Avoiding Eco-Anxiety

If you regularly consume news media you’ll know that rarely a day that goes by without a disturbing article dealing with some ecological disaster at the hands of humanity. From raging wildfires to catastrophic hurricanes and flooding, the impacts of climate change often make headlines. Oceanic plastics, air pollution, deforestation, contaminated drinking water and …. If you’re really paying attention, or perhaps if you purposefully seek out environmental stories, you’ll have heard about the current mass extinction of pretty much any species being monitored, massive global erosion and loss of topsoil, ever increasing rates of land clearing, degazettement of national parks, rising rates of human diseases related to pollution such as asthma, heavy metal poisoning, and certain types of cancer.

All of this information can leave you feeling pretty bleak out the future of our planet. To feel bleak, given that you give a hoot to begin with, would be a normal reaction. In fact, it would probably be weird if you walked away whistling. However, if you come away with a crippling feeling of anxiety that “involves persistent and excessive worry that interferes with daily activities”, you have met the textbook definition of anxiety, according to the American Psychiatric Association. Furthermore, anxiety disorders are defined by “ongoing worry and tension may be accompanied by physical symptoms, such as restlessness, feeling on edge or easily fatigued, difficulty concentrating, muscle tension or problems sleeping”.

Before going any further it is important to note that the psychiatric community at large does not currently recognize eco-anxiety as a specific disorder, but rather a subcategory of generalized anxiety disorder which happens to be triggered by ecological issues.

So how can you avoid the paralysis of inaction? Here are a few tips:

  1. Be the change you wish to see- Cliche, I know, but proven to be effective! Make the changes in your life that you wish others would make too. Start with low hanging fruit, like changing your light bulbs to LED, walking and riding your bike, and reducing your red meat consumption. While small changes done by individuals will hardly save the planet, they will help to save you from you eco-anxiety. Numerous psychological have demonstrated the positive impact of simply taking action, no matter how small. Not only will this help you to make your own positive impact, it will free you up mentally to stay optimistic and work on the bigger issues.
  2. Commit to the bigger goals- Once you’re out of the deepest parts of that anxiety rut, consider actions that can have a more serious impact. Every year, a huge portion of global energy use goes to heating and cooling our homes. It may be slightly less comfortable by try keeping your thermostat above 70 F (21 C) in the summer and below 66 F (19 C) in the winter. Airline travel, wonderous technology though it may be, also has a tremendous carbon footprint. The next time you want to fly, ask yourself if you could make a road trip out of it instead, or if there is a closer destination that could be equally fulfilling.
  3. Don’t feel ashamed- While it may be true that your individual sacrifice is just a drop in the ocean, you are doing your part and for that you should be proud. Following from that, and yet another way to have a positive impact is for you to talk openly about what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, how it makes you feel. Here there is a fine line to walk to not come off as pretentious and self-centered. Remain humble but proud. You may serve as a role model and inspire others around you to do their part as well.
  4. Spend your effort to change the system, not yourself- Once you’ve done your part and reaped the physiological benefits of those actions, you are ready to take the most important action. A simple signature on well crafted piece of legislation can be worth the sum of millions of individual actions. Contact your elected officials, all the way from local to national, and let them know about your worries and any suggestions you have to make the sweeping institutional changes that have the greatest impact.

If you’re feeling anxious, you’re not alone and there’s something you can do. Don’t get caught believing you can’t make a difference. On the other side of the coin, don’t be fooled by believing that by changing out your light bulbs and driving a hybrid your work is done. It’s great to relieve your anxiety through these small actions but to make a real change and avoid falling back into an anxious state, take on the system. I’ll be doing my part. It’s up to you to do yours.