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Helping human rights defenders and activists cope with anxiety

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is characterised by feelings of fear, worry, panic, or dread. It can cause us to feel ill-at-ease and come on with varying degrees of severity. If this sounds familiar, you are not alone – it is one of the most-common mental health problems that we can face.

The World Health Organisation states that over 300 million people around the world were living with some form of anxiety in 2019 (a number that has likely now risen). Recent research suggests that a quarter of adults in the United Kingdom feel so anxious that it stops them from doing the things that they want to do some or all of the time. And around 6 in 10 adults feel this way at least some of the time.

Feelings of anxiety may be especially prevalent for human rights defenders and social justice activists, as our work is often challenging, risky, and focused on issues of critical importance. But it is also not unusual for people who have previously faced much adversity and challenge in their lives to experience anxiety over what might be considered smaller matters, such as socialising or minor health issues.

As a mental health problem, anxiety can take many different forms, from phobias to panic disorder. It is like stress in many respects, and manifests in similar ways; however, whereas stress generally has a recognisable external cause (such as a difficult or threatening situation), anxiety is more internal in origin and tends to involve our personal thoughts and processes. This might involve fears that something bad is going to happen or worries about what other people think of us. Anxiety can often arise for no clear reason or persist in ways that make day-to-day life difficult, even when stressful situations are absent or over.

People experiencing anxiety can feel very alone and isolated, as if they’re failing and everyone else is coping better. Unfortunately, this sense of stigma prevents many of us from asking for help with what is a common complaint. Research suggests those in human rights and social justice movements may be especially reluctant to seek support around their mental health. This is due to internalised beliefs that we have to stay strong and hold back from acknowledging personal difficulties in order to keep going with our work and focus on the plight of others.

Those in human rights and social justice movements may be especially reluctant to seek support around their mental health.Click To Tweet

What are the typical symptoms?

Anxiety manifests in a number of ways. It tends to play out in the body, giving rise to physical symptoms, but it affects our mind too, consuming much mental space, thus affecting concentration, focus, and memory.

Physical symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • Difficulty breathing (or breathing harder or faster).
  • Dizziness and light-headedness.
  • Sweating or hot-flushes.
  • Restlessness.
  • Churning stomach.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Needing the toilet more often.
  • Nausea.
  • Changes to heartbeat.

Although these symptoms can feel unpleasant or frightening, they usually represent our bodies reacting to a perceived threat by going into survival mode – essentially trying to protect us or prime us for action. In some circumstances, this can be helpful; however, over long periods of time these responses can be exhausting and affect our physical health.

Psychological symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • Feeling tense and unable to relax.
  • Fearing the worst.
  • Worrying that other people are noticing your anxiety and maybe judging it.
  • Seeking reassurance.
  • Feeling disconnected from your body and/or reality (sometimes referred to as dissociation).

These symptoms tend to indicate that our minds are either geared up to respond to a situation we find threatening or unfamiliar, or shutting down due to feeling overwhelmed.

What causes anxiety?

Anxiety can have a range of causes. Sometimes the reason is clear and stems from a stressful situation we have to face. A human rights defender or activist may, for example, experience feelings of anxiety when under threat of persecution or when undertaking high-risk travel.

Living with uncertainty or experiencing unforeseen challenges can also provoke anxiety. Therefore, it is unsurprising that many people reported experiencing anxiety during the coronavirus pandemic, and many more now feel anxious on account of issues such as the climate emergency, global conflict, and the cost of living crisis.

Often the reason is less evident, though, and feelings of anxiety might persist even once a stressful or threatening situation has passed. This might manifest through physical tension, hypervigilance (being on edge and hyper alert to danger), mental preoccupation with what has happened, or heightened levels of worry about the future. This usually represents a person finding it hard to move out of threat or survival mode and into a more secure and settled way of being. Certain challenges early in life, such as loss, exile, trauma or abuse, can make these kinds of difficulties with anxiety more likely, as might coming from a family or background where anxiety was prevalent.

What can you do to help yourself?

