Recently, I stumbled across the term ‘eco-anxiety’. While there is no official definition (or recognition) of eco-anxiety yet, I thought it was an interesting idea which resonated with me. As you can probably guess, eco-anxiety is a term used to describe the same symptoms of regular anxiety - excessive worry, nervousness, sleeplessness, panic attacks - but it is triggered by a number of factors associated with being environmentally aware. It could be environmental doomsday scenarios which have been conjured up based one’s newly acquired knowledge about the state of our eco-system, or a feeling of pressure to make sure your behaviour does not cause further damage to the environment.
No turning back
Based on my own experiences, and of those like-minded people around me, the general process of beginning one's ‘conscious living’ journey (for lack of a better expression), is that it is often triggered by an ‘ah-ha’ moment, followed by a series of revelations that, once known, mean there is simply no going back. Once you’ve had your eyes opened about, for example, our failing global food system or the negative impacts of the fashion industry, it is difficult to see that aspect of the world in the same way again. On the one hand, this is a great thing. Achieving this level of consciousness or awareness is liberating. It fosters important and necessary changes in behaviour and allows people to act on their values. On the other hand, this thinking can pave the way for anxiety and depression, based on an increasingly negative outlook on the state of the world.
And can you really blame a person for feeling anxious or helpless about our current situation? Everyday more reports are published which confirm human caused global warming is getting worse year on year, and the catastrophic outcomes of this level of warming are becoming all the more likely.
It is especially anxiety-inducing when it seems although not many of those around you care about climate change, or certainly not as much as you think they should, given the high stakes. To feel as though you are the only one in your family, peer group or workplace, who sees the world through these new eyes, can be incredibly isolating. Not only that, but I’m sure every environmentalist has felt at some point - ‘Am I really making a difference?’ or ‘What’s the point in even trying?’
As someone with a predisposition for anxiety and worry, I have experienced some level of ‘eco-anxiety’ first hand. I often find myself worrying that people find me too serious, or a bit of a pain to be around due to my persistence with making everyday sustainable choices. I have also had moments of deep sadness upon realizing just how much damage we have already caused this beautiful planet. And I have felt great despair and helplessness, when I see those around me blissfully unaware of the depth of our climate change problems and politicians who put corporate interest and vote-winning policy before real climate change action.
I’m sure I am not alone in this thinking, and research suggests at ‘eco-anxiety’ and ‘climate burnout’ are growing phenomenon. This is especially the case amongst climate scientists, who have to deal with the heavy psychological toll of the increasingly worrying outcomes of their research. Psychologists who work with climate scientists have defined this as “pre-traumatic stress,” - the overwhelming sense of anger, panic, and “obsessive-intrusive thoughts” that result when your work every day is to chart a planetary future that looks increasingly apocalyptic. In addition, it has been suggested that the number of people suffering with eco-anxiety and depression will continue to grow as environmental disasters become more frequent worldwide.
So what can you do to manage 'eco-anxiety'?
There are a number of things you can do to help reduce eco-anxiety and induce more positive thinking. Here are some tips I have put together (which I don’t always find easy to follow myself!):
Don’t stop making small changes
No matter what anyone else says, small changes CAN make a difference. Not only that, but your changes in behaviour can rub off on other people. Don’t stop using your reusable coffee cup or bamboo toothbrush - those things are great and if nothing else, you are contributing to normalising this sort of behaviour within society.
Focus on the things you can control
If you own your home and can switch to renewable energy - do it. If you live in a rented property and have no control over energy providers - don’t lose sleep over it. If you can take the train to your holiday destination, despite a longer journey time - do it. If you are travelling over water - flying is probably unavoidable (but why not offset your CO2 emissions?). They’ll always be things that are somewhat out of your control, and you can’t possibly solve every environmental issue at once. Focus on the things you can control, and don’t beat yourself up about those you can’t.
Become an activist (or donate to an organisation that can campaign on your behalf)
One of the most effective things you can do as an environmentalist is become an activist. Now this doesn’t mean you need to start chaining yourself to trees. It can mean joining a local protest or writing to your local MP regarding an issue you feel passionately about. You can even decide to donate a small amount per month to an organisation that is making real progress on environmental policy and can campaign on your behalf. This type of action is highly effective, and should help you feel as if you are making a real difference.
Back yourself up
It’s useful to come up with a concise but non-judgemental way to convey your passion for this topic. That way, when you are probed about your behaviour (which can happen a lot), you know what to say without getting worked up by comments. It’s important to not let these types of negative comments from others affect you, as this contributes to negative thinking.
Spend time in nature
Connect with what you stand for. Spending time outside has a calming effect and reports suggest spending 30 minutes outside per day can reduce anxiety. Other benefits include increased levels of vitamin D and increased brain function, all of which contribute to a happier mind. Try to spend as much time in nature as possible - even if it's going for a quick walk on your lunch break or taking the long way home. This one shouldn't be too hard to follow as most people are driven to live sustainably by their love of nature!
Don’t forget to have fun. Despite it’s downs, life has more than its fair share of ups, and it’s important to remember not to take life too seriously. Connect with like-minded people (why not join this conscious living Facebook group?) but spend some time not talking about the environment. You can even try to see the funny side of conscious living - check out this instagram page as a place to start!