Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Health Benefits of Protesting

I haven't been writing much here lately, but I have been visiting and helping out with the Occupy movement in Pittsburgh, PA. It's come a LONG way since the first week when the NYC protesters were being ignored by mainstream media.

Last month, while I was working at Occupy Pittsburgh, a reporter asked me about my views on the protest as a health psychologist. "Do you think it's healthy for these people to be protesting, out here in the cold weather?" she asked. I was pretty amazed by this question, since I have never been consulted as a scientist at a political event before. Well, not since my work on climate change anyway; this was the first time I've been consulted as a psycho-physiologist.

So, do I think it's healthy for the occupiers to be protesting out in the cold? There's a lot of levels to this question, but I would answer yes on most counts:

1. Socially: Protesters are angry about our government, and the protests give them a public forum to express that discontent. It's very important to be able to express anger in a constructive fashion, otherwise it can raise blood pressure, contribute to negative emotions and cause chronic stress. So yes, it's much healthier emotionally for the protestors to do their thing. Just think, if you could make signs and march around with a group of people shouting about what most upsets you in life, wouldn't you feel better?

2. Biologically: Protestors "out there in the cold" usually take care to prepare for the weather. Medic tents at most Occupy sites distribute blankets and warm clothes as needed, and can protect against other health crises that come up. If you wear warm clothes and stay active, being in cold weather is actually good for you. It raises your energy levels and the fresh air is good for your mood as well. A researcher who used to work in my office at Pittsburgh (Jeanette Garcia), actually reported that fresh air gives people "increased mental clarity, helps strengthen the immune system and helps your body establish its circadian rhythm," along with increasing metabolism, and being good for your skin!

Back in October, I would have said protesting was healthy for the mind and body of the Occupiers. But now, given the police brutality doled out with pepper-spray, evictions and tear-gases, I would say the protesters are taking a health risk. Not all the Occupy sites have experienced such a violent response; but Oakland, Seattle and NYC have reported the worst, and it looks like the trend may continue to spread. So overall, peaceful protesting is a healthy way to express your opinion, until the police attack protestors.