Eco-Anxiety: From Despair To Action

Are You Suffering From Eco-Anxiety?

Does your heart sink when you hear the latest news about climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse? Do you worry about a future involving extreme weather patterns, widespread crop failure, or a breakdown of present-day society?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed as we take in what is happening to the earth right now. A slow and terrifying sense of unravelling can seep into daily life. Former certainties and solid structures can begin to feel hollow or unstable.

Eco-Anxiety counselling and psychotherapy - Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Presteigne, Talgarth

We may struggle with grief, guilt, anger, and despair. We may feel lonely and helpless. We may find ourselves undertaking what Francis Weller calls a “painful apprenticeship with sorrow” as we consider the enormity of what is being lost, and the difficulties we or future generations will face.

Anxiety can become a constant companion.

Anxiety Is A Messenger

Many people choose to treat eco-anxiety as a false alarm.

If they see it in themselves, they try to turn down the volume in order to escape the nagging vulnerability and pain. (How appealing it is to escape! – through denial, distraction, or comforting stories of stability and optimism.)

If they see it in others, they view it as an extreme reaction, a mental aberration, something that needs medication or professional psychological help. (How reassuring to know there’s no real problem! – just someone else’s faulty brain.)

But anxiety is a messenger. It alerts us to the potential presence of threat or danger. So when the threats are real, ignoring or numbing anxiety is not the answer. We need to listen to it, then decide how to respond appropriately. And that will always involve:

  • Facing the difficulty
  • Accessing our resources
  • Taking appropriate action.

1. Facing The Difficulty

Eco-Anxiety counselling and psychotherapy - Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Presteigne, Talgarth

Taking in the full implications of this climate crisis is extremely hard. The more we learn about the situation, the more horrifying and inescapable it looks. This can generate very difficult emotions including anguish, helplessness, shame, loss, terror, betrayal and abandonment.

It’s tempting to look for ways to get rid of these feelings. But they are all absolutely valid, appropriate responses to facing an existential threat. We need to find ways to live alongside them as we find a path forwards.

Grief and sorrow: The grief and sorrow that we experience when confronting environmental destruction can be harrowing. The more love we have for the natural world, and the greater our awareness of how completely dependent we are on it for life, the more acutely we will feel its loss. Such profound heartache needs to be treated with compassion. Can you tell yourself, with tenderness, that you are here for your grief and want to take good care of it?

Guilt and despair: When we consider our own part in creating this crisis, we can feel heavy with guilt. Even if we make significant life-changes, it can be almost impossible to extricate ourselves from the intricate, destructive web of the modern world. This recognition, that we are (and will remain) both victim and perpetrator, can flood us with bleakness and despair. What happens if you stay in the present, and commit to sitting beside this pain?

Anger and rage: As we begin to step out of the world’s ‘business-as-usual’ bubble, we may well become angry at standard media narratives which say that everything will be OK, or which offer the kind of drop-in-the ocean solutions (such as banning plastic straws) that environmental journalist George Monbiot rather bluntly calls “micro-consumerist bollocks”. We can feel rage and frustration at other people’s lack of interest in what’s happening, or their unwillingness to change. Anger can feel hard to handle, because so many expressions of anger are destructive and hurtful to others. But anger is the ‘fight’ in us. It arises naturally when we feel protective of something precious that is under threat. And it contains huge – and potentially valuable – energy. If you meet your anger with kindness, honouring its desire to protect, how does it respond?

2. Our Most Important Resource…

Human civilisation has delivered incredible benefits. We have learned to manipulate our environment and the earth’s resources – and often each other – to bring extraordinary health, wealth and comfort.

Eco-Anxiety counselling and psychotherapy - Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Presteigne, Talgarth

But seeing nature and people through a lens of ‘usefulness’ slides easily into objectification, and separateness. Slowly but surely we become disconnected from the rest of the natural world, and from our fellow human beings.

This process of untethering, though freeing and empowering in some ways, can also leave us profoundly lost and empty. We no longer have a sense of rootedness or belonging. We no longer perceive ourselves as a vibrant, integral part of a whole.

When this happens, it severs us from our deepest and most powerful resource: a sense of meaning and purpose.

…And How To Access It

Meaning and purpose keep us engaged and energised even when we encounter setbacks and loss. They nourish the soul, inspire the imagination, and fuel our actions. This makes them vital resources when facing long-term, ongoing challenges such as the ecological and climate crisis.

The best way to rediscover a sense of meaning and purpose is to reconnect, with the world and the people around you.

