Activism is incredibly meaningful but it can also at times be mentally exhausting and traumatic. It is important to acknowledge these psychological effects, find balance and take care of ourselves and each other. If you need a break, take one. Burn out isn’t good for your health, the animals or the planet.

Coping with trauma for animal activists

By Stephanie Wiebe*, Ph.D., C.Psych

*The content here is not meant to advise

What is trauma?

A traumatic event is an experience involving actual or threatened death or serious injury or a threat to the physical integrity of self or others. A traumatic experience can involve one specific event, or can be a series of events. Because of the horrific treatment of animals and people in industries that exploit animals, animal advocates are often exposed to traumatic events in the course of their work.

Common reactions to trauma

  • Reliving the event through memories, or nightmares that may involve images, emotions, thoughts or physical sensations you experienced when the event took place. You may even feel like you are going through the trauma again.These experiences may be triggered by reminders of the event. Reminders can be anything reminiscent of the trauma and involve all the 5 senses.
  • You may find yourself wanting to avoid situations that remind you of the event.
  • You may feel numb and find it hard to express your feelings or feel emotionally distant from other people.
  • Changes in the way you view other people or the world.
    You may feel on edge, irritable, and have difficulty relaxing or falling asleep.

Most of these experiences usually fade as time passes. Past traumatic experiences can make subsequent trauma more difficult to cope with – current traumatic events can trigger memories such as images, feelings, physical sensations of past traumatic experiences as well. How you cope with these experiences can impact how long they last and how tolerable they are.

Coping with trauma

Do not isolate yourself from other people, use problematic coping methods such as alcohol or drugs, or blame yourself or loved ones – the reality is that the atrocities done to animals are a result of a flawed system, not any one person.

Do... Talk to people who you trust, start informal or formal support groups for animal advocates, take care of yourself – remember what you always found pleasurable and deliberately schedule it into your life, and learn your own reactions to trauma, notice it when it’s happening.

When you are reliving the trauma, do what you can to stay present even as you are having the trauma memory. Use your 5 senses to notice the environment around you right now. Learn mindfulness meditation to cope with distressing emotions. Engage in exercise such as yoga.

Spend time with animals – visit a sanctuary or spend time with companion animals – give yourself experiences that directly counter the traumatic ones.

When should I seek help?

A mental health professional can help you cope with trauma reactions. You should especially seek help from a mental health professional if trauma reactions are very distressing or get in the way of living your life and having fulfilling relationships, or the trauma reactions last longer than one month.

Where can I go for help?

  • Talk to your family physician
  • Talk to a psychologist or psychotherapist
  • In Defense of Animals Animal Activists Helpline

Recommended Reading:

Coping with Animal Rights Stress – David Sztybel, Ph.D.
Life After Trauma: A Workbook – Rosenbloom & Williams
Reclaiming Your Life from a Traumatic Experience – Rothbaum & Foa
Strategic Action for Animals – Melanie Joy Aftershock – Pattrice jones
Trauma Stewardship – Laura van Dernoot Lipsky The Lifelong Activist – Hilary Rettig


Canadian Psychological Association
American Psychological Association
In Defense of Animals

Mindfulness Resources:

Mindfulness Meditation – Tara Brach and Guided Mindfulness Meditation - Jon Kabat-Zinn
Herbal Remedies: Kava Root extract (Yogi stress relief Tea) and Bach Rescue remedy