Eco-Anxiety – an anxiety unlike any other

“I don’t want your hope.  I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic…and act as if the house was on fire.”

Greta Thunberg

During our deep lockdown days, one of the things I really treasured was the quiet as I currently live surrounded by traffic.  A year ago, mornings were wonderfully silent, with only the birds’ morning chorus for company. Alas now the traffic is back drowning out any chance of birdsong. With the return of the noise, comes the return of pollution, both noise and air. I notice I feel a mixture of melancholy and anxiety with our return to the so called normal. Mother nature has been silenced by our need to move fast and get somewhere. My feelings can be recognised as part of eco-anxiety, this being a chronic fear of environmental doom (according to the American Psychiatric Association). 

I am not alone with these fearful feelings about the state of our planet and what the future may hold. A recent You Gov study found 55% of people feel that climate change has impacted on their wellbeing and a 2020 Yale survey revealed that 40% of Americans felt disgusted or helpless about our global crisis. 

One of the most important points to hold in mind regarding eco-anxiety is that it is perfectly normal. Unlike some of our other anxieties (e.g. losing our job, our partner leaving us), climate change is a very real threat grounded in lots of data. To feel anxious about the depletion of the earth and its future is a healthy and normal response. It’s a sign of emotional and psychic maturity and is, as I have recently learnt, the first step in taking action and confronting reality. As with a lot of life, it is only when we face into the painful and uncomfortable truth, that can we grow and move forward. 

Symptoms of eco-anxiety can range vastly, including sleepiness, obsessive thoughts, panic, anger, depression, grief to name but a few. One of the potential symptoms we may feel is called solastalgia, coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2005 to describe the existential pain association with local environmental degradation. I have experienced this recently. There are numerous new housing developments being built in my local area and to accommodate the increase in traffic (urgh) a local road is to be widened causing numerous trees to be cut down. Protestors against the expansion have put up signs on these vulnerable trees and as I walk by noticing their pending expiry dates, my heart aches with the anticipated loss.

Our defensive positions

One key point to acknowledge around climate change, is that we’ve known the solutions for quite some time and yet have been very slow to act. Why is that? Our defences against what we’ve inflicted upon the planet are heavily at play. 

Facing into this crisis is tough and so it’s perfectly natural for us to defend against the painful truth, but it’s not very useful, especially as the clock is ticking. Defences can include feeling a sense of helplessness leading to a sort of “sod this” mentality where we might feel that there is no point in trying to address the issues. Other defences include developing a rescue fantasy where we imagine someone or something else will come along to sort this mess out. We can see that sometimes where the younger generation are put under pressure by older people as the ones who will do the hard work. 

Another important defence, is our denial of climate change. We hear the scientists talk about 2100 and struggle to hold this in time and space, preferring to imagine it as so far away it doesn’t really concern us. However this method of defence has a distinct shelf life as we get nearer and nearer to some of these key dates in reality. Data collected by a Norwegian psychologist has shown that the level of public concern over climate change in 39 Western countries actually decreases as more relevant scientific evidence is found. We disassociate as a defence against the increasing levels of urgency, thereby creating distance from the pending crisis. Our disassociation and denial conceals our fear of what is happening and our guilt about our role in all of this. 

Taking action

So what can we do? How can we counter our defensive responses to climate change and make a positive contribution? Thankfully there are lots of ways we can help, below are just a few to consider.

Stay with our feelings

One of the key ways to help shift us into action is to not to deny our difficult emotions around the state of the planet and our worry for its future. Putting our heads in the sand about any issue very rarely yields a positive outcome in the long term. Repressing difficult feelings will only intensify them, not make them go away. 

We need to expand our ability to cope with suffering, i.e. to become more emotionally resilient. We need to be able to stay with our understandable fear and use it to develop compassion, empathy and kindness towards our ourselves and others. Fear and anxiety can be a powerful catalyst for change. 

Grief is one of the most common feelings around climate change as what we’re dealing with here is absolute and concrete loss. If we can stay with our feelings of grief, and keep them conscious, then we can use grief to shift us into action. 

Connect with nature

We have very much lost touch with nature and our innate connection to it. This disconnection allows us to emotionally disassociate from what we inflict upon the environment. If we can begin to reconnect with nature, then we can begin to own the impact of our destructive actions and make some positive changes to our behaviours and attitudes. As writer and activist Naomi Klein suggests we have lost sight of the power dynamics between us and the natural world. We cannot control or dominate mother nature and when we try to, the long term impact can be devastating. 

Spending time outdoors is an obvious way of reconnecting with nature, but maybe we should be more present than that. To not just walk through a field or meadow or along the shore, but to be present, to linger for a while. To not talk, but to observe. To maybe close our eyes and listen to the sounds of nature. To remove our shoes and left our feet feel the ground. To notice how nature and us interact, how we get along and how we are in conflict. To be with our feelings when we can see the negative impact we can have on the environment. This way of being with nature is included within Ecotherapy, an approach which helps us emotionally engage with the natural environment. It also includes recalling our childhood memories of nature, and engaging in projects such as forest bathing or gardening.  

Get practical

Anxious feelings are more often than not linked to a loss of control. So what better way of getting back a bit of control, than taking some practical steps to help reduce our impact on the environment. 

There are lots of practical ideas to be found on the wondrous internet, including calculating your carbon footprint to see where changes could be made, going vegan either full or part time, being mindful around packaging, cutting down on baby wipes etc etc. Just to name a few.

The important thing is not to feel you have to solve this global disaster on your own and all at once. Just by doing a little bit, developing the odd new habit we can each have an impact which collectively can be massive. We are all enmeshed in systems which indirectly harm the environment, such as flying, but feeling ashamed about it isn’t helpful, what is helpful is taking action in ways we can realistically manage. As psychoanalyst, Anouchka Gross explains about these personal dilemmas “…it’s unrealistic to lay down some kind of ultimatum …you need to be able to tolerate contradictions.”

Don’t go it alone

When it comes to eco-anxiety, it’s very important to remember that this is a collective problem and you don’t need to cope with it all on your own. Joining organisations such as the Climate Psychology Alliance, Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth can help us feel more connected to others in our environmental endeavours. Finding a group of like-minded individuals can provide much needed support and a larger platform to take collective action, such as lobbying Governments or participating in community projects. 

As with the pandemic, climate change is a global problem, one which is affecting all of us. However, unlike Covid-19, the scientists can only do so much. What is a needed is a complete cultural and spiritual transformation amongst all of us. As professor Paul Hogget explains we are witnessing a tragedy unfold in front of us, we need to find a way to be with this and not to pull away. Eco-anxiety is not a condition to pathologise but a state to welcome as the first step towards taking much needed action to help save our planet and ultimately our very existence.  We live in an age where individuals can generate massive collective influence and change (as seen with the #MeToo and the Black Lives Matter movements). Together we can make all the difference. Starting today.

Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

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