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


  1. I just heard about your blog and I look forward to reading more!

  2. Wow! What a great article on stress. I liked the spirtiual aspect of it also. Work stress takes a much larger toll on our health than we care to admit. The author is right on the money with this article. In my book, Wingtips with Spurs, I devote an entire section to the effects of stress on our mental and physical health. Not from a medical point of view but rather from the view of a human resources professional of 30 years. Stress kills and will keep killing as long as we refuse to learn the coping tools.

  3. Congratulations, Michael, on your new book. Thank you for your post. So many things about the changing world of today can be stressful, but information, support, and doing those things which we can do to take care of ourselves helps us replace stress with confidence, and even enthusiasm.

  4. Sorry - but I don't think you have to be materialist, or 'emotionally vulnerable' to find a future of billions starving and fighting over resources depressing, or living in a community where everyone is in denial about it and conversations are on the level of, anyone for a cuppa?

  5. Well, I would certainly agree with this post. Anyone who is awake and sane would find such circumstances depressing. This is one reason many remain in denial about what is taking place. Already vast numbers of people are feeling very real and increasingly uncomfortable economic pain from today's environmental realites. This is in itself depressing and is requiring great ingenuity, flexibility and requisite variety to respond to both on a personal and community level. The point here is not that our circumstances are not depressing. My point is that those you have mentioned in you comment and that are highlighted in this blog are more likely than others to have greater difficulty accepting and adjusting to the rapidly impending way of life we will all need to find ways to be adopt.