Monday, March 24, 2008

Eco-Anxiety: Not a Mental Illness

Facing Facts
by Sarah Anne Edwards, PhD

Thirty-six percent of the U.S. population worries “a great deal” about global warming, according to a recent Gallup poll.
Another 26 percent worry “a fair amount.”
When asked what will be “the most important problem facing our nation 25 years from now,” Gallup respondents listed the environment third, just behind “a lack of energy sources” and Social Security, and way ahead of terrorism, education, unemployment, race relations, and the budget deficit.
All these folks are not mentally ill. They are awake to real concerns that are only now beginning to pinch our pocket-books and erode the comforts and conveniences of daily we've come to take for granted. They are the tip of an iceberg of folks who will be facing life-changing challenges that health care professionals and spiritual leaders need to be prepared to help them address. Read more!

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Eco-Anxiety: An Intelligent Response

by Sarah Anne Edwards, PhD, LCSW

Articles on what is being called “eco-anxiety” have begun appearing in periodicals of late, including in the New York Times (see links below) . The term “eco-anxiety” is being used to refer to the psychological response to a constellation of environmental events such as global warming, climate change, resource depletion, species extinction, and ecological degradation. Actually the term is a misnomer in that while granted most of the articles verge on the tongue in cheek, they nonetheless are placing such concerns in the realm of mental illness and thereby seriously misunderstanding what is occurring.

The term anxiety is commonly used to refer to a vague sense of undefined discomfort, while in psychiatric terms it refers to suffering from irrational fears out of proportion to the actual likelihood or impact of the feared events. By either definition, “eco-anxiety” would therefore be something best addressed by helping those suffering from it to define and calm their fears and concerns. But such a definition and approach could not be further from understanding the eco-concerns arising today or what needs to be done in response to them.

The effects of global warming, resource depletion, and other environmental crises are neither vague nor irrational.

Though most people may not yet fully recognize the connection, these events are directly related to the worsening economic and social pressures being felt by most Americans across the country, i.e. rising prices of staples like housing, food, utilities and transportation, accompanied with falling or stagnating wages and job opportunities. The jolt of recognizing the far-reaching economic implications of our environmental issues heightens the gravity of any heartfelt concerns we have about the perils of penguins and Polar bears and other species and brings them right into our households, thereby giving the term "eco" anxiety a double-edged meaning, a concern for both our ecological and our economic survival.

If a major tornado were heading toward one’s community, we would not say those who were concerned about it are suffering from tornado-anxiety. Nor would we prescribe daily meditation, a walk in the park, or joining a support group as the best ways to respond. While the danger from what is taking place ecologically and its impending economic fall-out is not descending upon us as instantaneously as a tornado might, feeling concerned about the seriousness of its current and worsening impact is a healthy, natural reaction to our growing consciousness of a real threat. It needs to be defined and treated as such.

Not only do these concerns arise from a foreseeable future of very real and disturbing economic and social consequences, they also will soon be generating a pandemic of personal, spiritual, and psychological crises. We as family, friends, and helping professionals need to be addressing them in our own lives and be ready to offer an intelligent and useful response to concerned others.

What Is An Intelligent Response?

First, we should NOT minimize, discount, distract or otherwise suggest palliatives to ease these concerns. The more society and those around us discount the reality of the consequences at hand, the more anxious we become and the more maladaptive our responses. Just as we would affirm that approaching tornadoes are real, dangerous and potentially destructive, we need to affirm the appropriateness of concerns about what’s happening to the global environment and the significant, disturbing implications that lie ahead, including that there may be dire consequences for some.

Then we need to accept that we, and those we hope to help, will have many unsettling and disturbing feelings about these implications, ranging from fear and grief to anger, confusion, disillusion and depression – all of which are perfectly natural and normal reactions. We may wish to deny, discount, and ignore these feelings, but that we must not do. We must not ignore the tornado or our concerns about it. Instead, we must acknowledge and work through our feelings so we can mobilize. In an article entitled The Waking-Up Syndrome, Linda Buzzell-Saltzman and I have described the stages of emotional responses one can expect when facing the breadth of effects from long-term ecological/economic crises. Most important to navigating through these stages is recognizing that they are not the same as the traditional grief process we are more familiar with.

First, what we must face is not one painful, discrete event or loss to which we much adapt. We are faced with an extended series of continual losses ranging from minor inconveniences to major upheavals most likely throughout the rest of our lifetimes. Second, such losses are not limited to just certain aspects of life. Nearly every aspect of our lives will be altered in some way by these changes, eroding the familiar constants that underlie our sense of security. In other words, metaphorically our emotional “blankies” are being snatched away.

