Saturday, April 26, 2008

Eco- Anxiety: Why Eco-Therapy?

What It Is, What It Isn't, Why It Can Help

Recently a number of news articles have featured eco-anxiety. Often they also refer to eco-therapy as an emerging way to handle concerns about environmental change and its economic impacts. While such feelings arguably should not be considered mental illness, many people are troubled on one or more levels about what is happening with the environment. Who are they and why can eco-therapy help?

At one level many, like hunters, fishermen, outdoor enthusiasts, as well as environmentalists, are distressed about the loss of valued ecosystems like prairies, forests, and wetlands. Or the plight of endangered species such as polar bears and their cubs that are starving as their habitats degrade or disappear. Many also have concerns about re-occurring or on-going drought, floods, and other weather events their communities are recovering from.

On another level many are becoming concerned about how climate change, dwindling natural resources, and population pressure are affecting their daily life, eroding their health and threatening the comfortable lifestyle they enjoy or their hopes for the future. Rising prices of basics like food, health care, gasoline and fuel for home heating heighten concerns about rising levels of pollution and pesticide-based foods.

Still others are feeling isolated and persecuted for having such concerns, while others are uncomfortable with growing social pressures to change the way they live and are feeling judged, angry, or guilty about pursuing the life they’re accustomed to.

So growing numbers of people are seeking information, guidance, and support for how to respond both to their feelings and the pressures of today’s new economic and environmental realities. Unfortunately the examples given in many of the recent articles mentioning what eco-therapy is and how it might help address eco-concerns tend to verge on the ridiculous and provide a highly distorted image of what it offers.

It is not, for example, about getting people to change their light bulbs, take cold showers or hug a tree. Nor is it particularly “new” or limited to eco-concerns.

Just What Is It?

Ecopsychology, eco-therapy, and the natural systems thinking process (NSTP) are educational and psychotherapeutic approaches for learning to live more harmoniously with oneself and one’s environment, both natural and manmade. Though they involve interacting with nature, they can be practiced virtually anywhere and do not require individuals go to a distant, remote, or wild setting, unless they choose to.

Eco-modalities have been used with success to address a wide range of personal, social, educational, medical, and psychological issues including:

· Relieving stress
· Improving school and on-the-job performance
· Reducing anxiety
· Recovering from depression
· Healing stress-related illnesses
· Ending addictions
· Recovering from illness or surgery
· Boosting energy and relieving fatigue
· Improving self-confidence and self-esteem
· Gaining clarity on one's life
· Building community
· Getting a good night's sleep
· Finding the right career
· Simplifying one’s life
· Building healthy loving and working relationships

They have shown to be valuable tools in such programs as:

· Psychotherapy, psychiatry
· Nursing and hospital care
· Learning disabilities pre-school thru secondary education
· Substance abuse
· Holistic health practices
· Career counseling
· Personal growth program
· Career and business consulting
· Preventative health care
· Weight-loss programs

Why Ideally Suited for Addressing Eco-Concerns

Eco-modalities are particularly well-suited for responding to all types of environmental concerns for four reasons.

1. Being in a pleasant natural setting, be it a backyard, park, seaside or forest, puts one in a relaxed physiological state that’s conducive to having and benefiting from new learning experiences. Being in nature allows one to temporarily step away from the weight of daily concerns, encounter a milieu different than customary, open closed-down senses, and release rigid or distressed minds.

2. Interacting with nature through particular eco-activities provides a non-threatening way to experiencing an alternative frame of reference and value system that is more suitable to our current-day environmental and economic realities. Many of the problems we face today are the direct result of living in a society that is at odds with the both inborn human nature and the earth’s ecology. Much of the distress both the planet and we are experiencing now is a result of this mismatch. Being in and interacting with nature allows us to experience and learn about a more compatible alternative for how to live.

3. Learning directly from nature is an unmediated process. Because nature teaches in wordless, nameless ways, we can step outside the limitations of current ways of thinking, experience more harmonious ways of being, and then return to articulate them verbally both to ourselves and others in terms we understand without inadvertent or preconceived pressure or limitations by a therapist, educator or society as a whole.

