As 2019 came to a close, many outlets were quick to brand it the year of global protest. Often these protests have been led by young people, and concerns over corruption, climate and rampant inequality have rightfully been at the top of the agenda. While this can inspire us to continue fighting despite the ways the powerful exploit democratic systems, it can also exacerbate frustration too. No one wants protest to be necessary, no one wants to feel ignored or powerless, and no one wants to feel like we’re running out of time.
When it comes to climate activism, this naturally leads to eco-anxiety. Eco-anxiety is not officially recognised as a mental illness, but the toll it takes on mental health has been recognised by professionals. And it is increasingly prevalent.
Mental health studies from Greenland to Australia reveal a surge in people reporting stress or depression about the climate. Interest in The Good Grief Network, a U.S.-based organization coordinating support groups for eco-anxiety sufferers, has surged in the last 6 months, with branches popping up in half a dozen states. In the U.K., the Climate Psychology Alliance, a working group for psychology professionals, has been “inundated” with requests for therapeutic support, says Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist and CPA member. “People need help to build emotional robustness,” she says. “And parents are having to re-think how they counsel their children, because we can’t just say this is all going to be OK.”
As we move into 2020, which is likely to be a year of more civil disobedience than ever before, here are some tips I’ve gathered from my therapist and my own research on how to deal with eco-anxiety going forward.
The American Psychological Association describes eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. According to the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA), a not-for-profit organisation that aims to help people with eco-anxiety, the condition manifests itself in a number of ways – grief, rage, depression and hopelessness. “It’s not a mental illness,” said Caroline Hickman, a teaching fellow at the University of Bath and CPA executive. “If anything, it’s a sign of good mental health because you are engaging with what’s going on.
In a way, eco-anxiety can be a good thing because it shows that we care. And we need people to care in order to act. However, I think the biggest problem with anxiety around climate is that it isn’t irrational in the way that most experiences of anxiety are. It isn’t caused by unhealthy patterns of thought or unresolved past trauma. It’s a real existential threat that can easily make us feel helpless and out of control because it’s so large. So how do we combat that?
Allow yourself to feel your feelings
The problem with negative feelings is that it’s easy to abstract them. We are often taught that we should only aspire to feel positive things, which results in us viewing any negative emotion as a problem to be solved. When we do this, we can end up suppressing our feelings or trying to immediately resolve them, instead of experiencing them as part of the breadth of human experience. It’s incredibly hard to do this because it means we have to feel pain, essentially.
But it’s important to really experience our emotions, in order to accept them in a healthy way. Let yourself grieve and mourn and get angry. Because it’s the only way to keep ourselves from being paralysed or getting stuck later.
“First, you need to talk about your feelings,” she says, advising that we give ourselves time to accept hard facts like our vulnerability to climate change and our failure to prioritize climate action. “It doesn’t have to be a therapy group, but I wouldn’t advise doing it all alone. Because this is pretty scary stuff.”
Acceptance also isn’t an invitation to complacency, but it’s a first step to being honest with ourselves before turning to action and engaging in healthy ways.
The idea of self-soothing is something I learned from therapy as a useful tool to calm ourselves when we’re distressed. In the same way as mindfulness, self-soothing focuses on stimulating different senses and physical embodiment to bring us back to the present moment, helping us regain calm. It can be anything from adjusting the noise and lighting levels of our environment, using weighted/heavy blankets, chewing gum or stroking a pet, in order to reduce anxiety.
Specifically I have been working on putting together a self-soothing box, which is a kit of items that activate different senses. You can customise your box to items, textures or sensations that you prefer, but essentially you can use this to ground yourself when you feel overwhelmed. So far mine contains passiflora drops and dark chocolate (taste), a lavender spray and essential oils (smell), and a piece of silky fabric (touch), but there’s still more to add.
Redirect anxiety into embodiment
Another thing we can do is to address the general buzz of anxiety that doesn’t quickly disappear, by focusing on redirecting that energy. For me, this manifests in two ways. I realised a few months ago in therapy that the physical sensations I feel during anxiety (which I don’t like) and on a rollercoaster (which I do like) are fundamentally the same. The difference is the context, as my mind categorises the latter as a good feeling.
So, I focused on exercise. If my heart is racing and I’m short of breath while I’m sitting alone at home, I’m getting anxious. But if I start to feel that way and decide to go on a run or to the gym, my brain suddenly sees this as a good thing because my body is being physically active. By the time I’ve finished, I usually feel better. It makes sense that activities such as running can help us process trauma, even if it’s just doing a little bit each day.
Beyond this, I’ve also become increasingly involved with wild swimming over the last couple of years. In particular, I’m a sea swimmer. While the scientific evidence around cold swimming’s benefits is mainly anecdotal at this point, I can’t deny that the more you do it, the more you want to do it. As time has gone on I have found an overwhelming urge to go for a dip whenever I feel particularly bad. It’s a fully immersive experience; I can’t take any form of digital or physical distraction with me, and it helps me expel energy outside of myself. Seeing how the popularity of wild swimming continues to grow across the UK, I don’t think I’m the only one. Similar to a runner’s high, it’s an addiction that leaves me calmer and clearer for the rest of the day.
