• Kayte Thomas

For the change-makers

As I was preparing to write this week’s blog post, I found that I was really having difficulty focusing in on a topic. There is so much to address right now, and I wondered what would be more beneficial for others at this point in time. Do we talk about Juneteenth coming up at the end of the week and the importance of this date both historically and currently and how the celebration of emancipation still resonates with the African American community today? Do we talk about World Refugee Day occurring this weekend, and the positive impact of societal support on refugee well-being? Do we address the conglomerate of conflicted feelings many are experiencing as states continue opening up despite an ongoing uncertainty in COVID-19 cases? Do we talk about the current administration’s attempt to strip away LGBT rights and the Supreme Court's affirmation of human dignity in the employment sector and the enormous impact these events have on the mental health of those affected? There are just so many things to address right now which are influencing people on emotional, spiritual, social, and psychological levels that sometimes it is hard to decide what to talk about, especially when trying to write something which will be beneficial to those who are reading. There are so many needs to fill – which takes precedence?

Then I realized something – I couldn’t choose. Despite the capacity to address all of these topics at length, I felt truly overwhelmed by the decision of which should take priority and why. There was a bit of anxiety which froze my thought processes and made me feel stuck. And as I spent a few moments reflecting and self-assessing on why I was feeling this way, I realized something else: I have noticed this sense of overwhelmed-ness in a lot of others lately too. Specifically in those who are striving to bring positive change into the world; the caregivers, the change-makers, the advocates, the doers. Perhaps it is the sheer volume of issues occurring simultaneously, or the ongoing nature of the societal issues, or the pandemic chaos, or just a combination of all of these aspects together – but so many people feel overwhelmed by even the smallest of decisions lately, and that feeling is what we’re going to talk about.

If you want the nerdy answer about why this happens, here’s a quick rundown: Basically, being in a state of chronic stress such as we all collectively are at the moment affects the way our brains process information. Between the constant influx of news regarding world events, the general stress of a new virus in our midst, the personal changes we’ve all had to adjust to, collective grief and shock at several aspects of these issues, and an overall increase in tension, nearly everyone is in a state of chronic stress at the moment. Chronic stress affects how we think because it activates the sympathetic nervous system which in turn effectively reduces the capacity of our prefrontal cortex to do its job. And its job is to process information, plan, store memories, and handle task management, amongst other things. So, when presented with one more thing to think about or one more decision to make….we feel stuck. Add to that the emotional impact depending on your own personal proximity to the ongoing issues, and it is expected to feel overwhelmed!

So how do you approach a situation when there is so much to address or just so many things going on that you don’t know where to start? It really doesn’t matter what it is you are trying to address. You could be wondering how to teach your children about world events and suddenly find you have no idea what to talk about first. Maybe you are trying to craft a company-wide email regarding the organization's BLM stance and support for employees (pro-tip: Black Lives Matter, be supportive) and can’t seem to find the correct words. Or perhaps you are out there trying to make positive changes in the world with regards to your particular area of social justice interest but just don’t know where to start. It doesn’t matter what it is, just the fact that you have to make a decision to do something is too much sometimes. Maybe you’re in a role where you have to do something though because you’re a therapist or a case worker or a caregiver or someone else who, in this moment, is the person in charge of doing the thing. How do you handle it?

First, you know what I’m going to say. Breathe. Just close your eyes and take three nice, slow, deep belly breaths. Remind yourself that just breathing helps to relax your nervous system, counteract stress, and clear your mind. That should always be your go-to activity when feeling overwhelmed before doing anything else. Slow down, be still, and breathe. Notice for a moment the way your body responds to that simple activity and pay attention to any changes or subtle shifts that come to your attention.

Sometimes, when we want to make change we think about the outcomes or the end result instead of paying attention to the beginning steps. Realistically, there are many steps between starting a task and ending it, so your brain is then trying to process all of those steps simultaneously which can be too much to ask of a brain in an already-stressed state. At times, it may even be too much to ask of a body in an emotionally-drained state as well. I find that visual cues are often helpful reminders when feeling overwhelmed, so I keep this image posted at my desk to help remind me that I don’t have to solve every problem or have every answer, but I do have to do what I can where I am able to. This is one of my favourite quotes by Desmond Tutu, and I am quite fond of the image of giving a bit of light as well, because that is how I conceptualize caregiving and change-making work.

How does this translate into taking action at home or the workplace or in the community? The answer is to simply start with where you are instead of focuses on making changes far away. Recognize that making a small difference in your own vicinity can truly have an impact, and that the ripple effects from even the tiniest of well-intentioned actions can have greater impact one day than you could possibly imagine. It is through our interactions with others than we are able to bring change into the world. When a parent takes the time to teach a child about current events, that demonstrates to the child that their thoughts and perspectives are important. Talking to a child about what is happening in the world today empowers them to be active in their communities when they are older. There isn’t necessarily one right way to start, but always take their lead and allow them to ask questions, which you should then answer matter of fact-ly in an age appropriate manner. In the workplace, assess how your policies and practices may affect those who are most vulnerable both inside and out of the organization. Then, target the most effective way to make positive change and communicate that accordingly. When considering community action, assess your resources. Remember though that YOU are a resource and you have valuable skills and insights! Consider what you know how to do and who around you would benefit from the skills you can offer, whether it is a neighbour or another organization. Be mindful to always take the approach of working together in a collaboratively, not “saving the needy” as this creates unhealthy power dynamics and denies those who are on one end of the change-making equation both dignity and empowerment. In all situations, a collaborative perspective and approach is key.

But what if you’re exhausted from giving too much, doing too much, feeling too much, knowing too much? This is often the case for caregivers and change-makers in various roles. Well, here’s the beauty of that quote I like so much: “doing your little bit of good” means just that, it doesn’t mean over-extending yourself and wearing yourself out in the process. Remember as I said a moment ago, YOU are a resource! Resources are valuable, and each unique individual has their own unique gift to give the world. In order to do so though, you have to rest. If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed more often and in-the-moment fixes of deep breathing and reframing your perspective are not enough to re-center yourself and gain focus anymore, then it’s time to take a break. Just a little one, enough to recharge your spirit so you can return to doing your little bit of good again soon. Take some time to think about three things you enjoy which relax you or that you do simply because they are fun. Now, make sure to do one of them before this week is over. Taking care of yourself is part of what is necessary to be able to take care of others.

What you do matters, dear change-maker. Do your little bit of good just where you are and encourage those around you to do their little bits of good as well. Together, it can truly overwhelm the world one tiny change from one person at a time. Take a moment to think about it and let me know what you have decided you are able to do from right where you are and how you have decided to care for yourself in the process. And if you are interested in reading about the events discussed in the first paragraph, be sure to check out the hyperlinks. Sometimes the little bit of good is just bringing a little bit of awareness one blog post at a time 😉

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