4. Each nature experience is highly personal, providing opportunities to access the specific lessons a given individual needs and is willing to absorb at a given time. What is learned from a particular nature activity usually differs from person to person because we’re each attracted to those aspects of nature that will provide us with the lessons we most need and are ready to integrate.

There are many resources with information about ecopsychology, eco-therapy, and natural systems thinking. Here a few:

Children and Nature by Peter H. Kahn and Stephen R. Kellert. MIT Press, 2002.
Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World by Joanna R. Macy and Molly Young Brown. New Society Publishers, 1998.
Ecopsychology: Restoring the Earth, Healing the Mind by Allen D. Kanner, Theodore Roszak and Mary E. Gomes. Sierra Club Books, 1995.
Reconnecting With Nature: Finding Wellness Through Restoring Your Bond With the Earth, 3rd edition, by Michael J. Cohen. Ecopress, 2007.

© Sarah Anne Edwards, PhD, 2008
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Friday, April 18, 2008

Eco-Anxiety: Fox News Stirs Hornet's Nest

Setting the Record Straight

Earlier this month I was contacted by someone representing herself as a reporter for Fox News seeking information about eco-anxiety. The resulting article stirred up a hot bed of outrage, anger, and hatred after it was picked up on Rush Limbaugh and blogs of similar ilk. Here's what I actually told Fox News and what came out instead.

I reviewed the basic concepts of I’ve presented here on this blog, focusing on the point that eco-anxiety is a misnomer because our concerns about environmental changes and their effect upon our US economy and daily lives are neither vague nor irrational, thus not a form of mental illness

I also described the two levels of eco-concern are people feeling. The first being concerns about the loss of natural habitats or species they value, such as disappearing wetlands or prairies. The second being when people realize that environmental changes are affecting our daily lives in terms of rising costs of basics we depend on for our way of life. Afterwards the reporter wrote me to ask how my eco-concerns were affecting my life, which included describing the time, effort, and stress involved in retrofitting an older energy-inefficient home, reducing our $850/month propane bill, and building up the strenght to lug 40 lb bags of pellets up and down stairs.

Unfortunately the ensuing article indicated that I’m suffering from a new disorder called eco-anxiety and that I am worrying myself sick about paper towels and plastic bottles. It also suggested that ecopsychologists are recommending, hugging a tree as the cure for this new disorder. Although the reporter expressed to me her own environmental concerns, obviously this was to be yet another of the mocking tongue-in-cheek articles I’ve been concerned about seeing in previous coverage on this topic.

Her take in the article hit the Rush Limbaugh show shortly after it was out and this blog has been deluged with outraged and outrageous comments. There are many useful illustrations of The Waking-Up Syndrome within these comments, so I am collecting them and will summarize them in a future blog. Meanwhile, for those visiting here as a result of this hornet’s nest, I would like to clarify several things.

First, I am not suffering. I am taking action on both a personal and community level as I’ve describe in the blog on Intelligent Response. Second, I am not worrying about either paper towels or plastic bottles, though I realize some people might. Instead of being overly concerned about things we can’t or are not ready to change, it is my experience that the best way to handle our concerns is get busy, taking action to make the changes we can and are ready to make to protect our selves and the environment. Third, I do not believe, or at certainly least hope, that no reputable ecotherapist would recommend hugging a tree as the way to resolve the eco-nomic concerns so many of us have.

Ecopsychology, by the way, is a educational or therapeutic tool that helpful in understanding how we can live in harmony with ourselves and the environment around us. It can help us understand why we’re experiencing environmental challenges and what we need to do personally and collectively to take better care of ourselves and the environment, thus reducing our stress.

As I pointed out to the reporter during our interview, making changes in the way we live can be stressful. It may challenge our definitions of who we are, how we thought the world is supposes to work, and our ideas of what’s possible in the future. Stress can cause physical symptoms, or aggravate pre-existing physical vulnerabilities, but stress is an integral part of living in changing times. Understanding what’s happening, knowing about we can do, and joining with others in our community to respond intelligently will reduce both our stress and our concerns.
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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Eco-Anxiety: A Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome

Loss of Expectations for the Future, Who We Will Be within It, and Hopes for a Semblance of Normalcy Help Predict Those Most Vulnerable

The triple-threat posed by today's impending energy, climate and financial crises can steal our conception of the future, rob us of who we believe we are, and threaten our sense of normalcy. The result is an eco-anxiety that, as Richard Heinberg has pointed out, might best be defined as a pre-traumatic stress syndrome.

