ways to release stress and treat depression. This tip, like diet, cannot be understated.

Get lots of sleep
This is one of the main tips for a highly sensitive person, activist or not. Now you have an excuse to sleep late or go to bed early…

Be aware of your surroundings and create a safe, comforting space for yourself
Highly sensitive people can be quite introverted sometimes. This is a defense mechanism. We absorb so much stimulus out in the world, and we need downtime to relax and decompress. Have a safe, quiet place with low lighting, maybe some calming music; a sanctuary to unwind and protect yourself from the harshness of whatever you battle as an activist.

Get massages, stretch and/or do yoga
Moving energy through our body is a skill that few are actually expert at. For most of us, the emotions we experience can get lodged in our bodies and cause physical stress and pain. Keep limber, learn some kind of meditation, explore what kind of bodywork feels good for you.


I tend to breathe shallower when I am holding emotion and stress in, and I when I breathe deeply, some of that stress releases. Pay attention to your breathing, and use deep breathing techniques to release some of that energy. There’s a lot written out there about breathing; specific techniques, etc, and breath will also be part of whatever bodywork/yoga/meditation that you do. Find what works for you.

Have a good support system
if you’re going to take on the hetero-patriarchy, the capitalist war machine or the ecocidal industrial civilization, you need good people around you. You need friends who support you and accept you. Ditch the toxic people in your life. Find people you can talk to without being judged. Don’t take on these big battles by yourself.

Find ways to express your emotions
Don’t hold them in. Find healthy ways of moving through these emotions. Accept them as normal. Allow yourself to feel them without judgement. Yes, shitty things are happening, it’s ok to feel what you are feeling about the things you have to be witness too. Learn to name these emotions. Learn how to work with them and not have them control or destroy you.

Do lots of things that aren’t activism
Edward Abbey had this to say, and I think it is most critical for the highly sensitive activist:
“Do not burn yourself out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast…a part time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of your yourselves; and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it is still there. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, encounter the grizz, climb the mountains, bag the peaks. Run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, that lovely, mysterious and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to your body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those deskbound people with their hearts in a safe deposit box and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this: You will outlive the bastards.”

Further reading:
The Immediate Need For Emotional Justice

ACLU: Stress management and burnout prevention

4 responses »

  1. WoW! This was one of the best reads all year! And the timing could not have been more exquisite! Thank you for your wisdom, putting words to feeling and making such good, down to earth sense.

    Quietly and respectfully,

  2. Pingback: The abilism and discrimination of Elaine Aron’s Highly Sensitive Person concept: reshaping our own frameworks | The Dreamer Propulsion Project | The Highly Sensitive Family

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