Insomnia and activist burnout


in PhD thesis, Politics, Psychology

The most common physical health symptom described by the participants was chronic insomnia. Heidi explained: ‘One of the first indicators for me is insomnia. . . . I’m waking up in the middle of the night thinking about how I need to do this or bring this in or what time I am meeting with these parents, and that starts repeating itself.’ The insomnia became more serious for Cathy: ‘I would not be able to sleep unless I took sleeping pills.”

They described, not just brief periods of weariness, but chronic, debilitating stress, anxiety, and depression that drove them away from their activism at least temporarily. Christopher, for example, felt ‘frayed all over’. Evelyn described feeling ’emotionally devastated’.

Chen, Cher Weixia and Paul C. Gorski. “Burnout in Social Justice and Human Rights Activists: Symptoms, Causes and Implications.” Journal of Human Rights Practice, Volume 7, Issue 3, November 2015


{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

. June 24, 2020 at 4:21 am

“During the interviews, all but 2 of the activists described severe periods of burnout. In Abigail’s words, it was a time period of

absolute overwhelming stress. Anxiety at all times. Non-stop insomnia. And feeling like you could Never Get Anything Done. That the important things could never happen. I mean just classic depression symptoms. Everything. Just really bad. The worst part again is the sense that this stuff mattered. It wasn’t stuff that you could let go.

Dara described a time of burnout as “a feeling of being just totally buried and feeling that there is no way out and it’s hopeless, so it’s a pretty deep depression.” Peter suggested,

You can’t get excited about stopping bad things from happening. You want to see good things happen and they weren’t. So … I thought I just can’t do this anymore. I am going to either have a heart attack or a nervous breakdown, and I just needed something that was more fulfilling spiritually.

In Helen’s words, “I was just tired. I felt tired. You know, the hours we work and a lot of weekends and evenings, and I was tired. I got to the point where I didn’t want to even drive by work when I wasn’t at work.” Ben suggested that the reason burn-out among environmental activists is so pervasive is due to the inability to both say no and to really take care of one’s self: “It can lead to leaving the field. That’s when the other 10 alternative career paths start looking really good.”

The activists, however, learn to live through these dark moments in their lives by changing jobs, changing responsibilities within their organizations, taking leave for extended periods of time with or without pay, and looking for outside learning opportunities. In stark contrast to running from these experiences of burnout or trying desperately to avoid them, these activists longed to understand what the burnout was indicating, to make changes or to take the necessary time away, and to move forward. Part of moving forward entailed a level of acceptance of the enormity of the tasks ahead and to recognize that the activists’ own needs were important and valid. Although they all spoke of burnout in past tense, they cautioned that future periods of burnout were always looming. Megan lamented, “[It’s] negative to have work that you really care about because then it’s an emotional investment. The same thing relates to marriages and to relationships. … you don’t just leave [when] you hit the wall.”

Kovan, Jessica T. and John M. Dirkx. ““Being Called Awake”: The Role of Transformative Learning in the Lives of Environmental Activists“. In: Adult Education Quarterly 53.2 (2003), pp. 99–118.

alena prazak June 25, 2020 at 12:27 pm

This is very powerful information. Making such a deep commitment to any cause gives you responsibility for it. At times of success, there must be feelings of exhilaration, but a lot of the time it is just slogging along. It takes a very strong person to be able to sustain such optimism. Many of the big struggles that human beings have faced have taken a long time and incredible courage. Above all, they have required personal sacrifices of huge proportions.

. July 2, 2020 at 12:09 am

How do you find solace when you have to deal with this crisis all the time, and what do you do when you just get overwhelmed?

Buddhist teachings on non-attachment have been really helpful: the reminder that my job is not to know how to fix everything, it’s just to show up and do the next right thing. The Christian story of resurrection and life overcoming death is inspiring me right now. Often, when I’m really overwhelmed, I just stop what I’m doing and walk outside and listen and watch, to feel the universe itself giving me solace. When I was nineteen, I was on a sailing trip and we got caught in a terrible storm. It’s the closest to death I’ve come. And I was in a state of panic—finding it hard to breathe, etc.—and out of nowhere, for the first time in years, I prayed: “God if you can’t calm the storm outside, please calm the storm within me.” I’ve prayed that prayer a lot the past few years. When I really can’t get out of a funk, I pick up someone else’s story: a podcast, novel, memoir, show, or movie. I almost always find comfort, creativity, and courage in focussing on something beyond my own story for a minute. Then, I get back to work. There’s a lot of solace in action, too.

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