How to Cope With Eco-Anxiety
I left the afternoon meeting early to drive home. The hurricane had been downgraded to a tropical depression with minimal rain, but I wanted to be on the safe side. I was just a few miles from home when steadily falling rain inundated the drains and turned the roads into streams. A pickup truck passed by, creating a wake that lifted my tires off the road.
It didn’t matter how tightly I held onto the steering wheel—a car is just not designed to be driven in rising water. I sought a place to abandon it before walking through shin-deep water toward a friend’s house. By this point the interstate highway had closed down, and cars and trucks less fortunate than my vehicle were swept into the raging James River, taking nearby brick buildings with them. About 12 inches of rain came down that afternoon, drenching Richmond and making weather history.
For the next few years, any amount of rain unnerved me. My stomach knotted and my hands shook at the slightest drop of rain hitting my roof. Now I don’t go anywhere without first consulting a weather app.
That was my first frightening encounter with extreme weather. Unfortunately, many of us have been similarly threatened by extreme weather and environmental changes caused by the climate crisis: excessive wildfires, heat, rain, wind, and snow have led to drought, floods, mudslides, crop decimation, poor health, species extinction, and ecosystem breakdown. Previous generations may have been lackadaisical about the weather and climate, but supposedly rare rains, fires, heatwaves, and blizzards are happening with increasing frequency, ensuring that modern day society is always on high alert.
The result of this necessary weather vigilance is called climate anxiety, or eco-anxiety. Climate change affects more than just the environment; it impacts our work, home life, day-to-day happenings, and mental health.
Our worry is not imagined. It’s based on real-world events taking place near and afar. But there are ways to cultivate hope amidst eco-anxiety. Yes, hope. Not an airy-fairy kind of hope that removes us from reality, but a type of hope that promotes action toward sustainability.
Action is the key. Any action—no action is too small. Power is gained through action. In action we transform our helplessness and despair into participation toward a preferred outcome. Though we may feel stuck in a bleak state of eco-anxiety, there are ways to cope with the emotions that arise when contemplating and adapting to a changing climate.
Acknowledge Your Feelings
Respect your feelings about what’s taking place with the Earth. If you’re trembling with fear, accept the fear. If you’re feeling grief, then grieve. If you’re feeling hopeless or angry or confused, acknowledge those feelings, too, regardless of the discomfort. By acknowledging your feelings, you can accept the truth of the situation and create harmony between your thoughts and emotions. This harmony can free you to pursue other activities and take action.
Gather Your Community
Commiserate with friends or colleagues who share similar feelings. Freely express what’s on your mind and in your heart. Sharing your feelings releases pent-up emotions and allows them to evolve. We are able to connect with others and discover that we’re not alone in our anxiety. Consider joining a local or national group dedicated to tackling a specific issue, like a group that plants trees in your neighborhood or works toward eliminating single-use plastic.
Go outside. Walk, bike, camp, or kayak. Listen to the birds, feel the wind, and notice the uneven ground underfoot. Bring your folding chair or blanket to a park. Being outside aligns our personal rhythms with the rhythms of nature. The sounds, sights, and smells provide visceral reminders that we all are a part of nature. Studies show that activity in nature reduces stress and lowers blood pressure in as little as 15 minutes. Consider shinrinyoku, or forest bathing.
Attend to your five senses and be observant. Pay attention to your breath, bodily sensations, or whatever else is capturing your attention. Notice the position of your body right now as you read these words. Notice if you feel relaxed or tired, or if you are clenching your jaw.
Bringing awareness to your body creates an intimate and informed relationship with yourself that increases the range and intelligence of your senses. It supports the feeling of being more connected to your surroundings, and in doing so, you feel more at home with your body and more connected to everything around you.
Awareness of the relationship between you and nature is the primary focus of the emerging field of ecosomatics. We are part of the global ecosystem, as is every plant, mineral, animal, and insect performing their pivotal role. Embodying and experiencing ourselves in relationship with everything around us provides a profound connection and sense of belonging amidst eco-anxiety.
Find something to be grateful for, no matter how simple: the air you breathe, a conversation with a friend, a glass of water, the feel of a comfortable chair, or even that your eyes have opened for another day. Gratitude situates us in the current moment away from fantasies and expectations about the future and helps provide relief from clinging to the past. Gratitude leads to the discovery and recognition of beauty in the smallest details, and this respect and appreciation for the world as it is presently can help manage eco-anxiety.
- by Cheryl Pallant