Thursday, August 28, 2008

Eco-Anxiety: Resilience, Optimism & Learned Helplessness

One of our greatest challenges these days is how to validate the seriousness of the problems ahead for our clients without making matters worse.

Believe it or not, an August 25 LA Times article entitled "Can a troubled economy actually improve public health?" reports that our way of life is so unhealthy under normal conditions that we are actually healthier in bad economic times. What an irony! But the article points out, mental health is one notable exception. In difficult economic times mental health "worsens even for the vast majority who maintain their jobs, as the onslaught of bad news causes anger, anxiety and depression."

Perhaps this not surprising. If we're already debilitated from our high-stress, consumer-driven lifestyle, is it any wonder it's difficult for us to draw on the one human capacity we most need in the face of a continuing onslaught of bad news and increasing daily difficulty? And, that we're more likely instead to fall prey to two peculiar quirks of human physiology that make it all the more difficult to respond effectively?

What we most need to draw on in circumstance like those of today isresilience – the ability to absorb, hold together, and continue functioning in the midst of disruptive change. Humans are amazingly resilient by nature. We're all descendants of resilient survivors who have overcome massive changes throughout eons. But as Kathy Harrison notes in her new book Just in Case , we are seeing the first generation of a population that is totally dependent on a fragile network of transportation, communication, and finance over which they have little influence or control and which leaves most Americans only a few days away from hunger and a paycheck away from homelessness.

So we may be seeing a lot of people who, instead of cathecting into their natural capacity for resilience, fall prey to two aspects of our neurophysiology that block resilience.

1. A physiological craving for optimism. Just anticipating the promise of something positive or simply hearing a positive prediction of something we want to hear, floods our bodies with a cascade of brain chemicals that make us feel euphoric. In many ways this is an asset, but it also makes it difficult for us to hear bad news. We tend to seek out a positive spin anywhere we can and if we can't, we may just focus on how we wish things to be and get our chemical high from manufacturing a little "positive thinking."

But this leaves us vulnerable to another debilitating inborn response.

2. Learned helplessness. When faced with an sequence of unpredictable, inescapable negative events over which we seem to have no control, we are easily conditioned to feel helpless. We become apathetic, give up, feel depressed, and stop making efforts to respond constructively to the disruption changes we face.

Unfortunately that is exactly where many of our clients are or will be. "Suddenly" gasoline costs are too high, groceries too expensive, layoffs looming, good jobs scarce, mortgages ballooning, and property values plummeting. And often there seems to be nothing we as individuals can do to stop these events.

But, of course, what is happening now was not unpredictable. It has been predicted as early as the 1950's. If we as a society hadn't been too addicted to optimism to hear the many predictions some have been shouting from the rafters for so long, their arrival now wouldn't be having seemingly inescapable consequences.

And, of course, each day we allow ourselves to go blithely on listening to or conjuring up optimistic images of how we can go on as we have been, and continuing to grow and expand, the more unpredictable and inescapable the negative consequences ahead become.

The alternative is to help our clients embrace the "bad news" and tap into their innate capacity for resilience.

Doing this will be far easier if we can imbue what's occurring with a titillating tinge of optimism. In an effort to do this some try to sugar-coat the issues. "It won't be so bad. Some new technology will be developed." "We'll be living in a better world where everyone can concentrate on what they love most." And so forth. But as reassuring as sugar-coating may feel, and as eagerly as it is apt to be lapped up, it just leads us right back into the optimism trap where we started: unable to escape the surprises we're left vulnerable and unprepared for.

Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Cultures movement and author of The Transitions Handbook, and Australian permaculturist Geoff Lawton are among those who are bringing an optimistic twist to the bad news we must deal with. They are packing standing-room only halls with eager, enthusiastic, and excited individuals across the Western world.

Since as a people we love optimism, let's capitalize on that. Let's immerse ourselves personally in the optimistic messages and activities arising from those who are accepting the "bad news" and responding with resilience.

Let's participate in hopeful, action-oriented endeavors like theirs in our own communities. Then let's share the enthusiasm and camaraderie of these experiences with our clients. Let's bring that energy into our sessions and invite our clients get involved so they too can experience first hand the empowering force of optimism in the embrace of challenging change.


Video Clips:
Greening the Desert with Geoff Lawton
Transition Handbook with Rob Hopkins

The Transition Handbook by Rob Hopkins

Organizations, Training, and Websites
Transition Culture
Permaculture Research Institute of Australia
Permaculture Research Institute USA

CEU Courses
Six hours of interactive Continuing Education Credits are available online for The Transition Handbook and other eco-anxiety related books and DVD's at Pine Mountain Institute,

(c) Sarah Anne Edwards, 2008

1 comment:

  1. I ran across a fascinating example of "learned helpless" in David Lazarus's LA Times column today. Lazarus describes a man who is delighted with the FannyMae/FannyMac bailout. He is foreclosing on one of several homes he owns, all bought on unconventional loans. Lazarus asked this man why others should have to pay for his recklessness. His response: "I understand what you're saying. But it's not me. It's the big institutions we need to be watching more closely. They're the ones holding the notes. They were obligated to take care of me."
    While I certainly agree that we need to reign in reckless lending institutions, that he thinks it is their job to take care of him is a sad commentary on how little responsibility we feel able to assume for major decisions in our lives such as home ownership. How totally we've abdicated such major issues to institutions over which we not only have little or no influence and which have little or no interest in looking out for our interest.