Civil unrest is defined legally as “acts of violence and disorder detrimental to the public law and order. It includes acts such as riots, acts of violence, insurrections, unlawful obstructions or assemblages.” These acts often arise from social movements, and it is no surprise that, in the midst of a public health pandemic and a modern civil rights movement, civil unrest has been commonplace in our country. It is impossible to turn on the television, open a newspaper or go online without seeing the uprisings that have happened around the world. Protests have been conducted in all 50 states of America as well as in countries overseas. Though most of these protests have remained peaceful, some have spiraled into civil unrest events. Seeing images of violence and destruction can cause fear and anxiety, causing individuals to feel unsafe. Feelings of anger and despair may also arise. Whether you are actively participating in actions to create social change or observing the civil unrest via television or the internet, civil unrest can take a toll on mental health. It is important to find ways to manage your emotional and mental health during these times.
As we navigate the waters of civil unrest, how do we make sure we are swimming instead of sinking? If I can be honest, I have felt at times that I am sinking fast when it comes to my mental wellness during civil unrest. As a Black woman in the United States, trying to manage ways to show up for a cause I believe in, be present at work every day, stay informed through media broadcasts and engage in day-to-day interactions with the people I love has been daunting. There have been days that I’ve felt both hopeful and hopeless within the same hour. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to friends about the state of our country and how it has affected my mental health. During a conversation with one of my friends, I admitted to them, “I know I have to practice self-care in the midst of all of this, but I honestly don’t know how.” It wasn’t that I didn’t know effective coping skills; I was so emotionally and mentally stimulated that I didn’t know where to start.
I shared my experience of feeling lost during this civil unrest to let you know that you are not alone. Don’t feel guilty if you are struggling to stay positive during such a tumultuous time. American political activist, Angela Davis, said during an interview, “Anyone who’s interested in making change in the world also has to learn how to take care of herself, himself, their selves.” It’s important to incorporate healthy mental health practices during social movements and civil unrest. Here are a few tips to start you on your way.
We often practice the art of breathing as a tool for self-regulation without even noticing it. The gentle sigh you relieve when you finish a task; the breath you take when you’re suddenly surprised; these are just two ways that our respiratory system shows up for us without us consciously thinking about it. Breathing helps to calm the nervous system and reduces symptoms of anxiety, fear and anger. What I love about using breathing for self-regulation is that it doesn’t have to be a long practice and can be used at any time. Taking a few moments to practice deep breathing can also help with focus. A breathing technique I often practice is breathing in through my nose for a slow four counts, holding the breath for two counts and breathing out of my nose for six counts. Repeating this breathing cycle for just a few rounds will help bring calm in times of chaos.
Listen to Your Body
It takes a certain amount of selflessness to fight for a cause. When we are consumed with helping others, it’s easy to neglect our own wellbeing. Our bodies are a lot smarter than we sometimes give them credit for. Our bodies send us signals when it’s time to rest, replenish, or seek physical and emotional shelter. Acknowledge those signals. When we can take a moment to examine the physical responses our bodies have, we can then determine what we may need to do to meet our physical needs. That may mean putting your phone in another room when you feel the urge to lay down and rest. Maybe it’s taking a moment to eat something after a trying day. Remember that taking care of yourself is the first act of resistance. You can’t be of service to your community if you are not around to do so. We need you.
Additionally, acknowledge your emotions. What emotions are surfacing during this time of unrest? There have been days when I’ve felt anger, frustration, grief, joy and shame all within an hour. It’s important to sit with those emotions and understand where they’re coming from. Try to describe the emotions you are feeling. Being able to verbalize your emotions, even if you’re writing them in a journal, is a great way to process how you’re feeling. Remember, our bodies often allow these emotions to arise so we can better manage our mental and emotional health. Don’t be afraid to sink into those emotions.
Listen and Talk to Others
As I said earlier, I have turned to my trusted friends and family during this time of unrest. Our country is in pain on a multisystemic level. We have been faced with uncertainty as it pertains to our physical and emotional health. Such crises should not be navigated alone. Talk to your loved ones about your fears and frustrations over the current state of our country. Be willing to listen to those who are hurting. When trying to create common ground with others who may not have the same shared experiences as our own, it’s easy to become defensive or shut down versus having open communication. This civil unrest has produced tough conversations, and everyone wants their voice to be heard and be valued. Practice active listening when engaging in conversations to ensure that you are communicating effectively.
Being in quarantine for months has already placed us in front of screens way more than some of us are used to. Social media has been extremely helpful in keeping us connected to loved ones and providing us with entertainment while we do our due diligence to stay healthy and safe. Unfortunately, it can also provide us with an overload of both factual and fictitious information. Though staying informed about progress that is being made during civil unrest is important, it is OK to take a break to care for yourself. With so much information at our fingertips, we sometimes think that if we look away for a second, we’ll miss something. I encourage taking screen breaks: taking a few moments out of the day to mindfully turn away from our phones, computers and televisions. Screen breaks can range from a few minutes to a few hours. I use this time to take a walk, check on a loved one or simply do some deep breathing.
It’s OK to Seek Help
No matter how much we try to manage our emotions during times of civil unrest, sometimes we can’t manage on our own. Seeing such pain and injustice every day can be traumatizing, especially if you identify as an individual who is directly affected by the pain and injustice. It is OK to seek professional help to process your emotions. Please contact Discovery Mood & Anxiety Programs if you need mental health treatment. Managing our mental health during civil unrest is not easy, but there are people who can help you through this difficult time. No matter how divided our country may feel, it’s important to surround yourself with people who care for you and want to see your mental health flourish.
April Cox is a permanency specialist II at Professional Family Care Services in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She is passionate about the mental health of individuals and families and prides her work on providing practical ways to promote mental health wellness. April has a BA in sociology and has worked as a therapeutic staff support, family-based counselor, and drug and alcohol counselor before transitioning to child welfare, where she helps foster children and foster families process past traumas. April is passionate about the arts and spends her evenings teaching dance classes to all ages.