Self-Care for Bystanders

An important part of taking care of others is remembering to take care of yourself. Exposure to online harassment, even if you are not the the one it’s directed at, can cause secondary trauma. Take breaks when you need to and be gentle with yourself. We’ve got your back, too.

You Are Part of Something Amazing

Supporting others on HeartMob is an amazing thing to do. Not only are you helping victims of online harassment, you’re also part of a growing movement to make the internet a better, safer, and more enjoyable place for everyone. Studies show that online allies are crucial in fighting harassment, and bystander intervention has proven to be a best practice for dealing with harassment in all its forms.

But reading through abusive and violent content can take its toll. It’s important to look after your own mental health and wellbeing, for your own sake, and so that you can continue to help others.

Why Do I Feel This Way?

It may seem strange to feel anxious or upset when reading other people’s accounts of harassment. It’s not happening to you, so why are you so bothered by it?

While helping others is an invaluable and rewarding thing to do, engaging with people who have experienced trauma can sometimes feel overwhelming and distressing. Luckily, there are ways to prevent and manage these negative impacts so that you can continue your amazing work supporting others as a HeartMobber.

The first step is to recognize what you’re feeling, and know that you’re not in this alone.


Focusing too much on others without practicing self-care can lead to exhaustion, anxiety, and stress. This is known as burnout. Burnout can show up in different ways for different people.

Sometimes it can feel like the work you’re doing isn’t enough and that you’re not making a difference. Sometimes it can feel like the problems you’re dealing with are overwhelming and you can’t continue engaging with them at the same level. Sometimes it shows up as “compassion fatigue,” a feeling that you can no longer engage emotionally or empathetically with the topic.

Secondary Trauma

Secondary trauma, also known as “vicarious trauma,” is how we’re affected emotionally and psychologically when we’re exposed to the suffering of others. It shows up as a feeling of mental, physical and emotional exhaustion when engaging empathetically with someone who has experienced trauma. For instance, if you’ve read an account of online harassment posted on HeartMob and felt distressed as though you were the one directly experiencing it, that’s secondary trauma.

If you’re experiencing burnout or secondary trauma, remember:

  1. This not a personal failing. It’s a sign that you really care.
  2. Be kind to yourself. Take a step back and practice self-care. It’s never selfish to look out for your own well-being first and foremost; in fact, it’s the best strategy to ensure you can pick yourself back up and continue working to help others.

What is Self-Care?

Self-care is a term used by volunteers and people in helping professions to describe the kindness and understanding that you need to show yourself when you are exposed to the suffering and injustice faced by others. This kindness and understanding toward yourself allows you to engage in a sustainable way. It can help you keep a positive attitude when faced with challenges. Practicing self-care means you can continue to help others without sacrificing your own mental and physical health and well-being. Some common self-care advice encourages eating healthy, taking a bath or meditating, and while all these things are helpful, they’re not suitable for everyone. Not everyone has the option to take a break; work, childcare and other realities of everyday life can prevent you from taking time out to look after yourself.

These 5 minute self-care exercises are examples of how you can work self-care into a busy schedule.

At the end of the day, self-care is whatever works for you: whatever practices or activities make you feel better, stronger, and healthier in mind and body.

Self-Care Tips

Know Your Limits

Bystander intervention is incredibly important. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t difficult. Do what you can – whether that’s reporting, writing a supportive message, or just clicking “I’ve Got Your Back” – but give yourself permission to say no when you need to. Some days you might feel like you can take on the world, and those days are the best time to reach out to others who might be struggling. At times when you don’t feel as resilient, be kind to yourself and allow yourself to take a break. You can change your email notification settings in your account profile if you need to take some time off.

Be Mindful of Your Own Triggers

While it’s always helpful for a victim of online harassment to get support from someone who’s been in their situation, take care to look out for your triggers – those things that are particularly upsetting for you and might bring up memories of injustice or trauma you have experienced. Each help request is tagged with the nature of the harassment (e.g. racism, transphobia, misogyny), so you can focus on reading only the content you’re best equipped to deal with.

Share Your Feelings

You don’t have to take everything on by yourself. Talk to a partner, friend, family member, therapist, or advocate, and know that your feelings are valid, whatever they are. Email us at Just like you know it’s important for victims of online harassment to ask for help from the HeartMob community, you are just as deserving of help from your own community.

Take Steps to Prevent Burnout

As we all know, prevention is the best cure. Take action to stop burnout before it happens and nip it in the bud. Work self-care into your schedule and make plans to meet friends or do something fun and relaxing. Keep a journal or a note on your phone listing all the positive things you see, do, or notice and read over it when you start to get bogged down in negativity. Do something today that your future self will thank you for!

Supporting Others Can Be a Form of Self-Care

It can feel overwhelming to be up against a culture of online harassment and the larger systems of oppression that sustain it, but playing your part in changing this culture can be self-care in itself. Through the small acts of reporting and documenting abuse, or sharing kind words of support to a stranger, you’re helping the victim take back control of the situation and you’re creating positive cultural change. So while it’s important to switch off when you need to, keep in mind the huge importance of what you’re doing, and let that energize you to continue the fight!


Self-Care Resources

TED Talks on Secondary Trauma

There’s Always Someone There to Listen

We've Got Your Back