By Jo Musker-Sherwood
When I left university in my early twenties back in 2014, I got involved in a project called ‘Hope for the Future’ that a few churches in Yorkshire had started together.The idea was to research the best means of communicating the urgency of the climate crisis with politicians.
We secured a little bit of funding, and I was so excited that my day job was to actually do something about climate change. It felt like a great way to alleviate my eco-anxiety; whenever I felt anxious about climate change and the nature crisis, I would just throw myself into the work.
This was helped by the fact that work was fortunately going well; suddenly I found myself running a national charity, working with over 100 MPs and opening regional offices.
What wasn’t going so well, however, were the warning bells that were going off inside me about my own wellbeing.
I struggled to switch off, and had intrusive thoughts like ‘what if we don’t manage to turn climate change around?’
I shut these thoughts out, and kept on going, working harder and harder to put them to rest. But then my body started talking to me. I started getting strange aches and pains, I wasn’t eating properly, I couldn’t enjoy anything outside of work anymore. I had a cold, then a virus and then another cold… and my friends began to notice me retreating also.
I was burning out, and although I had seen this in other colleagues, I didn’t realise it was happening to me. I thought I just needed to try harder and get on with things.
I was too scared to stop and listen to my mind and body. I struggled to hear God’s voice over my anxiety for the future, so I just wanted to carry on. I didn’t know how to balance my care for the planet with my care of myself.
A turning point was when I ended up in A&E with chest pains that no one could explain, and again in hospital over several months to investigate various ailments in my body.
I took a 6 month sabbatical, but that was actually when my burnout came crashing in. One day I just could not get out of bed and I knew I couldn’t return to my job.
Over the many months it took me to recover, I felt a sense of God calling me to use my experience of burnout to support other eco-activists. Funding came, as well as various other opportunities that made it possible for me to retrain in wellbeing, and begin supporting climate activists to build resilience against burnout.
Now I run an international programme that supports climate activists to fuel their lives and work with joy, and I’m also working with funders to help them better support activists with their wellbeing.
Here are a few tips that may help you cope with, or even avoid, burnout:
- Rest. In his ministry, Jesus takes this seriously.
- Read. If burnout is something you’re specifically struggling with, read The Joy of Burnout by Dr Dina Glouberman. Her take on burnout is that it is a gift, that it happens because a way of working that once worked for us is no longer sustainable. Burnout is there to tell us there’s a different way. The gift of my burnout experience is that not only do I approach my climate activism differently, but I now approach the whole of my life differently.
- Practise stillness. Reconnect with your sense of ‘being in the world’ rather than ‘doing in the world’. Slow down and listen to what’s going on inside of yourself.
- Practise gratitude. ‘This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it’. So many times in the Bible we are commanded to be grateful. Gratitude is like a muscle that we can practise and it builds more resilience and joy-filled neural pathways in our brains!
- Retreat. God’s calling can look a little bit different for everyone. Taking time out to think about the big picture of our lives can help us discern what, out of everything there is to do in the world, is really ours to do.
- Remember. The urgency of the climate crisis makes us feel like we’re running a sprint, but actually this challenge is a marathon. Or even more than that, a very long walk, even a pilgrimage. I walked the Camino pilgrimage in Spain as a way of working through my climate grief, and this embodied practice helped me realise that the best we can do for the climate crisis is to turn up every day in the best way we can. This is a long haul journey, and not something we can outrun. As the famous children’s story says; we can’t go over it, we can’t go round it, we’ll have to go through it.
This blog forms part of ‘Responding with resilience to climate change’, Jo’s brilliant recent webinar for Wild Christian. Watch Jo’s webinar here.
Follow Jo’s work via Climate.emergence here. For anyone wanting further resilience support, join ‘Rest of Activism’: climateemergence.co.uk/rest-of-activism-membership