Eric Berne, originator of Transactional Analysis, had another a name for our tendency to let concerns about upcoming events seep into our experience of the present and infuse it with a sense of dread. He called it Reach Back. These unwanted intrusion of frightening "flash forwards" are one of the most disruptive aspects of eco-anxiety. Why do they occur and who is most prone to them?

As we go about living our daily life, for example, enjoying a particular routine aspect of the day, eating a bowl of fresh blueberries for breakfast on a winter morning perhaps, or reaching across the console to turn on the air conditioning in the car on the way home from work when we feel a bit too warm ... suddenly, we flash forward.

We flash on how many of these things we so casually take for granted now may no longer be part of our future. We imagine sweltering days without air-conditioning or breakfasts where blueberries may not be the only thing that won’t be around to eat. Concerns may quickly spiral. Just what will we have to eat? Where will it come from? Where is the nearest farm? What do they grow? How will I get some?

Such flash forward spirals can play out mentally until something intervenes to pull us back, somewhat shaken, into the moment.

While anyone can experience such spirals once they realize the probable impact of the energy, climate and financial changes already unfolding, those who are highly dependent on, or whose hopes rest upon, a future quite similar to the present, are most likely to have disturbing bouts of flash forward moments.

They are also the ones who have the most to lose from the changes to come and will most likely have the greatest difficulty adjusting to them. They're the ones we, as helping professionals, need to be particularly alert to and prepared to reach out to for assistance, because they can be at risk for serious depression and even suicide.

Who Are the Most Vulnerable?

The first to come to mind include those with the most obvious cause to worry about the loss of dependable housing, transportation, food supply, water, sanitation, medical care, heat and air conditioning, expertise, and security:

1. The elderly, particularly those without families nearby.
2. The ill, infirm, frail, and those dependent on specialized medical treatments, advanced medication, or regular assistance to function.
3. Those who are emotionally unstable.
4. Those living on fixed incomes that could disappear or be severely cut.
5. Those who are accumulating ever-higher debt in trying to maintain their lifestyle.
6. Renters and mortgage holders who could lose their homes.
7. Those who live in communities where neighbors don't know one another and are otherwise without family or a social support network outside of their workplace.
8. Parents with young children worried about what kind of world their children will be facing and how best to prepare them for an unknown future.
9. People with a close relationship to nature who foresee cherished ecosystems and wildlife around them disappearing. This includes people with deep emotional bonds with pets they many not be able to afford to keep as is happening already to people whose homes are being foreclosed.

Another large, but less obvious, number of other people are also vulnerable to disturbing flash forwards: all those whose identities, sense of self-worth, and security are tied to participation in various elements of today’s consumption and comfort driven society.

1. Movers, shakers, and high achievers whose identity and self-value and sense of empowerment lies in the status they’ve achieved in the hierarchy of white-collar careers, especially males in late middle-age. It can be hard for people whose power resides in their position within a hierarchy, or what Eric Berne referred to as position power, to create an identify based on other criteria.

2. Those enmeshed in the health, beauty, and youth culture, who see their value connected to looking beautiful, staying young, taking a wealth of supplements, and eating hypo-allergenic and other limiting diet-specific foods in order to attain peak health. Such individuals can panic at the possibility of aging, sagging skin, gray hair, aching joints, fatigue, sleeplessness, failing memories and other age and health-related decline.

3. Highly patriotic, proud-to-be Americans who are invested in our country being the world leader that can do no wrong and will win at everything from sports to wealth and war. As it becomes clear our country has and is contributing to the problems we face and that these problems will negatively our economy, their identifies and confidence will be affected as well.

4. Those who believe their success and happiness lie in the accumulation of material riches. When it is no longer affordable or possible to get rid of last year's models and constantly replace them with more of the latest, newest, and best, the future can seem like a frightening slide in poverty reduced to worn down shoes, broken down cars, threadbare clothes and out-of-date electronics.

