Eco-Anxiety: Moving 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? Are you dismayed by the decline of insects, rainforests and glaciers? Do you worry about a future involving extreme weather patterns, widespread crop failure, or an unravelling of present-day society?

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed as we take in what is happening to the earth right now.

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.

The Brave Heart - courage in counselling and psychotherapy - Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Leominster, Talgarth

Former certainties and structures in our life can begin to feel hollow or unstable. We may struggle with grief, guilt, anger, and despair. 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, anxiety needs to be listened to. And finding the right response will always involve:

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

1. Facing The Difficulty

The Brave Heart - courage in counselling and psychotherapy - Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Leominster, Talgarth

Taking in the full implications of this climate crisis is 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 past role in creating this crisis, it’s easy to feel guilty. And as we look to the future, we may realise there’s little chance of not causing further harm: it is almost impossible to extricate ourselves completely from the intricate, destructive web of the modern world. This recognition that we are 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.

The Brave Heart - courage in counselling and psychotherapy - Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Leominster, 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.

The Brave Heart - courage in counselling and psychotherapy - Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Leominster, 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 simply 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.

Of course, we often act in the hope of obtaining certain results. But it’s important to try and hold this lightly. A narrow focus on results can be disheartening if those results don’t materialise.

With eco-anxiety, it can be helpful instead 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.

Action may include:

The Brave Heart - courage in counselling and psychotherapy - Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Leominster, Talgarth
  • Finding a safe space to examine and work through your emotions about the climate crisis.
  • Speaking out on environmental issues – either to friends and family, or more widely, e.g. campaigning, protesting, lobbying.
  • Working for social or ecological justice (Paul Hawken estimates there are up to two million groups already active in this field around the world).
  • Studying about ways society can do things differently – e.g. sustainability, regenerative agriculture, decolonisation.
  • Participating in projects that may help communities adapt to a climate-changed world – e.g. ‘transition town’ initiatives, community energy.
  • Learning new skills related to land stewardship – e.g. hedge-laying, coppicing, water management.
  • 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.

Aim for balance in your actions. 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. As long as the situation we face remains the same, the worry and sadness will not go away. 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.

Occasionally, the feelings ignited by this collective crisis may stir up echoes of earlier personal traumas, especially if those involved your feelings being dismissed, or you being abandoned by those who were supposed to look after you. In this case, counselling with a climate-aware therapist can provide a helpful space to untangle what is personal, and what is external.

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.

The Brave Heart - courage in counselling and psychotherapy - Hay-on-Wye, Hereford, Brecon, Builth Wells, Kington, Leominster, Talgarth

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
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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