How I Handle Emotional Burnout From Animal Activism

Here is my science-based approach for mental health recovery

The animal rights movement is defined as

‘a social movement which seeks an end to the rigid moral and legal distinction drawn between human and non-human animals, an end to the status of animals as property, and an end to their use in the research, food, clothing, and entertainment industries.’ — Wikipedia

Activism, on the other hand, is defined as an action, done to bring social change. Animal rights activism (or animal activism) is thus a broad area, spanning in various fields of day-to-day life. It can be something as simple as watching a documentary about animal abuse, feeding a stray cat or dog, rescuing animals from a shelter, boycotting Sea World (and institutions like it) and so on. You get the point.

What I examined is how these actions (regardless of how few and far in-between or frequent as they may be) impact my well-being. I organised research in psychology, together with personal stories and experiences, demonstrating why animal rights activism (as noble and necessary of a cause it is) is ruining my mental health, and what I am doing to recover and regain the necessary mental strength to continue with this seemingly never-ending battle.

Witnessing Suffering

— Feel free to skip this section to avoid some triggering content.

During the past few months, I have witnessed countless triggering occasions, both online and off. Three of these brought me to tears, hyperventilation and ultimately — some of the worst panic attacks I have ever experienced. I want, or should I say, I need to share them as I believe that through bringing awareness, discourse can be generated, which can ultimately lead to motion and change.

A sunny afternoon in my flat a few months ago I was sitting on the couch and scrolling through Facebook. I come across a disturbing and heartbreaking photo on my news feed, published in an animal activism group. It shows a dead dog, which was decapitated… I joined the group at the start of the year, hoping I will find a dog to adopt there. The group is aimed at the adoption of animals, but this post was published to demonstrate the cruelty of someone in a town nearby, who had chained the dog to the railway. I had seen animal cruelty images throughout my entire life but this post… it really got to me. I imagined the pain and the suffering… I imagined the fear…I felt like it was the death of me.

A few weeks go by. Dinner time has just ended. We are getting ready to put a movie on. I am scrolling again and see a video of an elderly couple beating a cat that they have tied to a pole in their backyard to death. The cycle repeats. The story was later in the news. The couple were given a fine, smaller than your yearly Medium subscription. All the groups that day were filled with anger, threats that never would (or should never) be fulfilled, death wishes and curses. An energy that I absorbed while in a state of shock, grief, despair and helplessness.

Just a few days ago, my partner and I were travelling and sat to have dinner in an open-air diner on the side of the road. There, lived a family of cats — a mother with two kittens. Except for us, there were another four adults, two of whom had their two boys playing with the kittens. I call it ‘play’, but it was leaning towards harassment. At one point, the smaller of the two demanded they take one kitten home with them, and the parents agreed in a split second, just to get their two sons to ‘quiet down’. The owner brought a box to carry the kitten away, whilst it was screaming at the top of his tiny lungs to be returned to its sibling and mother. I heard the parents say they will just throw it away next to their building when they arrive home. I was enraged. I could not believe that instead of committing to raising the cat properly or educating their child on the difficulty of caring for animals, they would say ‘yes’ to him. Only to separate an animal family, which is surviving on its own, and ultimately doom the kitten to (almost) certain death at this small age alone in a neighbourhood where there will likely be other street cats.

I had just recently adopted a beaten-up and sick stray cat, which was kicked out similarly, later to suffer attacks from resident cat colonies in the neighbourhood it was dropped at before I took him home.

Image by Atkins on sueatkinsparentingcoach.com

I went through the first three of the seven stages of grief in a matter of ten minutes and wallowed in depression for the rest of the evening, crying throughout the entire night. I am yet to take an ‘upward’ turn.

On Empathy

I have shown Earthlings to nearly every single person that I value in my life, with the hopes it changes their perception of life and animals in the way it changed mine. Spoiler alert — it didn’t.

I am yet to understand why animal cruelty imagery and instances affect some more than others. After some hefty debating with myself, the best way I can rationalise this is through considering empathy, egoism and narcissism existing to a varying degree in each of us, differing in their ratio on an individual basis.

Empathy, while often celebrated, should be down-regulated for self-protection to reduce strain on the mental health of involuntary witnesses of animal cruelty, according to mental health professionals. The same continue:

Permanent exposition to animal suffering requires mental defence mechanisms for self-protection. Many animal welfare activists and people confronted with animal abuse show mental problems, such as depression, sleeping disorders, nightmares and even burn-out and posttraumatic stress disorder as well as somatic problems. In extreme cases, the feelings of helplessness have even resulted in suicide.

Further, the same research shows that citizens of EU-states with a low incidence of animal abuse in public, report that they avoid visiting or moving to countries where they would be confronted with poverty of children and suffering of animals (stray cats and dogs) in public.

Having moved from the UK back to Bulgaria recently, I resonate with this significantly, with frequent incidences of exposure to animal suffering being detrimental to my well-being. I have experienced a steep rise in the frequency of panic attacks and depressive episodes with my activism, even though I consider it a very insignificant effort on my part.

Other research corroborates these findings. This article discusses PTSD in animal activists, who often struggle to forget acts of violence they witnessed, report frequent feelings of anger, despair, unwanted memories and feelings of emotional distance with people in their lives. Such go on to develop beliefs that the world they live in is a horrible and unjust place. Elsewhere the same is referred to as ‘compassion fatigue’.

