Why denial doesn’t work and how we can navigate our way through Eco Anxiety to find hope, empowerment and community.
Are you feeling it? This underlying sense of dread and doom, the constant tension and expectation of the next tidings of impending disaster… Well, you are not alone, eco anxiety is a symptom of our time that many of us experience in varying forms and expressions. So let’s get right to it:
What is Eco Anxiety?
Contrary to the definition of Anxiety, Eco Anxiety is not a type of psychological disorder defined within the DSM-5-TR (manual for assessment and diagnosis of mental disorders). Eco Anxiety describes the intensity of emotions we might experience in relation to the global crisis we find ourselves in. It can have many different expressions including overwhelming fear and anxiety, underlying sadness or sense of impending doom or simply the presence of denial in order to feel safe without the need to confront the elephant in the room. Eco Anxiety is based on facts about the current and predicted future state of our Planet Earth and the very survival of humanity.
The threats we face globally encompass possible damage to communities, a loss of food, clean air and water, physical danger, displacement and loss of biodiversity to name just a few. Where I live in Ireland the last few days have brought torrential rainfall and flooding in places that have never flooded before, every day we hear of another major climate-related catastrophe in the news and at this stage, even the doubters of the very existence of climate change can’t ignore the blatant facts anymore.
These very real worries are having a detrimental effect on our mental health whether we consciously realise this or not. It is so important that we not only acknowledge the concept and reality of eco anxiety but also find new ways in which the symptoms can be met skilfully in a wide range of settings. There is an urgent need to reform approaches in our health and education settings, as professionals are facing these new expressions of affected mental health without adequate tools to address them.
Eco Anxiety has been a steady companion of mine for many years, even though its expressions have varied greatly throughout the years moving through states such as complete overwhelm, insomnia, a feeling of helplessness, anger and frustration, denial and constant anxiety. But very importantly, eco-anxiety has also been a powerful driving force for my work, my passion to take action and the way I live my life. It’s also been the catalyst for my research and for finding supportive ways to balance these feelings and emotions with ways to find hope and purpose.
As I write this I have just finished my morning meditation, a self-compassion practice with Tara Brach in which we were guided to meet a difficult situation and become aware of its expression within ourselves. She mentioned one of my favourite Rumi Quotes which is so apt for this topic:
“Turning away”, or denial, has been a widespread symptom of our times which is reflected in the behaviours and beliefs of our so-called “developed” world. In the long-run denial will catch up with us, both externally and internally. Deep within we know that we ARE Nature and that we cannot separate our own health and well-being from that of our Planet Earth.
Inner and outer world:
It is vital to address our “inner world” before we can purposefully make a difference to the “outer world”. Thoughts of the magnitude of challenges often overwhelm us and we feel inadequate, helpless, guilty and angry. Beliefs such as “I can’t make a difference anyway.”, “There is no point.” or “No one else seems to take action either.” can reinforce our tendency to go into retraction mode. Frequently our only choice is to shut down, to literally contract and curl up wishing for everything to “just go away”!
The practice of self-compassion, which in recent times is becoming more prominent through the fantastic work of Kristin Neff, is one of the vital tools for meeting the “bandaged places” we all carry inside ourselves. Particularly in relation to eco anxiety, self-compassion addresses our self-protective mechanism of denial in a gentle yet honest manner, guiding us through the following stages:
- Acknowledging our pain and suffering, our guilt, shame, fear, anger, frustration and sadness. This realisation should happen with a general attitude of love, compassion and non-judgment. Being imperfect and failing is part of the human condition, and acknowledging this takes away the sole focus of our inner critic in relentlessly beating ourselves up.
- Common humanity: When we soften the focus on our own failings and expand our awareness on the common humanity we can gain a great sense of relief and connectedness: all of us fail sometimes, all of us feel these emotions of shame and self-judgement. Suffering is a part of the human condition and it’s not just us feeling this way.
