How to Use Activism as Self-Care

By Leslie Goldman

As a longtime Girl Scout, Hikmah Jamal has had plenty of opportunities to engage in community service. In sixth grade, she helped raise funds for a local Islamic school to purchase books for its struggling library. She made and donated no-sew blankets to a hospital for patients with cancer during her first year of high school. But to earn the highest Girl Scout award, Jamal, now 20 and going to college in Austin, Texas, was challenged to create and implement a long-lasting solution to a problem or cause she felt deserved attention. 

At the time, Jamal was a high school senior and had seen “several friends and classmates within my Muslim community self-medicating with drinking, drugs, and food.” Having struggled with her own mental health, Jamal says, “I chose to step up and speak.”

Jamal consulted with mental health professionals and developed multiple workshops and seminars to educate community members about the dangers of self-medication, how to develop healthier coping skills, and how to help a loved one who is self-medicating. Nearly 50 people attended one of her virtual seminars, which “felt really empowering,” she says. “We were all in a really rough spot in the middle of quarantine, but when I saw all the people I was able to reach, I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I did this.’ And I think it made everyone feel less alone.”

Jamal didn’t realize it at the time, but her activism allowed her to tap into what’s known as a “helper’s high.” When we give our time, energy, or help to others, our brains release feel-good chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin that increase feelings of pleasure, happiness, and social bonding. 

And if there ever was a time we need feel-good emotions, it’s now. 

Many of us are still grappling with the mental health impacts of the pandemic, and with each passing day comes word of a new tragedy, a new type of suffering, a different group of people being oppressed in some way. The need for self-care—the act of taking care of your physical, mental, and emotional health—is greater than ever. And so is the call to do something.  

Enter activism. When you volunteer or champion a cause you believe in—whether it’s racial equity, climate change, animal rights, or another issue you care deeply about—you open the door to a number of mind-body benefits, all of which count as self-care. Here are a few of them:

Activism is a way to find your people. When you show up to your first meeting for your high school’s recycling club, join your college campus’s Pride Society, take part in an online boycott, or wear clothing that supports a cause you care about, you’re almost guaranteed to connect with like-minded peers. It’s a direct path to making friends, and spending time with friends is one of the simplest, most powerful forms of self-care.  

Activism helps you channel and process anger. It’s natural and healthy to feel angry when you see people being treated unfairly because of their gender, race, or socioeconomic status; watch animals suffer in shelters; or hear about the devastating effects of climate change. But stewing in anger can make your mental health worse. Letting it fuel you to make change helps you process and alleviate your anger. Instead of feeling helpless and powerless in the face of bad news, you can feel like you’re a part of changing it. 

Activism connects—instead of isolates—us. Whether you’re marching for gun safety, posting #MeToo on Insta, or attending a screening of “Save the Bees!,” everyone is united in working for something greater than themselves. The cause becomes the thing that brings you together and eliminates the ways we label, isolate, or even bully each other. 

Activism lowers stress hormones. Studies have shown that volunteering and performing acts of kindness can lower levels of cortisol and reduce inflammation in the body. That can have a range of health benefits, including strengthening your immune system, improving your cardiovascular health, and lowering your risk of chronic diseases.

Activism helps you feel less alone. Everyone struggles with something. If it’s not depression, addiction, or poor body image, it’s food insecurity, religious oppression, or one of thousands of other challenges. Volunteering lets you step outside yourself for a moment and do something for others. It can be a good distraction from tough times or drama, and it sends your mind and body a powerful message: I can make a difference, and I matter.

Activism helps you share your values with the world. By talking about—and taking action for—a cause you care about, you are telling the world what matters to you, which helps you be seen for something you care about. 

Activism can reduce feelings of loneliness and depression by increasing our social connection and sense of purpose. Overall, experiencing a helper’s high can contribute to a greater sense of well-being and a more positive outlook on life.

We talked with teens and young adults across the country to find out what activism does for them and their mental health.

Jenna Landau, 18, Lincolnshire, Illinois

“I struggle with severe anxiety, but I have found outlets in the clubs at my high school. For Feminism Club, we took the train into Chicago to march to defend abortion rights in fall 2022. Roe v. Wade had recently been overturned by the Supreme Court, and I was angry. My family and I are very split politically, so being able to stand up for a cause I’m so passionate about made me feel like I had a voice. 

“In choir, we volunteer every semester with Feed My Starving Children, packaging food to send to children in need. The vibe is so good. We play music and jam along as we pack, always trying to beat the number of boxes we packed last semester. When I’m there, all I’m thinking about is, ‘How many boxes can I get done?’ I  know that the more boxes I pack, the more kids I’ll help feed. It serves as a very positive distraction from whatever I’m struggling with, and we know we’re doing a good thing.

“I’ve also volunteered as a personal shopper at an annual free pop-up prom shop. Just seeing the confidence and smiles on these girls’ faces when they found the perfect dress was amazing. The anxiety of not being able to afford a prom dress completely washed away. I helped make that happen. 

“I’m not super out there socially. I have one best friend. That’s it. But with every group I join, I meet new people. It’s really uplifting. I’ve felt like an outsider a lot of my life, and being a part of these clubs and volunteer activities has helped me embrace myself.”

Bennie Williams, 22, Atlanta

“In 2020, when I was an undergrad student at Morehouse College in Atlanta, my friends and I got tired of seeing the same images of people who looked like us encountering police violence—and injustice in general. George Floyd, of course, but also the violence we’d hear about in our city that doesn’t make the news. We wanted our voices to be heard. In the beginning, it was just a few of us talking to each other, a lot of FaceTime group chats with us asking, ‘What can we do?’ We made flyers advertising a protest at the state capitol and reached out to some organizers on Instagram for advice. It wasn’t the biggest protest ever, but there was a lot of representation, including other ally groups and our parents. 

“It was empowering to connect with people over the same mission, including those in other cities. But it also became really tiring, especially with school and COVID. After a couple of months, I found it hard to keep coming up with fresh ideas, and I was struggling to keep up with my organizing meetings along with all my school assignments. I wish someone had told me to prioritize rest and decompress, and to keep doing things I enjoy, like reading and writing. I definitely got burned out.

“I’m currently news editor for our campus newspapers, so I stay involved by covering student movements on campus. I’ll cover protests even if they challenge our institution, like when students recently spoke out against the construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Center, also known as Cop City, and demanded the funds be reallocated to investing in the Atlanta community. Students come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for putting this out there.’”

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