I am saddened to say, this is exactly how I feel in this battle. I simply cannot imagine the horror other activists have gone through, such as those placing themselves in slaughterhouses or euthanasia centres to capture the disturbing footage we have seen.

On feeling Helpless, appearing erratic and losing credibility

While doing my research I discovered Facebook groups, which are centred around making fun of vegans, predominantly plant-based eaters (e.g. vegetarians, flexitarians, and pescetarians) and animal activists for ‘having mental illnesses’. I mean, let’s be real. We all know the vegans they are talking about.

I remember re-visiting Freelee The Banana Girl’s content a few months ago (after her being highly influential several years back when my journey began) and agreeing with 0% of her approach to activism. I found it also noteworthy, that after years of being highly active in the animal rights movement, she resorted to isolation and living off the grid. I found that interesting, especially considering the research from above on mental well-being in activists and feelings of isolation, which in her case apparently led to physical (on top of mental) detachment.

Similarly, PETA is often criticised for its media and activism approaches being ostracising for anyone, who is not ready to fully commit to its cause. I believe that in the process the organisation has created more enemies than supporters. Having read interviews with senior execs of the company though, I believe their erratic ways arose from a feeling of helplessness. Just like with Freelee and others like her, you can only do so much, before you burn out. If you don’t take time off, your burnout gets a burnout and so on until you no longer appear rational to the individual, who is removed from the rabbit hole you placed yourself in several burnouts ago. In other words, you have lost any credibility in the eyes of those you need to persuade, making your existence a meme.

Just think about it — how does Freelee look, when she says: ‘Meat eaters don’t deserve to live’ and links this argument with the activism movement against animal suffering, even if people know she was once amongst the most celebrated plant-based influencers? How does PETA appear when their members assault Canada’s Oceans and Fisheries Minister and almost get listed as a terrorist organisation in Canada, even though the activist community knows they have funded and led countless animal protection operations and ultimately saved millions of animals’ lives? They have lost forever their ability to influence people externally through making themselves detached from understanding other people’s POVs.

Helplessness can motivate you to create outrage or shock through your behaviour only to move the pin a little, which will ultimately make you lose credibility. It also creates a bad rep for the entire movement in the process.

This is why the next step is important.

Guidance for taking steps towards Recovery

PTSD and ‘compassion fatigue’ in animal activists can be treated, however, it is not as simple as avoiding traumatising situations. Despite the limited research in activism trauma, psychologists and animal activists unanimously suggest that animal activists do the following:

  • foster awareness of the impact suffering has on their mental wellbeing
  • engage in advocacy
  • build resilience as a means of coping with distress
  • foster self-care practices, such as healthy and regular sleeping and eating patterns
  • (if needed) undergo therapy with licensed mental health professionals
  • seek social support for discussions of traumatic experiences.

Now, on to my personal advice on recovery. I wanted to save this for last, as it is anecdotal, action-based, hence — you should attempt it with caution. It is nonetheless, based on the medical advice illustrated above. Here is what I did to minimise the strain of animal suffering instances on my mental health.

  1. Moderate the effect of negative exposure through mixing in positive emotions.

An example of this would be to provide food and water regularly to stray cats I encounter daily. Another is to volunteer at shelters. A shelter near my town has the option to visit it and give the dogs that live there a walk and treats on the weekends. This is triggering. It is difficult, as you walk away knowing you can do no further. The feeling of helplessness persists, but hope is generated that more people will follow suit. One day…

2. Minimise exposure to violently graphic animal suffering content.

I limited exposure to social media animal activist accounts, groups and pages, which I know post graphic content regularly. I have to say, this was a very difficult, yet powerful move. I considered that in many cases, (sadly) accounts like PETA’s are just preaching to the choir. Instead, I focused on a hands-on approach. My likes, shares and angry comments never helped an animal — I am painfully aware. So, I decided to take this time and physically make a change, even if it helps just one being.

3. Engage in advocacy through thought-out, reasoned and empathetic discussions.

The only thing I can say on this matter is — don’t try to change anyone. Simply make them better understand your point of view and strive to understand theirs, and also — accept it. This article from Psychology Today, recommends:

  • leading discussions through staying within your area of expertise
  • remaining supportive (not judgemental)
  • avoid getting into debates regarding mental states of animals.

4. Regularly reflect on your experiences, be it alone or in a social setting.

I keep a log of instances, which are particularly emotional and difficult. I try to note the triggers, my emotions and my response. I re-visit this from time to time for reflection. It helps put things in context, but it is also sometimes discouraging to see the same things come up time and time again. I want to believe it assists with building resilience and acceptance of reality… To be honest, it is a work in progress.

Fighting a never-ending battle

The four steps discussed are cyclic and re-iterative. As an animal rights activist, you are bound to witness the suffering, feel empathetic to it and suffer in response, whether it is through anger, helplessness or any other way. Recovery is optional and recommended to avoid burnout and keep your sanity, but returning to the battle is inevitable.

While awareness of animal rights is rising and the movement is gaining popularity, there is a long road ahead. I am commonly reminded of rising efforts, with this movement being amongst the most rapidly and passionately growing, which gives me hope.

— If you are feeling prolonged or notable distress, please consult a mental health professional. You may also contact online mental health services such as Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636) or Lifeline (13 11 14) who offer 24/7 phone support.

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