- Mindfulness: “We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. At the same time, mindfulness requires that we not be “over-identified” with thoughts and feelings, so that we are caught up and swept away by negative reactivity.” (www.selfcompassion.org) Self-compassion requires this conscious awareness in order not to suppress or exaggerate our emotions but rather observe them as they are in the present moment. The practice of Mindfulness is a powerful antidote
Once we open ourselves up to our emotions, meet them with compassion, recognise our common humanity and practice mindful awareness, we will not only gain increased well-being but be in a more balanced position to take action in whatever way this may be.
Author and broadcaster Britt Wray just published her book “Generation Dread – Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis” which addresses the need for all of us to confront and recognise the global situation, as well as skilfully approach the resulting mental health problems ie eco anxiety. Similar to the stages described above, the book is divided into three parts moving from “Feeling it all” to “connecting inward” and finally “connecting outward” to become active and be part of a transformation. Britt Wray is also the author of the “Generation Dread” Newsletter which I would highly recommend as a resource for tools and skills to meet eco-anxiety with acceptance and self-compassion in order to transform this contracting injury of ourselves into an expanding, hopeful and powerful force to initiate positive change.
In addition to the above, there are some very simple actions we can take to support our mental health in the face of Climate Change and move towards more hope and empowerment:
- Limiting the exposure to media/news: The media has a tendency towards sensationalism and drama which has become quite unbalanced. This does not mean we should close our eyes to global developments but we need to create a balance rather than overwhelm.
- Taking in the good: When we are overwhelmed it’s hard to feel the sunshine on our skin or see the smile on our children’s faces. We can consciously train “taking in the good” and bit by bit we can rewire our brains. In the beginning, we might need a bit more structure such as a gratitude journal or a certain daily routine but the practice will become more and more natural. For more information on taking in the good, I’d highly recommend the work of Rick Hanson.
- Connecting to Nature: In the midst of our suffering, we can lose the connection to what is right at our doorstep. Even just stepping outside, taking a few breaths of fresh air and listening to the birds can be very healing. Creating regular Nature Connection is essential for both our physical and mental health. Interestingly it’s possible to connect to Nature anywhere, even indoors through house plants, soundtracks, artwork, visualisations, food, etc.
- Becoming proactive: One of the best antidotes to hopelessness and feeling like we can’t make a difference is taking action however small and in whatever way is meaningful. Examples could be: changing some shopping habits, buying more organic and less plastic, supporting local producers, boycotting products containing palm oil, eating less meat, growing our own veg, volunteering in a tidy towns group, consciously reducing energy consumption or rewilding parts of our garden just to name a few. I want to mention Mary Reynold’s new book “We are the Ark” at this point as it is a wonderful guide about rewilding and “returning our gardens to their true Nature with Acts of Restorative Kindness”. Every small action we take has a ripple effect and makes a difference.
- Being kind to ourselves and others: Practicing self-compassion, compassion, kindness and non-judgement purposefully changes our brain (neuroplasticity) and with that our thoughts and behaviours.
Last but not least, an invitation for all mental health professionals:
As you may have guessed, I am very passionate about promoting the concept of Nature Connection with all its aspects into health and education settings and the best way to do this is by educating the incredible professionals already working in these fields. A lot of research, time, work and experience went into creating the fully certified Mindfulness Rooted Ecotherapy Training. MRE is a Training designed to give mental health practitioners the additional support, skills, knowledge and resources needed to respond skilfully to these new challenges. What makes this training different to others is prioritising the symbiotic relationship of human and planetary health, as we can’t have one without the other.
As humans we not only need Nature, we ARE Nature. We are currently experiencing the loss of this missing link to our health and well-being, so let’s welcome this vital element back and create a movement towards a better and more hopeful future.
Our next intake for the Mindfulness Rooted Ecotherapy Training (14 weeks, fully online) is starting in March. Come and join us for healing and a better tomorrow!
More info here. Next training starting 11.09.2023
In the meantime come and join our free 30-day Climate Hope Challenge where we put the above into practice in a supportive community. Download your workbook here: