Eco-anxiety and how to manage it
In my last blog I wrote about rebellion …the need to channel our sadness and concern into action in order to effect change…and resistance….trying to understand why so many people appear to ignore the science of climate change and carry on as they always have.
Dealing with the scary stuff
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already anxious about the future. Because of that, you’ll be endeavouring to stay informed, which is likely to mean a barrage of bad news about the impact of rising temperatures and declining global wildlife populations. Some of this media material will be highly emotive and scary, aimed at those who are still resisting the fact we need radical change to our systems as a response to the crisis.
Trouble is, you’re not that target audience because you get it. And it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless at best, paralysed with anxiety at worst. It’s even got a name – eco-anxiety, a condition the American Psychological Association has defined as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.
Recently I’ve encountered high levels of anxiety, both face to face and anecdotally, particularly among parents of young children. This is borne out by American research which suggests that it’s the Millennial generation whose mental health is most affected by negative news about the environment. It’s not just Millennials…I too know the thumping heart and doomy belly that strikes at 3am.
But it’s not helpful, for anyone. Conservationists are recognising that positive stories about ecological restoration (tree planting in Ecuador on a record breaking scale, the trial reintroduction of beavers in Scotland resulting in improved habitat for other wildlife, the repopulation of bison in Europe) work much better than bleak prophecies in terms of galvanising the public. A Canadian study by Carly Armstrong suggests that psychological catalysts for environmental action reside within positive sentiments such as gratitude: “If humanity is to reverse the abuse of Earth, people’s relationship with nature must be framed in a more optimistic manner”. There are some very wonderful nature restoration projects which don’t make the headlines.
Rob Hopkins and the Transition Town Movement
Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Town movement (started in Totnes, Devon, our neighbouring county) and Altogether Good Bloke, understands the need for hopeful pragmatism. His book The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience (2008) does what it says on the tin. It’s a guide to shifting our communities towards greater self-reliance as a response to “peak oil” (the point at which we can no longer access cheap oil) and climate change. His philosophy is that this is both a means by which we can mitigate climate change and support ourselves when the going gets rough. Which it undoubtedly will. But at the heart of his approach is community engagement and more recently, how we can tackle the current challenges with imagination: “I want to find the people who are creating the spaces in which people come together to imagine as communities, in groups. And I want to reflect on what it might look like if we decided that we need a national crash programme of imagination rebuilding…. Because if there were ever a time in our history when we needed our imaginations fully-charged, it is now, as we face a perfect storm of challenges.”
What to do…
Don’t get me wrong: right now we need overt political activism more than ever, because we face governments who are failing to act in response to the climate crisis and in many cases accelerating it. I am grateful and humbled by all those who are putting themselves out there all over the world, to do just that. If you want to join them, brilliant. But if you are a sleep-deprived parent with a job, mortgage and raging eco-anxiety, there are some other things you can do to stay sane. Here are some of them…
- Take on Climate Vision’s Ten Pledges. You may well have encountered this mini questionnaire which comes from Cornwall already but if not, it offers a set of achievable pledges which will make a difference, both to the planet and the way you feel. (It’s the sense of helplessness which brings on eco-anxiety.)
- Get involved in local community groups which are tackling environmental issues: Transition Town movements, Friends of the Earth, local food co-operatives, urban farms, shared enterprises around growing organic food or transport and/or groups engaged in political activism. If you belong to a place of organised worship, take comfort from the spiritual and community support it offers and get them eco-activated. American Psychology professor, Elise Amel, says “While it is important to validate our emotions associated with climate change (such as a fear of the unknown, loss of special places or activities, worry about future), it can be debilitating to stay focused on the negative emotions. Instead, people who take action have a greater sense of control, and taking action with others can lighten the emotional burden.”
- Talk to your friends and family, not just about climate change, the Ten Pledges, politics, what we can do about plastics, etc. but about how you feel. It’s hard for people to support you if you hide the fact you’re struggling.
- Grow something – fruit, vegetables or flowers. Good for bees and the planet. If nothing else you will be supporting the ecosystem for slugs and aphids, who are all God’s children and food for birds.
- Focus on those people you love and make time to love them. Dealing with this stuff on your own is lonely and horrid. Eco-anxiety, like any other form of depression or anxiety, stops us treasuring what we have.
- Finally, choose your sphere of influence and be kind to yourself about what you are doing. Not everyone is suited to standing on a soapbox, thank goodness. But small things count too. There’s a well- known quotation from American poet Mary Oliver:
Tell me what it is you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
You know what I think? If you’ve been brave enough to get on board with tackling climate change, you’re already doing something remarkable.