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Self-Care for Activists and Allies



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  • Only 5%-10% of exposed individuals end up with PTSD
  • What do you feel in your body? What emotions are up for you?How at home do you feel in this space?
  • Compassion fatigue can be as detrimental to the support person as the initial trauma was to the individual. Symptoms often look similar to those of traumatic stress.Maintaining a sense of purpose and investment in the big picture can help support people avoid traumatic transference and countertransference.


  • 1. Hampshire Queer Gender and Sexuality ConferenceSelf-Care for Activists and Allies Morganne Ray Outright Vermont University of Vermont
  • 2. One of the amazing things about activists is that we often deliberately expose ourselves to brutality when we believe it necessary. What is sometimes equallysurprising is how little we know about thepsychological effects of this violence. Weneed to prepare ourselves and learn how to support each other through thephysical and emotional consequences of trauma. (Supporting Ourselves)
  • 3. Trauma-Related DefinitionsTrauma – any experience that blocks natural responsesof fight or flight, characterized by a loss of grounding andinterference with normal memory processingResiliency – traits that allow a person to recover fromtraumatic experiences quickly and effectivelyTraumatic Stress – responses of the body and mind totraumatic experiencesPost Traumatic Stress Disorder – a collection ofsymptoms related to prolonged and extreme experiencesof traumatic stress as outlined in the Diagnostic andStatistical Manual
  • 4. Map of the Brain Neo-Cortex language, conscious thought, imagination Mammalian Brain emotion, judgment, memory Reptilian Brain breathing, balance, temperat ure
  • 5. How Trauma Happens Autonomic Fight/Flight Nervous System activated Limbic Systemperceives threat Parasympathetic Freeze Nervous System activated
  • 6. Building ResiliencyFactors that increase resiliency: • Access to material resources • Social and familial supports • Strong sense of self worth • Experiences of affecting change • Participation in social justice focused organizations and events
  • 7. Exercise• Make a couple of notes to yourself about how you feel in this moment.• Use your Apples to Apples card to organize yourself into groups of 3. Think creatively!• Introduce yourself to your group. Learn the name and something about each group member.• Check in with yourself again. How have your feelings changed?
  • 8. Before the Action• Play games and do activities that encourage trust, bonding and team building• Be prepared for the scary, stressful things that may happen in during an action• Make sure your action plans include a calm, quiet place to take breaks, and a debrief session at the end of the action• Discuss self-care in advance and commit to taking care of yourself even in you “feel fine”
  • 9. Staying Grounded• The longer the traumatic experience lasts, the more likely a person will react by dissociating.• Dissociation impedes an individual’s ability to engage in goal directed behavior.• Dissociation increases the likelihood of developing PTSD.• Staying grounded in the moment and the experience helps the brain continue to process memories through the neo-cortex.
  • 10. Exercise• Find a comfortable position in the room. Settle into your body and the space. Breathe deeply.• Notice for yourself 3 different things you can see, 3 different things you can hear, and 3 different sensations you feel in your body.• Repeat this process, this time noticing an additional 2 things you see, hear and feel.• Repeat this process again, noticing 1 more thing you see, hear and feel.
  • 11. During the Action• Reduce your intake of stimulants like energy drinks, coffee, soda, and spicy foods• Focus on problem-solving, contributing to the action and fighting back• Try to stay grounded and avoid dissociating• Do not use drugs, alcohol or other substances that numb or suppress emotions and reactions
  • 12. Supporting Others• People react to trauma in many different ways and may be carrying past traumas that are triggered by the action. It is important to be prepared to flexible in your efforts to be supportive.• Symptoms of traumatic stress often carry social connotations of weakness and dysfunction thus dissuading many people from accessing the support they need. It is important to normalize the experience of traumatic stress, and encourage everyone, especially organizers, to utilize supports.
  • 13. Exercise• Pick a member of each group to fill the following roles: – Storyteller – tell the listener a story about your life – Listener – listen to the storyteller’s story – Observer – Notice the changes in the interaction• First, the listener does not react in any way to the story• Then, the listener actively listens to the story including clarifying questions and paraphrasing what the listener hears back to the storyteller.• After the story is finished, the observer shares with the small group their observations
  • 14. Support During the Action• Minimize feelings of confusion, defeat and helplessness• Encourage everyone to eat, sleep, take breaks and support one another• Make peer counseling or other formal supports available on-site• Have an external counselor available for peer counselors and action leaders
  • 15. Integrating the Experience• The most important task after a traumatic event is to re-establish safety. Most people find this safety among their friends and family.• Finding the “silver lining” in traumatic experiences can often aid recovery.• Many therapists believe that “resolving” trauma includes developing a coherent narrative of the event – identifying beginning, middle and end.• Recovering from traumatic experiences is a highly individual process. There is no “right” way heal.
  • 16. Exercise• Working with your group, identify an experience that is shared by all group members. This could include, but is not limited to, attending the conference or this workshop.• Together, write, draw or use any other form of expression to document this shared experience.• Share your experience with the large group.
  • 17. After the Action• Help people to connect with friends and family quickly• Engage in vigorous exercise• Talk to friends, write or find other ways to express your experiences• Remember that experiencing stress symptoms is normal and will pass
  • 18. Organizations Doing this Work• International - Activist Trauma Support Network• United States - Healing Trauma• Canada - Peer To Peer Support For Activists Collective• Denmark - Copenhagen Activist Trauma Support• United Kingdom - Activist Trauma Support• Germany - Out of Action• Israel - Israeli Activist Trauma Team
  • 19. One of the amazing things about activists is that we often deliberately expose ourselves to brutality when we believe it necessary. What is sometimes equallysurprising is how little we know about thepsychological effects of this violence. Weneed to prepare ourselves and learn how to support each other through thephysical and emotional consequences of trauma. (Supporting Ourselves)