Eco-Anxiety counselling and psychotherapy - Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Presteigne, Talgarth

Reconnection can take many different forms. You might decide to spend more time in nature. Maybe you’ll grow herbs on your windowsill, or put bird-feeders in your garden. Perhaps you’ll seek out a supportive community… or create one. You might focus on ‘being of service’ – to family, or friends, or animals, or the wider community – so that you develop, as Catherine Ingram puts it, “a sense that you are being well used, like good compost in the field of life.

3. Taking Appropriate Action

Action is the ultimate goal of any healthy response to threat and anxiety. Action generates a sense of empowerment, and allows the pent-up energy of anger to be put to good use.

It’s very easy, at this point, for our action plans to get caught up with the sparkle and excitement of hope… but hope can be tricky. It is of course a huge motivator in many situations. But when it’s clear that the world as we have known it is dying, creating false hopes (“we’ll find a miracle cure if we just fight hard enough!”) can actually get in the way of more helpful actions.

When a loved-one faces a terminal illness, we know that their death may be prolonged and messy, and that our future may be shaped by sadness, loss, and practical difficulties. We also instinctively know that we can protect pockets of health even as bigger systems fail; we can ease pain; make useful plans for a dramatically changed future; find joy and laughter along the way.

Pacing is important here: a sprint towards a particular target can easily burn us out if that target then recedes into the distance. For longer distances and more complex goals we need to firmly set our direction, then attend to here-and-now tasks.

It can be helpful to focus on aligning your actions with your values. There is a real steadiness which arises when your deepest-held values are allowed to ripple out into all your daily actions and choices.

In this spirit, actions in response to eco-anxiety might include:

Eco-Anxiety counselling and psychotherapy - Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Presteigne, Talgarth
  • Studying ways society can do things differently – e.g. sustainability, regenerative agriculture, doughnut economics.
  • Participating in projects that may help local communities adapt to a climate-changed world – e.g. transition town initiatives, community energy.
  • Learning new (or reviving old) skills related to land stewardship – e.g. hedge-laying, coppicing, water management.
  • Working for social or ecological justice (Paul Hawken estimates there are up to two million groups already active in this field around the world).
  • Finding a safe space to examine and work through your emotions about the climate crisis.
  • Considering how you make your livelihood, to see if it can be aligned with your values.
  • Making daily time for a calm personal space.
  • Taking practical steps, small and large, to live more lightly on this earth.

It’s generally helpful to aim for balance in your actions. For example, alternate an external project with some inner work. Intersperse actions that are about stopping or preventing something, with actions that are creative or productive.

Eco-Anxiety: Finding Your Path… With Others

Navigating your way through eco-anxiety isn’t easy. Some times will feel more difficult than others. The worry and sadness of facing an increasingly bleak future will not disappear. You will need the right support for this journey.

Most importantly, wherever possible, that means connecting with a community of like-minded people. Knowing that others share your concerns, that your views are not dismissed or pathologised, is naturally uplifting. Other people can provide a ‘container’ when difficult feelings need to spill out, and a ‘shared pot’ of energy when you feel depleted. Being part of local environmental groups, talking with others at ‘climate cafés’, or attending specialist workshops like Joanna Macy’s ‘Work That Reconnects‘, can be a huge help in processing your emotions and revitalising your spirit.

It may be that you are seeking more specific guidance, or perhaps you simply can’t access any local groups. In this case, the excellent Active Hope online training programme has been specially designed to strengthen your ability to make a difference in the world – and is completely free.

It could be that you’re needing some one-to-one help with handling feelings of profound sadness or despair. If you have habitually pushed away any hints of vulnerability or helplessness in the past, eco-anxiety can leave you feeling completely overwhelmed. In this case, support from a climate-aware therapist can provide a safe space to start processing things.

It takes enormous courage to face such outrageous loss and seismic change, and find a way forwards. But you don’t have to make the journey alone.

“I am not a mechanism, an assembly of various sections.
And it is not because the mechanism is working wrongly, that I am ill.
I am ill because of wounds to the soul, to the deep emotional self
and the wounds to the soul take a long, long time, only time can help
and patience, and a certain difficult repentance
long, difficult repentance, realization of life’s mistake, and the freeing oneself
from the endless repetition of the mistake
which mankind at large has chosen to sanctify.”

Healing – by D.H. Lawrence

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Sarah Hamilton is a psychotherapist, counsellor and writer based in the Welsh borders.
She sees clients at her private clinic in Hay-on-Wye, Herefordshire, and also offers online therapy by secure video link.

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Counselling and Psychotherapy, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Leominster, Talgarth