There’s a lot of bad news these days. Checking social media and news outlets can feel like being hit with wave after crashing wave of demoralizing stories on how our world is falling apart. The more involved you are in addressing pollution, biodiversity loss, climate change, white supremacy, homophobia, sexism, and other interconnected social and environmental issues, the more this constant influx may feel it’s pulling you under. This may be especially true if you’re directly impacted by them. As we collaboratively address these issues, and disrupt the underlying systems that drive them, it’s essential to build personal resilience, and by extension, our collective resilience.

I’ve been immersed in environmental issues since my first undergraduate year. My courses focused on what’s going wrong, why, and what can be done, but never gave me the tools I needed to build my own resilience as I faced these issues. By the time I reached my junior year, I felt shell shocked, defeated, and on the verge of complete burnout.

After finishing my Bachelor’s degree, I moved to Milwaukee to serve for two years as an AmeriCorps member with a non-profit called Milwaukee Riverkeeper. In that role, I was a co-creator and lead organizer for the Plastic-Free MKE Coalition, a collective of nonprofit organizations, government agencies, businesses, and volunteers working to eliminate plastic pollution in the Milwaukee area.

As I learned more about the deep and far-reaching harms of the plastic industry, fellow organizers and I were simultaneously met with state legislation and pandemic-related fear mongering by Big Plastic that limited the impact of our work. At the same time, pandemic isolation, economic hardships, and police murders of Black people across the country and in my own city were taking their toll. I could feel my personal resilience breaking down, and could sense it in other activists around me.

I’m now in a graduate program at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, where I study environmental psychology, behavior change, education, and communications. Through my coursework and research I’ve come to understand the importance and power of accessible self-care practices for building personal resilience.

Self-Care is Collective Care, Self-Care Transforms Systems

The purpose of self-care is to ensure we’re our best selves so we have the capacity to envision a better future, and to collaborate, problem-solve, and care for each other as we move towards that vision. My faculty advisor, Dr. Raymond De Young, calls this idea the “Oxygen Mask Principle”. Anyone who has been on a commercial flight has heard the flight attendant say, “Should the cabin lose pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the overhead area. Place the mask over your own mouth and nose before assisting others.” In other words, caring for ourselves is a first, and vital, step to caring for others and the precious ecosystems we’re part of.

There is a great deal of power in the internal, hyperlocal, and small-scale work of self-care. In her book Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, writer and social and environmental movement expert adrienne maree brown describes emergent strategy as “how we intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for.” A core principle of emergent strategy is that what we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale by setting patterns for the whole system. Therefore, in order to create a system of collective care, we must practice that care on a personal level. Our own health and resilience determines the health and resilience of our interconnected social and ecological communities.

The concept of ‘directed attention’ from environmental psychology offers an approach to self-care that’s available to anyone. This approach can transform how you work and rest by fostering mindfulness and increasing your agency over your valuable mental resources.

What is Directed Attention, Why Does it Matter, & How Does it Get Depleted?

Most of us have our very own distraction machine – it’s probably sitting somewhere within ten feet of you right now! Through our phones, computers, and other devices, countless forms of digital media compete for our attention, using mechanisms intentionally designed to capture and hold our attention. While our devices and the internet can also be powerful tools for communicating with each other, learning, and organizing for the causes we care about, they are new and potent means for depleting our attentional capacities. The information available to us is abundant, but our attention is not.

Directed attention is the ability to inhibit external distractions and internal mental noise in order to concentrate on what we would like to be thinking or doing in that moment. Thus, it’s a particularly valuable form of attention that requires effort. Directed attention is essential for the self-awareness, social awareness, envisioning, planning, and goal-oriented actions required to address today’s intersecting social and environmental issues. But there’s one major challenge: all people have a limited amount of directed attention, and it inevitably depletes as we go about our daily activities.

When we experience directed attention fatigue, it can be difficult to focus, solve problems, think ahead, be civil to those around us, and be aware of our environment. The more our directed attention gets worn down, the more difficult it becomes to refocus after we get temporarily distracted, which in turn, more severely depletes the smaller amount of remaining attentional capacity. Moreover, unlike stress or physical tiredness, it can be hard to detect our own directed attention fatigue until it gets particularly bad.

There are countless factors that can wear down directed attention – more than I could possibly list here! These could fall under the information overwhelm umbrella, which includes distracting environments, multi-tasking, dealing with abstract information, prolonged uncertainty, overuse of directed attention, mental noise, and strong emotions. There can also be physical factors, like lack of sleep, physical pain or illness, and hearing or vision impairment.

Growing your understanding of directed attention, and what wears it down, is a first step to reclaiming control over your attention, and channeling it towards the intersecting environmental and social movements that are so vital to our collective resilience. Practicing this self-care on a personal level has the potential to not only help you persist in this work, but also transform the systems that drive many of today’s issues.

In the next article of this two part series,  I’ll focus on everyday practices for managing and restoring your directed attention.

Many thanks to Dr. Ray De Young, Clara Winter, Rob Dietz, and Amy Buringrud for your thoughtful input and editing of this article.