What We Should Consider Before Criticizing Those Who Don't Attend Protests


Anxiety affects my life in a lot of ways, many of which people wouldn’t expect. Everyday
situations like a new relationship, stress about work and money troubles can spiral quickly into a vortex of worry. But what about when the stress isn’t even from one event in your life, but from a mass event affecting many people around you?

At my alma mater, the University Currently Known as Rhodes (UCKAR) in the Eastern Cape, a spate of protesting has broken out, in line with the broader #FeesMustFall movement in South Africa asking for free and inclusive tertiary education. Much has been written on these protests, but for me, seeing them happen again brings up incredibly overwhelming anxiety.

Being part of a social movement, any movement anywhere in the world, is daunting as someone with a mental illness. Protests mean crowds, a lack of control and the threat of violence from police. This fear makes the anxiety I feel on a daily basis grow exponentially, while at the same time in my heart I support the cause whole-heartedly. This leads to a difficult see-saw in my head.

There is a lot of stigma around those who are within a group and then choose not to protest. Other students, in this movement’s case, are often quick to deride those who are not physically present as “armchair activists” or not good enough for the cause. However, what people often don’t realize is that to be part of that environment physically is incredibly draining mentally and emotionally. I feel on the edge of panic constantly when in a crowd, especially one charged by emotion.

My breathing becomes shallow, my chest tightens and I know I could have a panic attack at any moment. If you have an anxiety disorder with associated panic attacks, your brain panics when it registers your environment as an immediate threat and the part of your brain (your amygdala) that registers fear goes into hyperdrive. You become a small-range nuclear bomb of fear. If you have never experienced a panic attack, it feels like death has suddenly arrived. You cannot breathe, your body spasms and you are sure you may not make it. All of that happens within a few minutes, but in the eye of the storm it feels like years.

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Having a panic attack in public is incredibly traumatizing. It’s humiliating to lose control in front of people, never mind that at that moment your brain is registering the environment as something that could kill you. The atmosphere in a protest is very much hardwired to trigger this response because of the volatility of the situation and your fear about how it may unfold.

With many tragic world events constantly happening around us today and accessible through social media, it becomes difficult to separate yourself from this fear even when you are miles away only watching. The fear still lingers in your head and it makes it hard to be engaged because your very sanity becomes more fragile in the face of so much hurt, anger and pain.

The point I am trying to make here is that we must be gentle with those around us. You may not know why a person cannot be involved in something, a protest or any other event, because you don’t know what that event means to them. In their world, that situation may literally feel life-threatening and they have to take care of themselves or risk everything crashing down around them. Compassion and non-judgment is incredibly important. So take a moment and think to yourself whether you understand a person’s world before you think about judging them. Giving compassion is never out of place, and often may help someone feel safer when their mind is registering the world as anything but safe.

Image via Jordan Du Toit

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