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


  1. I LOVE your blog and am deeply connecting with it. Yes, I do have eco-anxiety- - but how can you not?

    I think I'll address this in a future post because it is a real and legitimate stress that I feel that I have. I think if anybody actually does the research to see that our biosphere is in terrible danger one does become concerned.

    I am most deeply concerned for my children, and the world that I leave them. I feel like it is my duty to become active on every front.

    The funny thing about just the regular "anxiety" as we say, or maybe "anxious" is better as it doesn't have the stigma of "anxiety" is that there really isn't a bad outcome to your actions. It's only brought me more happiness and a stronger family relationship to focus on what is important, what is meaningful, what we leave behind.

    I eat better, I exercise 5 times a week now (gotta get in shape for a flood!!), I cook at home for my family, I have hobbies and volunteer instead of shop for recreation, I don't need "things" to fill a void, etc.

    It's a restoration of balance that our current cultural dynamic does not have.

    Sorry- - long comment!

  2. Thanks for your post! Not too long at all. I so agree that anyone who does the research on what's occuring in the environment is naturally going to be concerned for themselves and especially for their children. That's why I feel so strongly that the anxiousness and concern we feel not be labeled as a mental illness. It's not. It's response-enabling.
    And isn't it great that what is good for the planet is good for us!
    Here's to a balance future! Sarah

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