5. Deeply spiritual individuals who believed that God rewards those who work hard and live devote, moral lives with material riches and success. Followers of religions with this tenant could become disillusioned and feel abandoned by their God.

6. Social climbers whose view of themselves and their future prospects lie in attaining and maintaining an upwardly mobile status within the society.

7. Self-centered, competitive, highly individualistic individuals who are “out to get mine” and have no desire to work well with others.

8. Folks who are used to getting what they want, when they want it, including instant service and the utmost in convenience.

9. People who rely on others to carry out most of the essential tasks of daily living from cooking and repairing to cleaning and maintaining.

10. Those who have bought into the belief that anything and everything is possible if you just believe.

How Can We Help?

Imagining appealing scenarios for a future plagued with serious energy, climate and economic woes is challenging enough for anyone, but imagining ones that will offer assurance for those with one or more of these vulnerabilities is even more daunting. The best scenarios usually favor able-bodied people with the will and ability to be flexible and versatile, and the resources, support and wherewithal to get busy making changes in their lives and work cooperatively with others in doing so.

Yet those with vulnerabilities like these comprise a large percentage of the US population. Of course, not all of them suffer unduly from eco-anxiety. Some will remain in denial or discount coming changes, only to face them when their future actually does change. Others will find their own ways of coping without need for professional assistance.

But some are and will be suffering enough to benefit from support and guidance. Obviously being judgmental of those whose concerns may seem trivial or telling those with serious reasons for concern to simply prepare to accept their fate will not help. Nor will giving them facts about how imperative it is for them to give up their hope for a future that includes the things that matter so much to them. As a line from a recent drama reminds us, once hope is gone, dying is just a formality.

As long as we dread the future, fear losing of who we are and any sense of normalcy, our anxiety will only increase. We're left to flash flashing forward on our own version of what my colleague André Angelantoni of Inspiring Green Leadership calls a Mad Max scenario of the future - dire, depressing and chaotic.

What’s needed is a new image of the future with a new source for our identity, our raison d'etre, our place in the world. Something other than status, material possessions, looks, youth, and even the strength and ability to stand on our own. A new context for hope that springs from an ethical value system more closely aligned with the natural world, one that holds an appealing promise for a new, albeit different, tomorrow. (See A Time to Grow Up: A New World View)

(c) Sarah Anne Edwards, 2008
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Tuesday, April 1, 2008

And So It Begins

Is It Any Wonder We're Anxious

The signs are all about. Every day there are more and they are escalating in their degree of seriousness. Here's a few I noticed over the past couple of weeks:

Delta Airlines is significantly cutting its number of flights this summer. Flights that aren’t full in time for take off will be cancelled.
Middle-aged white-collar workers in the 40’s and 50’s are moving back into their parents’ homes for shelter.
Twenty-four states are now paying $4 or higher for gasoline, so to save money and stay in business truckers and carriers are slowing down and carrying loads for multiple suppliers at a time. Seems they are now also poised to strike.
Bread, a friend complained, is over $5.00 for a standard brand loaf of bread at the supermarket where she shops. A loaf of our spelt bread, which we eat because we are allergic to wheat, costs over $6.00 now
Merchants are resorting to haggling in order to sell their merchandise.
Airlines are returning to prop planes for regional flights because they use less fuel.
Worldwide food shortages are arising in Africa, Central American and Afghanistan and food prices are escalating not only here but everywhere, even Rome and Paris.
Water wars are developing now in Colorado.

The changes we've been feeling anxious about are no longer things to worry might happen. They are happening. It's crucial we take note of them, heed them and help others to do so without undue stress. We can take steps individually to reduce our energy footprint, but even more crucial is to begin joining with others and encouraging those we work with or know otherwise know to be concerned to create small, sustainable, walkable, food-producing local communities right within our own towns, neighborhoods and bioregions.

Many people are already beginning to do this. We can learn more about how to do this and find out the efforts and progress of others through such organizations as the Relocation Network ( or BALLE, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies ( The sooner we begin such efforts, the less difficult they will be to realize.
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