It's Mental Health Awareness Week, a vital week in the calendar for us to stop, reflect and understand more about how our mental wellbeing is connected to our environment.
We've known for more than 30 years now that humans are on a terrifying trajectory, that will see our climate irreversibly changed for the worst. Extreme weather, ice sheets melting, feedback loops, sea levels rising, ocean acidity, biodiversity loss and the end of civilization as we know it.
Climate change doesn't just affect us physically. Coming to terms with this path, and our own role within the system that is taking us there, can be traumatic to experience, both mentally and emotionally. I suffered from anxiety quite severely in my early 20's. I remember having my first panic attack crossing a road and I collapsed in a heap trying to get air into my lungs - I thought I was dying.
What is eco-anxiety?
Anxiety is an acute fear response that arises due to your brain and body reacting to a perceived threat. It's your survival instinct kicking in. Sometimes these fears are simply that - perceived. Other times they in response to a very real fear, like dogs, snakes or climate change.
How does eco-anxiety manifest itself?
For me, it feels like
- excessive worrying - constantly concerned about the future
- grief - a deep sense of loss of the future I thought I had and the beautiful world that is being destroyed before my eyes
- anger - against the destruction of our natural planet and those who perpetuate the cycle
- hopelessness - a sense that all is lost perhaps combined with fatalistic thoughts like 'what is the point?'
- existential crisis - the uncertainty of the future throws our own mortality into relief and it all gets a bit much
- anxiety, depression, obsessive thoughts
- urgency - a sense of time ticking by and an immediate need to fix all these problems right now
These feelings are very real, totally valid, but also can cause a person distress. Not to mention it can lead to loss of regular sleeping patterns, trauma & shock, substance abuse, loss of appetite, lack of motivation and energy, difficulty thinking straight or spending time in focused work, communication breakdown within relationships.
So, with all that in mind, what can we do? If you are experiencing severe symptoms, it would be advisable to speak to your healthcare provider or a therapist on a course of action. If you find your experience is more mild or sporadic, perhaps some of these suggestions can help:
1. Take a look at your own impact.
Be honest with yourself about your impact on the planet (without using it as fuel for guilt) and identify areas you'd like to change about your own habits. Living in line with your values feels good by giving you purpose, helping you feel like you're moving forwards, making an impact and being authentic.
- Reduce your waste
- Shop better - decrease your consumption and support sustainable brands
- Avoid plastic and cradle-to-grave products
- Eat differently; cut down or avoid dairy and meat products
- Shop locally and prioritise products with lower air miles
- Avoid traveling excessively or using carbon-intensive transport
- Switch your home to renewables
- Try composting, upcycling or mending things you already own instead of throwing things away
- Be a role model for others
2. Spend less time on negative news stories
This is a huge one for me personally. Whilst it is important to be kept up-to-date with the way the world is changing, spending too much time reading negative news can be damaging to your mental health as the overwhelm and helplessness can become unbearable
- If you read a negative story, write down one key takeaway and one change you want to make in response to the story
- Search for positive news stories to give yourself some perspective, there is a lot of good also happening in the world (it is just less sexy)
- unfollow accounts with 'disaster-baiting' content that don't offer actions or advice
3. Stay connected and share your experience
Eco-anxiety is an intense and often lonely experience. It is important to connect with people and communities locally or even globally, who are talking about this subject. Connecting with others can help ease the burden of feeling like you've got to figure it all out, or that you alone are to blame.
- Be sure to open up to people you trust and share how you are feeling. If your close network is not ready to acknowledge the facts yet, seek out Facebook groups, or community groups locally who are.
- Ask for help - whether it is professional or personal, if you are religious or spiritual, don't be afraid to ask for help
- Seek virtual support for example with the Good Grief Network who have an online course launching soon with a 10-step process
4. Double-check the facts
Fact: not everything we read is true. There are a lot of scary facts and figures flying around being quoted and misquoted across the internet so it is important to get your facts from reliable sources. News outlets are designed to be sensationalist and doom-and-gloom shock tactics increase viewings of documentaries, Instagram posts and twitter feeds. So don't rely on one perspective.
- Always look for a second opinion and read books as well as articles
- Trust reliable sources like the IPCC, WWF, The Guardian's Climate Change Section, New Scientist, Nature Climate Change, Ask NASA Climate Blog
- Even eye-opening documentaries like Seaspiracy, has come under fire recently for claims made that are simply not true and misrepresented those appearing
5. Get educated - tackle the monster head on
Facing the realities of climate change can be traumatic, but it can also be empowering. Knowing the challenges ahead can help you prepare, help your families and communities cope and can help you create resiliency.
- read books and news articles on the subject
- volunteer with local organisations
- create a podcast documenting your questions and find people to answer them
6. Spend time outside
This is possibly the most important. Spend time outside every day, in green spaces if you can. Spending time outside is great for mental health as it promotes calm.
- use it as part of a nurturing self-care routine and give yourself some time to relax outside
- gentle exercise outdoors or even forest bathing can reduce anxiety and depression
- grow something indoors, in your garden or allotment
Take time out for yourself. Processing emotions such as these, just like the stages of grief, is hard but necessary to move forward. If you are experiencing extreme feelings, please do get in touch with your GP.
- Take 5 - 15 minutes out of your day to sit quietly and clear your mind, focus on your breathing and just be
- Write your thoughts down before bed, even the worries, to clear your mind before you sleep
- Journal in the mornings, whether it is 50 words or 50 pages, acknowledging your feelings in a practice can help you heal and process your experience
- Practice gratitude, anxiety finds it harder to get a foothold when in a state of gratitude.
We hope this mini guide to Eco-Anxiety will help. If you are struggling and would like someone to talk to, our founder Mel is also a co-active coach and works 1-2-1 with individuals looking to process their emotions and move forward. Just email us here: firstname.lastname@example.org