The “Canary in a Coal Mine”

image canary in cage

The possible connection between neurodiversity and environmental activism.

Have you ever heard of the expression “The Canary in a Coal Mine” and where it originated? Before there were more sophisticated warning systems, miners used to carry cages with canaries down into the mines. If dangerous, sometimes odourless, gases such as carbon monoxide accumulated in the mine, it would kill the canary quite quickly, providing a warning for the workers to exit the location immediately.

You might be wondering where I am going with this. I very recently had a conversation with a friend of mine, who is also a holistic healing practitioner and knows about the details of my sensory processing disorder. She made a comment that really stuck with me: “I think your sensitivities help you to see and feel in detail what is happening to our planet which is why you’re so passionate about educating others. Denial is not an option for you because you are affected physically and mentally every day.” When she said this, I was immediately reminded of the “Canary in a Coal Mine” analogy I had heard of a few years ago and it made complete sense. 

Ever since I was a child I have reacted in various ways to environmental pollutants and ingredients/additives in food, clothes, hygiene products etc. It started with severe eczema and through the years developed into allergies, asthma, digestive problems, anxiety and heightened sensory sensitivities greatly affecting me socially and professionally. A few years ago it all came to a head when I was unable to continue my profession as a teacher and I was finally diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder, a condition that causes hypersensitivity to certain external stimuli. 

Because of the significant limitations and changes to my lifestyle, I have often felt resentment and have held a negative attitude towards my condition. When my friend said what she said in a matter-of-fact statement, something changed in me. It was a real eye-opener and all of a sudden my sensitivity seemed to be one of the main reasons behind my passion for human and planetary health.

Yesterday I received the new Generation Dread Newsletter featuring climate activist Tori Tsui. She says: “The climate justice movement as a whole has helped me recognize the interconnectedness of my struggles and how many of us have been labelled over the years as highly sensitive people, which I always say is a bit of a euphemism for a) either caring about injustice or b) being neurodivergent.”

Throughout the years I have met so many like-minded people and thinking back to the various conversations and discussions it’s now quite clear to me, that many activists and colleagues working in the field of ecotherapy, climate activism, ecopsychology and climate-related mental health are the “Canary in a Coal Mine”.

I want to make it quite clear at this point that that does not mean others don’t care or suffer as much in the face of our environmental crisis. From personal experience, I just know that through my condition I am being (sometimes painfully) reminded on a daily basis of what needs to change in order for humans and our planet Earth to heal. I don’t have the “luxury” of denial and for a long time, I really resented this. It can be utterly exhausting being bombarded by harmful sensory stimulation that does not affect the majority of the population, yet sends me into either physical pain or distress. 

I count myself so lucky that I have had the opportunity to learn and train in modalities that have literally been my lifesaver for many years. Mindfulness, integrative health approaches and ecotherapy/ecopsychology have supported me on my journey which I am so grateful for.

This simple change in mindset has been another step in the right direction. Maybe being a “Canary in a Coal Mine” is a superpower, not just a limitation. Both my personal experience and professional development now enable me to pass on this knowledge to help others navigate these times with a little more insight, empowerment and ease.

Environment-related health issues have risen dramatically and I passionately believe that we need new and creative approaches to respond skilfully and find hope and empowerment, especially for our children and young people.

I now mentor and train professionals and private people in methodologies and strategies with which they can integrate multi-modal nature connection approaches into their professional practice and personal lives.

If you are a mental health professional and you’re looking for a new and effective way to meet climate-related mental health challenges I invite you to check out my upcoming “Mindfulness Rooted Ecotherapy” Training (September 2023). It’s fully online, self-paced and limited to 25 participants to ensure a supportive and interactive experience.

If you would like to schedule a free 15 min call to find out more or inquire about 1:1 mentoring, book your call here or drop me an email at alex@rootsandwings.ie.

Looking forward to meeting you.

xx Alex

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