Coping with COVID-19 Distress: A Mental Health Guide for Animal Activists

There has been a profound shift in the world with the recent arrival of COVID-19. Many people are feeling fear for their health or that of loved ones, the blow of financial uncertainty, anxiety for the future, and in many cases, grief and loss. This global pandemic is placing many of us in a position that we have never yet had to be in, making us feel a deep loss of control and security.

For vegans and animal rights activists, this may be an emotionally complex issue to face. Activists fight for animal liberation to save animals from suffering, but many also do it for the health of humans and the planet. Now we are seeing one of the major consequences of mistreating animals –  the rise of deadly pathogens. Bird flu, Swine Flu, Ebola, Mad Cow Disease, and SARS are just some examples of recent fatal epidemics that emerged from the ways in which we have treated animals killed for food – mass close confinement, unsanitary environments, and prolonged stress and suffering. These conditions, common to almost every ‘meat’ facility around the world (not just the wet markets of Wuhan, China where COVID-19 is thought to have originated), are ideal breeding grounds for zoonotic viruses that we’ve already seen take the lives of many humans. We are witnessing a double blow – animal suffering, and consequential human suffering.

This comes after the tragic fires that ripped through Australia and the Amazon earlier this year and last. Nearly one-third of the planet’s land surface is already  dedicated to ‘livestock’; to know that animal agriculture is the leading contributor to climate change (and therefore a leading contributor to extreme fires), is a devastating reality. Many animals have lost their lives and homes through deforestation, to pave way to kill yet more animals for food, whilst slowly damaging our collective home – this planet.

Phew, ok so it’s clear – there has been a lot to take in this year. If you care about animals, then the emotional toll may be overwhelming. On top of the anxiety of our current global climate, the potential grief of losing your job, financial security, or social connection, you may also be feeling the grief of human and animal lives lost to these incidents, and the frustration of the continued impact of human behaviour on animals. If you’ve seen the empty shelves in the ‘meat’ aisles at the supermarkets, then you’ve had to continue to witness the harsh reality that even among the worst global tragedies, and the knowledge that moving away from our dominion over animals for food may be one of our greatest steps towards protecting our plant, our future, and saving countless lives – our fixation to feast on animal flesh runs deep. Facing this reality can bring on feelings of anger, frustration, grief, and sadness, as well as cause us to become disconnected, withdrawn, hostile, or demotivated,. But this is a time where our sense of community and persistence is needed most. Where facing these tragedies with all the pain they bring, yet continuing to fight for what’s important will make a profound difference in thriving during a historical upheaval.

So let’s look at some ways that we can find our footing and continue to inspire change in a difficult and unsteady time:

 

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Acknowledge

We are likely to have a range of emotional experiences at this time. This is an understandable response in the midst of so much change and uncertainty. But often our emotions and thoughts can send us into a whirlwind before we even realise they’re there. Acknowledging what is coming up for us internally gives us the capacity to pause, become aware of what’s within, and respond with kindness or clarity. Similar to when we help a friend in distress – one of the first things we might do is simply show up! We show up because we acknowledge that they’re struggling, only then can we help support them.

What this might look like:

Look at what is going on internally with a curious mind. Ask yourself  – What am I feeling? What am I thinking? Do I have any images, memories, or urges coming to mind? Note them to yourself. You might say to yourself “I’m feeling scared” or “I’m having thoughts like – I don’t know what’s going to happen”, or “I’m feeling frustrated because of how this has happened”. It may help to write these internal experiences down.

 

Make room for the distress

When we feel strong emotions it is normal to either get caught up in them, to struggle against them, or to want to get away from them. After all, they can feel very uncomfortable and who likes to stick around with discomfort? We might try to escape them by keeping busy, shutting off, or trying to distract ourselves in various other ways. This may offer some relief, but often this can also backfire, leaving us feeling even more distressed in the long-term. Struggling against our emotions can be a bit like sinking in quicksand, the more we fight it, the more it envelops us. Try to remind yourself that it is understandable to be having these kinds of thoughts and feelings at a time of crisis; feelings like frustration, sadness, fear, shock, and confusion. These are normal responses to an abnormal situation. See if you can make room for these emotions rather than struggle against them – allow them to be there in your mind and body, though they might be uncomfortable. When we drop the struggle, we leave some energy for responding to our emotions in ways that can help – like being kind to ourselves, taking action to help the situation, or simply reengaging with our bodies or the world around us & doing what matters in the present moment, despite the difficult emotions hitching a ride while we do so.

Contribute

There is a lot that is out of our hands right now – like the impact the virus is having, or what will happen in the future. But there is also a lot that is in our hands – like what we choose to do right now with the resources we have. In particular, our ability to contribute. At a time when we feel helpless, helping can be valuable for ourselves and others in our community. So ask yourself – what are my skills, resources, strengths, and capacities? And how can I use these to help others during this difficult time? Here are some ways you may be able to help:

    • Protect yourself and others from the virus as much as possible by: washing your hands frequently with soap and water, and avoid touching your face, quarantine yourself if you have any cold or flu symptoms, and avoid unnecessary social contact and maintain social distancing
    • Avoid buying supermarket products excessively, otherwise many are left to go without. Balanced purchasing helps everyone get what they need
    • Eat plantbased foods and encourage others to do the same in order to continue to reduce our impact on animal suffering and the planet, and to reduce the risk of supporting industries that give rise to harmful viruses like COVID-19
    • If you are an activist – focus your energy on social media and online activism, where many people will now be spending their time. Can you make videos, write, blog, take photos of your plantbased food, podcast, make recipe videos, help people live a more vegan lifestyle by directing them to information? How can you adapt your activism to be online?
    • Help someone who is in quarantine by offering to bring them food or other items, or help them do something they’re unable to do
    • Foster an animal or adopt an animal from a shelter; with increased time spent at home, and animal organisations struggling to find carers, you may be able to offer a home to an animal in need
    • Support a struggling local business, community organisation or volunteer group with donations
    • Check in on family or friends. Sometimes a simple message to let someone know you’re thinking of them can go a long way. Particularly keep in touch with any people you know who live alone.
    • Offer words of kindness to someone in distress and avoid telling them not to feel anxious or scared. It’s okay to feel this way. Let’s face these feelings together.
    • Link people to accurate and helpful information (see below) about how to minimise or respond to COVID-19
    • Speak up for animals and the planet. Now more than ever we need to take action to practice compassion towards the world around us. Eating animals is a leading contributor to climate change, to conditions bringing rise to deadly pathogens, and to the death of billions of lives. Choose plantbased living, protect vulnerable beings, and help others to make the connection.

 

Connect

With social distancing and self-isolation measures in place, it can be easy to start to feel agitation or loneliness. Usually, social isolation is the opposite of what we’d encourage to look after our mental health. But we are in a unique situation where isolation is so important for the survival and welfare of us all. So instead, let’s make efforts to isolate in ways that bring joy, contribution, and meaning.

Firstly, stay connected with others. You may do this by calling or texting family or friends, keeping in touch with colleagues if working from home, trying out your usual social activities online (e.g. asking a class teacher if they might run class via skype, or offering to do a group skype yourself), seeking psychological support (speak to your GP or mental health service about tele-services, or visit an online mental health support service)

Secondly, stay connected with what matters to you. What’s important to you? What do you value? What are your interests and hobbies? How would you like to spend your time, or remember the time you spent during this pandemic? How would you like to behave with others? How would you like to help animals? What new things would you like to learn? For example – reading, listening to music, podcasts, cooking, watching movies, developing a new skill like learning an instrument or a new language, teaching others skills you have, caring for vulnerable others, attending to your mental health through meditation, journaling, exercise or contribution to your community and to animals. Make a list of what you’d like to do then make a schedule for it (scheduling and structuring your day can be an important part of making these things happen!). It may be uninvited, but an abundance of time may now be at your doorstep. Consider what would make that time most meaningful to you.

