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Psychologist and neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett has researched emotions and the brain’s reaction to stress for decades. Her work helps to reveal why commitment to self-care, during distressing times in particular, is so critical. The unnerving impact of online abuse is also personal to Barrett, who encountered online harassment after publishing an op-ed she wrote was published in a leading national news outlet. 

In 2017, Barrett’s book, How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain was published. Her most recent book, 7 ½ Lessons About the Brain, was published in 2020. Understanding how the brain and body create emotions and other mental events can help assuage anxiety, depression, and other consequences of stress during an episode of online abuse. This quest for knowledge, combined with a series of other steps meant to shore up the body’s defenses against mental and physical illness, can help you face harassment with new resolve.

What follows is a list of advice adapted from a PEN America interview with Barrett, as well as our ongoing conversations with therapists, journalists who’ve faced online harassment, and security experts across the globe—from Latin America and the MENA region (with support from NDI) to West and East Africa.

1. Understand what’s happening to your body.

Words are powerful and can have an immediate impact on your body. This is true for everyone and is not a sign of weakness. The brain systems that allow you to understand words and their meaning simultaneously regulate the systems of your body—your heart rate, your respiratory activity, your immune system, your metabolism, and so on. This is why online harassment can elicit such a powerful physiological response. Apathy, fatigue, headaches, shortness of breath, nausea, stomach aches, a sense of physical agony that is difficult to describe but emerges anytime the harassment comes to mind—all of these are possible consequences of an episode of online abuse. Perhaps you’re reliving the harassment on repeat, like an intrusive and unwelcome dialogue you can’t escape from. Perhaps you blame yourself, even if some part of you knows that this kind of thinking is illogical. (A reminder: You are not to blame.)

Whatever you are feeling—furious, afraid, embarrassed—it’s important to understand that these feelings begin as simple sensations of physical discomfort that are not necessarily emotions. Simple feelings—what scientists call “affect”—are a quick summary of what is going on inside your body, kind of like a barometer, without much detail. Affective feelings are not always unpleasant; they can also be comfortable. Either way, simple feelings are the result of your brain’s control of the systems in your body—they are with you every waking moment of your life.

Your brain uses three ingredients to make emotions: the sensations from your body that give you those simple feelings, your surroundings, and what you know about emotions. If you learn to change the ingredients that your brain uses to make emotions, you can better control them so that they don’t control you.

2. Get enough sleep.

Getting enough sleep is the key to maintaining physical and mental health. A good night’s sleep makes it easier for your brain to keep your nervous system in balance. Not sleeping enough can lead to physical discomfort and distress, which can then make it more likely for stressful memories to come to mind. Getting enough sunlight during the day, exercising, and eating well are other activities that make it easier for your brain to keep your nervous system in balance. If you’re struggling to sleep, speak with your doctor. Becoming physically ill during an episode of online harassment is the last thing you need.

3. Try a change of scenery.

The day-to-day situations that you’re in make it easier for certain thoughts to come to mind. One easy way to change your thoughts is to change your context. You can do this literally by going for a walk or a run, or figuratively, by being mindful of the details that surround you. For example, try noticing the expanse of clouds in the sky, the rich color of a beautiful flower, or even weeds poking out from a crack in the sidewalk. These details give you an opportunity to experience awe, which gives your body a break from the more immediate stresses of the day.

4. Seek social support.

Humans are a social species—we help regulate each other’s nervous systems. An embrace or a kind word from a friend can give your body a much-needed boost. Spending time with members of your community won’t inoculate you against every bad feeling, but it can ease the discomforts that lead to anxiety and physical illness. It is especially helpful to talk to people who have also experienced online harassment. You might find comfort in their insights. (See the Support Communities section of this Field Manual for more tips on creating and leveraging supportive communities.)

5. Increase your “emotion vocabulary” for discussing online harassment.

The more granular you can be about your emotional experience during an episode of online abuse, the better off you’ll be. A broader vocabulary gives you a bigger toolbox for coping with stressful events: Language is a source of resilience, which is why it helps to put a name to the emotions you’re experiencing and to articulate the forms of harassment you’re encountering. Read up on the different forms of online harassment out there and the stories of the many different people affected by it, and arm yourself with a rich vocabulary necessary for making sense of this often bewildering phenomenon.

6. Take a break from your electronic devices, and don’t use your phone or computer before bed.

The frequency of light emitted from electronic devices promotes wakefulness, interfering with the body’s natural circadian rhythms. Put devices away at least one hour before bedtime, and give yourself a good night’s rest.

7. If you think it might help you (and it might not, and that’s totally fine) spend some time trying to cultivate compassion for your harasser.

Many online abusers are dealing with their own unhappiness and anxieties, which can manifest as abuse toward others. This is no excuse for harmful behavior, and attacks can be also orchestrated by groups of interests or political groups, but it does sometimes help the targets of such abuse realize that these attacks are not necessarily about them. For those interested in learning more about what motivates online trolling, see the Making Sense of Online Hate and Harassment section of this Field Manual. Education about an issue goes a long way toward helping you regain control of your life, both online and off.

8. If all else fails, be compassionate with yourself.

It might be impossible to exert any control over your feelings. If this is the case, don’t fight with yourself. Let yourself feel without judgment, and remember that tomorrow is another day.