Third, unlike with the loss of a loved one, a career, health or even impending loss of life, neither those around us nor society as a whole is yet particularly sympathetic, accepting, understanding or caring toward these concerns. Instead our pain may be denied, mocked, or ridiculed. Our concerns may simply be brushed aside as too much to concern oneself with. No one, for example, tells a grieving widow that her husband is not dead. Nor do we blame and accuse her for spreading negativity when she brings up her feelings of loss and all it complications. Such responses are all too customary, though, when one brings up concerns about the effects of global environmental change.

Finally, many of the things we commonly do to assuage painful losses will either not be helpful or available, particularly if friends and family won’t acknowledge that there is even a reason for them. For example, going shopping, one of the more popular ways we in America deal with unpleasant feelings, will ultimately only aggravate, not ameliorate our growing concerns. Nor will traveling, partying, or of course, turning to drugs, alcohol and other addictive substances. The tornado is still coming and we still know it, even if we want to deny it.

So we need to respect the psychological stages we can expect ourselves and others to go through and respond to them caringly in ways that will teach us about ourselves, where we and our culture fit into the forces that are at work, and what we need to do differently as individuals and communities to protect ourselves. Relevant books and documentaries on the topic such as the Resources listed here can be enlightening. They may also escalate our concerns, though, if not accompanied by talking with others or reading blogs and posts like those listed here where others can share and discuss what they're experiencing and doing.

The best measure of whether we're responding intelligently is to ask ourselves, "Does this help me or those I’m working with better understand what’s happening and how to make sensible choices that will move us out of paralzing emotions into empowering actions?" Using this question as a test, we can quickly discard many standard anxiety reducers that make us feel better for the moment only to leave us with the same concerns as soon as we return to our daily lives.

Ecotherapy and ecopsychology, for example, are often mentioned as an approach to help those suffering from “eco-anxiety.” They can be quite helpful when used as a way to learn directly from non-verbal nature experiences what has led to our current crises and how we could live differently. But they too will fall short if they become nothing more than a temporary outdoor escape from the very real challenges that underlie our concerns.

As with an approaching tornado, acknowledging and dealing with our feelings about the coming threat of environmental concerns and their ensuing economic upheaval is vital, but the best antidote for resolving them effectively is taking protective action.

Taking Action on the Personal Level

On a personal level we need to get busy doing what needs to be done to protect our future from the fallout we’re already experiencing and the rest that’s coming by creating as secure a situation for ourselves as we can. Just as those facing a tornado, we need to start immediately readying our house, so to speak, battening down the hatches and making sure we have a secure shelter handy. For example, we need to start one-by-one putting the following safeguards in place as quickly as we can, knowing, of course, that we can’t do them all at once and must start from where we are:

1. Secure a dependable income. That means having a locally-or-virtually-based career, preferably an independent one, in a trade or service that is resistant to off-shoring, not readily replaced by technology, easily bartered, and requiring as little travel or commuting as possible.

2. Get out of debt post haste and don’t acquire any more. We will need to apply every cent we’re now doling out in interest payments to making necessary changes and safeguards, be they paying the cost of re-training programs, relocating, retro-fitting, launching an independent career, or taking any other of the following steps.

3. Reduce our energy footprint. Scale down the size of our homes and high-maintenance, materialistic lifestyles to minimize the amount of electricity, gasoline, water, and other utilities and commodities we consume. This may involve taking lots of relatively simple steps like fixing breakfast at home instead eating out at the coffee shop or unplugging appliances that perpetually draw electricity even when not in use, as well as undertaking more sweeping changes like relocating, home-sharing, energy retro-fitting our homes, or getting off-grid.

4. Locate if possible in an area with a large and dependable naturally occurring, year-round source of water and as long a local growing season as possible, preferrably in small town, village or well-defined neighborhood with a positive, close-knit sense community. In the future localities will be drawing on their own natural resources and less able to afford to sell and transport their resources elsewhere. We will each need to depend more heavily on the local resources at hand.

5. Learn how to grow food. Since the growing and transport of food will be increasing labor- and cost-intensive, the more we can grow for ourselves in our own backyards, patios, decks and rooftops using natural, energy efficient methods like permaculture, the more secure we will be.

6. Learn how to fix things. As the cost of manufacturing and transporting products and parts made from petroleum and other natural resources rises, the more important it will become for us to personally repair, restore, and maintain what we now own.

Taking Action on the Community Level

1. Get active in or help form a relocalization, permaculture, or simplicity group in your area. People in communities like Portland, OR, Bellingham, WA, Willits, CA, and others across the country are actively working in such networks to protect and strengthen their local economies by making them more sustainable. Taking needed action in our personal lives is much easier with the support, ideas and camaraderie of others.

2. Choose one environmentally-related cause you feel strongly about and contribute whatever time and resources you can. There are many national and local organizations devoted to preserving the natural environment. They all need our help. We can’t possibly respond to them all, though, so this sometimes leaves us feeling helpless to make a difference. By choosing one to devote time and energy to, we are doing our part.