 

Look after your health

In addition to maintaining hygiene practices to help protect you from the coronavirus, there are other ways you can attend to your health. These include:

  • Get adequate sleep and rest
  • Eat plantbased foods
  • Exercise
  • Stay hydrated
  • Spend time outside & get sunlight
  • Seek support from trusted others or professional services if in distress

 

Meditation

I’ve given this a whole separate section because meditation can be a profound experience in helping us gain more clarity, awareness, and composure. Meditation can help us reduce stress, manage difficult emotions, enhance self-awareness, sustain attention, and many more things. I believe now could not be a better time to look within and access our internal resources, when the external environment remains uncertain. If you are not too familiar with how to meditate (note – it is not simply clearing your mind!) there are many apps you can use that take you through evidence-based meditation practice, including:

  • Headspace
  • Smiling Mind
  • Waking Up (Sam Harris is offering free subscription during this global situation for those struggling financially)

 

Awareness vs Absorption

It can be easy to get caught up in following every bit of information that unfolds about the current situation – especially given how rapidly it changes. Staying informed is important in dealing with the situation. But try to give yourself a break from absorbing yourself in covid-19. How much time would you like to spend reading, talking, or thinking about it? Set a time-limit for yourself so that you can continue to dedicate physical and mental energy to other things that matter. Watch out for important time periods where absorbing might interfere with your wellbeing or what’s important to you, like just before bed, first thing when you wake up, when you are taking dedicated time out to unwind, or spending intimate time with a partner, family or friend.

Seek trusty resources

There is so much information floating around about covid-19, sometimes it’s difficult to know which to pay attention to. Unfortunately, this also means there’s a lot of misinformation which can add to increased feelings of uncertainty, anxiety, or risk. So stay informed about the latest changes in Australia and globally concerning Covid-19 with credible, evidence-based resources such as:

Hold on to compassion

When we see the wide-reaching devastating impacts of human behaviour on animals, humans, and the planet, it can be easy to feel disappointment, resentment, or anger towards people, heck towards humanity. This is valid, we’re allowed to feel these emotions. But try to also find compassion, no matter how difficult it is. Compassion helps us make sense of a nonsensical situation; helps us find a common humanity, and understand why people do what they do. Remind yourself, most people don’t intend for these harmful impacts – even when there is blatant mistreatment of animals. Most people are acting in accordance with what they’ve learned over a lifetime, or what they think is best for the survival of others, or because they haven’t yet understood the sentience and value in animals.

Feel your anger. Allow it to be there. Then when you’re ready, channel it away from aggression or hostility, and instead feed it towards meaningful contribution, towards the reminder that we are all facing the same tidal wave together, towards education, towards helping people to make the connection between behaviour and impact, towards helping each other move through the fear and anxiety, towards collective action to create change in the world we share.

 

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Author: Animal activist and clinical psychologist, Apoorva Madan
http://www.animalandmind.com

Psychology & Veganism

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Coping with COVID-19 Distress: A Mental Health Guide for Animal Activists

  1. This is such a helpful article Apoorva at a really poignant time. Thank you for acknowledging the double-whammy for ethical vegans the suffering that we might well be experiencing in regards to the welfare of both animals and humans alike – for whom we empathise and care. There are some important strategies in this article for us to take on board in order to maximise our self-care.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for reading & for your kind feedback! I’m glad to hear this has resonated for you, both as acknowledging the difficulties for ethical vegans and as a self-care tool. It is a strange and difficult time for most people, but I really wanted to highlight the grief of these experiences felt by those trying to create a better world for all living beings, and writing has helped me process some of this too.
      Thank you!
      – A

      Like

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