And redirect energy into action
Two years ago, Davenport published a book called “Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change.” She wanted people working in the mental health field to “speak the language” of climate psychology.
As the title implies, resiliency is a big piece of how Davenport sees us moving through the difficulties ahead. More resilience, she says, means a “growing capacity to be present”… most of all, they say, get involved. Green your workplace, attend marches, push for climate change curriculum at schools.
“Activism,” says Davenport, “is a therapeutic intervention.”
One of the largest problems eco-anxiety causes is the feeling of helplessness. Taking action helps us reclaim agency and a sense of control. Our fear and anxiety can be paralysing at times, and it’s important not to push too hard and burn out, but with self work we can learn to use these feelings to fuel us. We can take our emotions and let them push us into activism, advocacy and community work wherever that’s possible for us. I know myself and many of my peers would particularly recommend getting involved in the regenerative movement, and learning through Kiss The Ground’s resources, as a particularly inspiring, hopeful and useful place to direct energy and action.
Don’t feel ashamed
When we start to take action, whether through more sustainable lifestyle shifts or through larger activism, it can be easy to become weighed down with the guilt of all the things we think we’ve done in the past, or the ways we aren’t perfect now. This isn’t helpful, and it’s not truthful either.
Guilt can be a paralysing force, and in therapy, I’ve been told not to use the word ‘should’ as it can easily lead to harshly judging myself. Instead of thinking ‘I should have done this’, I am encouraged to think ‘I could do this next time’. I can’t feel eternal guilt about the fast fashion I used to buy, the plastic I used to consume, or the ways I wasn’t involved in activism in the past. But I can use these as motivations for what I know I can do in future, and be thankful that I know more now. Plus, it’s important to remember that perfection isn’t possible.
While changing how you live and travel may help you by letting you live more closely in accordance with your values, you shouldn’t feel ashamed for not being fully able to comply with these. “The systems in which we are all enmeshed essentially force us to harm the planet, and yet we put all that shame on our own shoulders,” said Marris. “The shame is not helping anybody.”
Focus on system change
We also have to acknowledge that personal change alone has limited effects. It’s still a good and positive thing to pursue, but individual action alone cannot stop climate breakdown.
we can’t get where we want to be through individual action, and that accepting this has therapeutic benefits. “I don’t think a complete narcissistic focus on the self is healthy,” she said. Instead, Marris suggested you can have a much more meaningful impact by working with others to lobby governments.
The Grantham Institute advises letting your MP, local councillors and mayor know that you think action on climate change is important, and writing to your bank or pension provider to ask if you can opt out of funds that invest in fossil fuels.
For some more systemic forms of activism look at joining your local intersectional environmental organisations, switching your bank account, switching your energy provider, supporting ecocide law, supporting Indigenous rights, joining divestment movements, and getting involved in local elections.
In the UK 2020 will see local council elections in May, it is vital to get involved in voting in your area. While central government may ignore the climate crisis, local authorities have the power to implement climate-friendly policies, sustainable city management and net-zero carbon plans. It’s a huge opportunity to see progress regardless of the general election result, so get involved in your area if you can.
Comfort in community
Many of the options above, whether joining a divestment movement or wild swimming group, can inevitably lead to an increased sense of community. Surrounding yourself with like-minded people who are also working towards the same goals as you is a great way to remind yourself that you aren’t alone, and you aren’t completely helpless.
Some of my favourite other options, if accessible to you, are:
Join your local community garden or regenerative farming project
Not only do these kinds of projects help us reconnect to the earth and increase our nature relatedness as we observe the way natural systems work to provide us with food, they also connect us to the local community, sequester carbon through soil building, increase local food sovereignty, and allow us to remove ourselves from an unethical food system that’s dominated by big business.
Start or join a repair cafe
These are free places which contain tools and materials to make repairs to items such as clothes, furniture, electronics, bicycles and more. Each cafe has expert volunteers with repair skills in multiple fields, you just bring your broken item from home and repair in the cafe alongside specialists, or come along and help someone else repair their item. In 2018 alone repair cafes prevented 350,000 kilos of waste and avoided up to 8.5 million kilos of CO2 through keeping items in circulation and out of landfill. As well as promoting the circular economy, providing a free place to learn and utilise vital repair skills can also save us money, as it removes the need to buy new items when things break.
Join the cratifivist movement
Craftivism is a gentle protest approach to activism, aiming to change the world with deliberate, thoughtful actions that provoke reflection and respectful conversation instead of aggression and division. Open to anyone from skilled crafters to burnt-out activists, there are multiple projects and local branches to get involved with. Plus, it’s perfect for introverts.
Ultimately, eco-anxiety is tough. But together, we can manage it.