3. Elect officials at all levels of government who are aware of and have a desire and willingness to:

a) Initiate laws, policies and programs that will help individuals and local, national and global
communities respond intelligently to the changes taking place.
b) Create incentives to help individuals and communities make needed changes to reduce
consumption and increase sustainability.
c) Change laws that prevent and hinder individuals and communities from taking needed
steps to reduce consumption and increase sustainability.
d) When necessary pay for needed changes with tax on commerce that exacerbates and
accelerates environmental problems.

For more concrete examples of intelligent action that can carried out at the national
policy level and the consequences of not doing so, see “Five Stages of Collapse” by
Dmitri Olov.


As we become involved day-to-day in taking which ever of these steps we can at the time to safeguard and secure our future, the pent up energy generated from anxiety about the environment and what’s happening to our economy gets channeled instead into positive action. We’re busy, we’re engaged, we’re doing what we can, we’re involved with others who share and understand our concerns. Our feelings begin to shift from dis-ease to confidence and enthusiasm for the possibilities that lie ahead.

That's how I believe we can best respond both personally and professionally to the natural concerns that are becoming known as “eco-anxiety.” This is the first in a series of articles I will be writing on this topic and I am most interested in your thoughts and reactions, as well as learning of other resources you’re aware of that should be included here.

Samples of Recent Articles on Eco-Anxiety:

"Eco-anxiety replaces dishpan hands for 'green moms,'" International Herald Tribune, 2/15/08.
"Agonising over the icecap or frantic about floods?" You may be suffering from 'eco-anxiety," The Independent, 3/20/08.
"Well, Doctor, I Have a Recycling Problem," New York Times, 3/16/08.
"Green with Worry," San Francisco Magazine, 2/2008.
"For 'Eco-Moms' Saving the Earth Begins at Home," New York Times, 2/26/08.

(c) Sarah Anne Edwards 2008

Read more!

The Long-Time Now Is Here

How a Tornado Metaphor Applies
by Sarah Anne Edwards, PhD

A visitor to this blog before it was officially wrote to say that using a metaphor of a tornado is not appropriate when speaking of eco-anxiety. Tornados, he emphasized, come on so quickly that they demand immediate action. Actually, that's exactly why I chose a tornado metaphor. The visitor is right that the environmental changes and the economic crises they herald hasn’t and won’t descend on us as quickly as an tornado would, but we need to take it as seriously and respond as quickly as if it were a tornado.

Why? Because as James Howard Knustler points out in his book The Long Emergency, the effects of the issues we face will be occurring over a long period and responding to personally also takes a long time. We can’t simply run to the basement and let them all pass over. In order to protect ourselves we each will have to undertake significant changes in how we live, the work we’ll need to do, the way we will support ourselves, and possibly even where we live. Few people can make these kinds of changes overnight. I've been working on making such changes for three years now and have barely just begun.

As Stuart Brand suggests in his book The Clock of the Long-Time Now, we need to walk with an eye to the long, long road ahead. On the wheel of the traditional Lakota Tribal Council there was always the Dog Solders lodge. Their role to assume the view of protecting “their children’s children until the moon no longer rises and the sun no longer sets.” This position had the final vote and the only one with veto power over any decision being made. The importance of such a role has long been missing from our public and private lives.

We like to live in the now. Produce short-term profits. Enjoy each moment to its fullest. Seize the iron while it’s hot. That can be fine … unless our actions today put us in a major crisis when we reach a bend in the road some in far off tomorrow. That's exactly where we find ourselves now. Because of our short term view, we now face many, many long term crisis-filled bends in the road and we need to prepare for.

The visitor to our blog also pointed out that there is still controversy about whether humankind has contributed to the environmental changes underway. I think the facts on that are becoming pretty clear (more on that in my next post), but regardless of the cause, we need to work through our feelings about them now and start taking action if we want to protect ourselves from the worst of their economic effects.

He further pointed out that there is no way to avert the environmental changes that are underway now, especially in other countries that are already being particularly hard hit. I agree. We can’t stop tornados and we can’t stop or reverse the existing environmental changes take place now, be they here or elsewhere. But we and those we’re in a daily position help are not elsewhere. We’re here. With aggressive national policy and investment we might, just might, be able to slow some of the effects of these changes, but as individuals we and our clients have only a marginal influence on whether that will happen or not. We certainly can’t rely it. What we can do and must do is act now to protect ourselves as best we can and assist our client’s in preparing to do likewise.

As we do, our anxiety, not necessarily all our discomfort, will wane, because anxiety arises from a build-up of pent up energy we;ve mobilize in response to a threat that remains unaddressed.
Read more!