Tips for Resiliency: Surviving Human Rights Work and Life in General

A Note: This guide for resiliency is based on my experience, needs, and opportunities based on my particular intersectionalities as a white, middle-class student and person in the field of human rights living in the U.S. I hope that despite the particularities of my situation, these tips will be able to help a wider range of human rights advocates and people in general.

For those of you who don’t know, my name is Lili Siri Spira and I am the founder of The Rights Stuff. I am also starting my fourth year as an undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley as a Human Rights minor.

I have already begun working in this field as a researcher at Human Rights Center’s Investigations Lab and an intern at the Center for Justice and Accountability. In both positions, and my studies in general, I am constantly exposed to horrific human rights abuses whether it’s airstrikes on civilian populations or mass graves of political dissidents and marginalized peoples. Throughout my work, I have seen signs of second-hand trauma in both myself and my co-workers.

I have been lucky to find a community of other people involved in human rights work that have supported me throughout all of the symptoms — throughout the times when I’ve wanted to quit just because it felt like I was torturing myself needlessly without manifesting any results for the victims of the attrocities I only peered into.

This journey has not been easy for me. I grew up in a place and space where mental health was stigmatized. I had to work a lot of this out for myself, fighting to get help and making a lot of mistakes and discoveries along the way. I’m still making a lot of mistakes and discoveries.

So here are some tips and tricks that I use to survive and thrive despite it all. I hope that it can help other people in the human rights field and beyond. Some tips may work for you; some may not. Different people and communities need different things. I only ask one thing: be open —you never know if something works until you earnestly try it.

1. Recognize the Problem — Confront It

You can’t fix a broken arm if you don’t recognize that it’s broken. Or that you have an arm. This isn’t to say that you’re broken — in fact, you’re working as you’re meant to. Feeling emotions and sometimes getting overwhelemed by them is a part of being human. At the same time, our feelings, like a broken arm, if not dealt with, stick with us. They can even sabotage us.

Through worrying that the worst is going to happen, sometimes you make it happen. For example, we can worry that people will leave us so much that we hold onto them too tight or don’t act like ourselves. And then they do. That isn’t to say that it’s your fault, though.

The mind isn’t some shelf with clearly labeled compartments. Our undealt with emotions and traumas can bleed into other parts of our lives. Then, if built up enough, all those feelings can one day all come crashing down. To mix metaphors even further: ignoring or compartamentalizing your feelings, especially the big ones, is just like writing emotional checks for a future you to cash.

Just try saying this to start: I am not feeling okay, and that’s okay. I am going to be okay. Then try to talk through it.

Maybe even consider searching for a therapist (U.S.) if you have access — but go into it knowing what therapy is and isn’t.

2. Self-Care

I probably lost some of my readership once they read this term. It’s been labeled as this white girl cure-all, which is kind of fair. Self-care, while a good pursuit, has become a huge industry that promotes what seems more like self-indulgence rather than actual care. Self-care is a lot more but also a lot less than a face masks and a glass of wine.

The best guide for self-care that I’ve found is “You feel like shit”, an interactive guide that takes you through some of the basic elements of self-care:

  • Drink water
  • Eat something
  • Work out
  • Go outside
  • Take a shower

Even on days when I don’t “feel like shit” I forget to do a lot of these very things. There was one day when I was working so much that I didn’t go outside until midnight. Eating is, admittedly, not an issue for me. Eating healthy and in a way that fuels my body, though, is.

These basic elements help anchor you through the storms. And if a face mask and a glass of wine is a part of it, so be it.

3. Midfulness Exercises

What’s this mindfulness hippie-dippie hoo-ey, you may ask, perhaps in a less PG way. I honestly thought that it was ridiculous when I first started practicing it — I would laugh a lot at the “soothing” voices trying to whisk me away to a tropical paradise or something like that. But then I looked more into mindfulness

Mindfulness.. involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them — without believing, for instance, that there’s a “right” or “wrong” way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.

This is stuff most people suffer with on a day-to-day basis, especially those like college students who are constantly staring down at that nebulous “future” outside of campus. Here are a few of my favorite free mindfulness videos, but please search your own using key terms based in what your “goal” is.

4. Train Your Brain

A big part of resiliency is simply brain function — the “stronger” your brain is, the more efficiently it functions. I have a really hard time with this one. In all honesty, I would rather finish up my Netflix queue than the New York Times crossword puzzle. But doing brain exercises, aka practicing cognitive fitness, can keep your mind flexible, adaptable, and ready to take on any challenge, including emotional challenges.

Brain training games specifically target neuroplasticity, “the brain’s ability to change itself by remodeling nerve cell connections after experience”. Improving neuroplasticity is helpful for finding car keys and remembering birthdays but also for building up resilience.

Think of it as your brain getting hit with a ball and the bouncing back. Or think of your brain as a bouncing ball itself. Or think of the way your skin used to pop back into place after smiling instead of leaving a wrinkle.

So put some bounce in that metaphorical ball and some collagen in that metaphorical skin with daily apps and games. A group of researchers named Tetris specifically as an anxiety-releaving game. Your work does not count. We’re talking low-stakes, high reward brain-training situations. Afterall, writing 12 page memos feels more like something I need resilience to complete rather than something that builds resilience.

5. Sleep Hygiene

Sleep hygiene is another one of those terms I laughed at when I first heard it. And I actually heard it from a mental health professional. Even the CDChas a page on it. So what is it?

Sleep hygiene is a variety of different practices and habits that are necessary to have good nighttime sleep quality and full daytime alertness.

Sleep is really important, and, yet, one in three Americans don’t get enough sleep. Despite being critical for health and academic performance, most college students do not get enough sleep or restful enough sleep. I myself used to be one of those people that stayed up until 2 am finishing an assignment — that was, until I realized that my physical and mental health and my ability to work effectively depended on me changing my habits. Click here for a few tips for maintaining good sleep hygiene.

6. Take a Break, Breathe, Come Back

This is probably the most difficult for me. I am a stubborn person. But there are just some things you can’t fix, whether that be at all or in the moment. Step back, if you can, and take care of the basics. Treat yourself like how you’d treat a friend in need. Then come back when you have more strength.

Pushing yourself to your limits is not strength.

So take a break from watching those airstrike videos. So maybe don’t go on that research trip if you’re feeling extremely anxious about it. So take a year off to work in another field. Unfortunately, you can’t always step away. But have the strength to do so when you can.

Live to fight another day.

To Conclude…

Some people will read through all of this and remain skeptical of my tips and even of me. That skepticism is totally fair. Mental health is not only extremely stigmatized in our society but is also, unfortunately, a privilege. Many marginalized communities aren’t insulated from mental health issues, but, rather, they are typically underserved and under-resourced and are barely surviving on the resources they do have. Much of the time these communities also require special resources for dealing with their community-specific trauma.

My BuzzFeed-like list cannot solve these problems nor meaningfully help a most of these people. But I hope that it can maybe make at least one person’s life a little bit easier, because sometimes incremental progress is all we can ask for.

Good luck — ultimately the tools are within you.