We may all need help with anxiety on occasions. Here are six ways that you might help yourself at such times:

  1. Talk to someone trustworthy. When dealing with anxiety alone, fears and worries can easily become distorted and amplified. Finding someone you feel safe to discuss your concerns with may help to reduce your anxiety. This could be a friend, family member or co-worker, or alternatively, a professional, such as your doctor or a therapist.
  2. Consider how to manage your worries. Often, we worry about things that are largely outside of our control (e.g. world events, work issues or certain health concerns). It can be unrealistic to expect to get rid of these worries completely. Therefore, separating off what you have some influence over from that you do not is a good starting point in terms of coping. Writing your worries down may be one way of approaching this. As with talking to someone, this gets your worries out of your mind and onto paper, which can make them less overwhelming. It can also help you to either address them or put them to one side. Scheduling a set time to worry – as opposed to letting it seep into your day – is another approach some find helpful.
  3. Focus on your breathing. Attending to the rhythm of your breath can quickly and effectively slow down feelings of panic, preventing them from spiralling. Regulating your breathing and making your out breath longer than your in breath will calm your system and can help bring you back into contact with your body if you are dissociating. There are many recorded breathing exercises accessible online or through apps if you are seeking guidance with this.
  4. Ground yourself in the present. While using your breath may help you to physically resettle, there are other techniques you can use to bring your mind back into focus if it is racing. Anxiety tends to see us either dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, so it is helpful to find ways of coming back to the present. Try looking around the room and finding five things that are the same colour or that begin with the same letter, for example. This re-engages the prefrontal cortex, the more rational part of the brain, which tends to switch off when we are highly anxious or stressed.
  5. Consider complementary and alternative therapies. Practices such as reflexology, massage, yoga, and meditation are found by many to be helpful for anxiety. Many of these practices promote relaxation and focus on creating ease within both the body and the mind. Experiment and find out which practices work for you.
  6. Self-help and learning. There is now much more public discussion about mental health, and there are many books, apps, and online articles available that can help with self-education about anxiety. It can be both empowering and normalising to come to understand your symptoms better and learn how to address them – either on your own or with a mental health professional or peer support group.
Over-emphasis on heroism, bravery, and self-sacrifice within human rights and social justice movements can make us reluctant to acknowledge our own difficulties and focus on our self-care. Click To Tweet

What can you do to help co-workers and others?

You can also support co-workers or human rights defenders and activists that you are working with who may be experiencing anxiety. Here are three ways that you might do this:

  1. Create cultures where openness about mental health matters is encouraged. As well as focusing on work matters, such as campaigns and other projects, take time in meetings and 1-2-1s to ask co-workers about their wellbeing. While they may not always be forthcoming in talking about personal matters, it demonstrates a willingness on your part to see and value your team beyond the work that they do.
  2. Be mindful of language and norms within your organisation. Over-emphasis on heroism, bravery, and self-sacrifice within human rights and social justice movements can make us reluctant to acknowledge our own difficulties and focus on our self-care. It is also worth remembering that a lot of the terms commonly used to discuss mental health and wellbeing come from a contemporary framework rooted in the global north. People you work with may have their own ways of describing, understanding, and addressing issues such as anxiety. You should meet these with respect, curiosity, and openness.
  3. Make support and information easily available. Providing access to literature and resources regarding mental health can normalise and de-stigmatise the difficulties co-workers and others might have with issues such as anxiety. If your organisation provides an EAP (employee assistance programmes) or counselling support, make sure this is widely known and that people understand how to access it. Open Briefing can help set up a support programme for your organisation if one is not in place.

Further resources

Anxiety & Depression Association Of America (ADAA). A US-based organisation providing support and advice around anxiety and depression. ADAA offers four online support groups for people experiencing these conditions, including one for Spanish speakers.

Anxiety UK. A UK based charity supporting those who experience anxiety. Anxiety UK runs a helpline and their website features free information and resources, whilst membership (which is also open to those outside the UK) offers access to reduced cost therapies and a year’s free access to the Headspace guided meditation app.

Human Rights Resilience Project. A collaborative space bringing together resources, research and tools to improve resilience and wellbeing within the human rights community.

Open Briefing. We provide counselling on a pro bono or client basis that can help with anxiety and other mental health issues. And our Holistic Security Protocol for Human Rights Defenders includes general wellbeing guidance that you may find useful.

spur:org. An open-source mental health resource hub featuring a list of mental health services and resources available around the world for support with mental health issues, including anxiety.