Natalie Lowrey shared her story with Plan to Thrive through the Activist Health and Wellbeing Survey. Thanks Nat! More stories to come.
Can you tell us a little bit about the kind of activism you have been involved in?
Over the past 13 years my activism has encompassed many social justice and environmental issues including rights of asylum seekers and refugees, workers rights, nuclear-free and Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination, including the right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent. My activism has a strong focus on grassroots movement building and community resistance stories particularly against extractives and large scale developments.
I have always been passionate about providing spaces for marginalised communities to have a voice. Using tools and tactics from non-violent direct action to lobbying, international roadshows to strategic communications, I have worked with and supported Indigenous communities in Australia, Papua New Guinea, Canada, United States, Tanzania, Philippines and Chile in their struggles to protect their culture, livelihoods and their right to self-determination.
I believe bringing creative ideas, activism and community together enables individuals, families and local communities to share their stories and to highlight connectedness and diversity of all peoples.
What motivates you to engage in activism?
I grew up as one of the only white kids in a predominantly Polynesian community, I saw first hand the injustices of racism and the impacts of poverty even though I lived in a first world country. In my heart and soul I felt it was my responsibility to challenge the inequities and inequalities in our society. I don’t believe I will make great changes in my life but I am motivated to plant seeds of change for environmental and social justice where ever I go, to challenge the status quo, business as usual and where I can dismantle the system and replace it with healthier, loving and more equitable communities.
How does your activism impact on your health and wellbeing?
It used to, I no longer let activism impact on my health and wellbeing. Once you have suffered severe burnout a couple of times you learn not to go there again. The negatives of burnout for me were anxiety, panic attacks, sleep apnea, weight loss, negativity, depression, anger, losing friends, substance abuse, not eating properly, feeling a shell of a person and losing sight of why you were doing he work you were doing. There is nothing heroic in sacrificing your wellbeing to try and change the world, the chances are if you are not looking after yourself you are not being an effective activist. The positives about going through burnout is realising you are not invincible and learning new ways to be effective as an activist without it taking over your whole emotional, spiritual and mental wellbeing.
What have you figured out about sustaining yourself as an activist?
I have worked out ways to never reach burn out again. One of the main tools for me is to recognise the signs, once I start to feeling any anxiety at all I literally put everything down I am working on and do something for me. This may only be for a day or it could be for longer like going away for a couple of weeks and shutting off my phone and computer. I now carefully chose who I want to work closely with, we have to be caring and supportive of each other.
Another big factor for me was removing myself from just hanging out with activists and spending more time with old close friends and family. At the end of the day they are the ones who know you best, can nurture you and catch you when you fall. It is unfortunate to say but activists were the last people to support me when I went through burnout which is quite damning for a movement of change that is supposed to be building a better world. Although with projects like Plan to Thrive we may be able to change this culture!
What have you noticed are the major contributors to the experience of burnout, either for yourself or others?
For me vicarious trauma and adrenal fatigue were key in leading me down the road of my first severe burn out experience. It took me nearly 7 years to even understand what vicarious trauma and adrenal fatigue actually were and that was through my own research and sharing experiences with a fellow activist. To name it was good for me because it is so hard to explain to other people what your body is going through, that it is not just emotional it is also physical.
I think generally a major contributor is the urgency behind activism, ‘we have to do it now or the world will end’. Sure we are faced with some serious issues for the planet and out species but we have to be sustainable in ourselves if we are to try and create sustainable lives, livelihoods and communities. A major turning point for me was when an Aboriginal Elder I had been working with for a couple of years back in 2005 said to me “We have been fighting this for over 220 years we are not going to change it in a day”. Working with Indigenous communities and understanding their concept of time was a huge help in my activist life, it gave me back my soul.
What advice would you give to someone who is burnt-out, or at risk of burning out?
This is a hard one, often when you are on the brink of burn out you have blinkers on and don’t want to listen – I know I was like that in my first major burn out. I have however spent a lot of time over the years supporting people where I can who are going through burn out, one of the most important things is just letting them know I am there for them anytime of the day if they need me, finding ways to support their work and taking some of the load off their shoulders. Let them know there is a light at the end of the tunnel and that they will only grow stronger and wiser from the experience. Food and sleep are key in the recovery of burn out. Often we are not nourishing ourselves physically, emotionally or spiritually when we are in our intense activist modes. Understanding what foods help you with energy and keeping your brain healthy is of utmost importance. Also exercise, a walk along a beach or in the bush does wonders for the soul and your body.
The hardest part though is when you are in burn out mode making the time for all of this, it just isn’t something you can do by yourself which is why supportive friends and family are so important.