Thursday, April 23, 2009

Eco-Anxiety: Helpful and Harmful Additions

An excellent piece I highly recommend by Jason Bradford on "Healthy Addictions" prompted me to revisit my thoughts on addiction from a Nature-Guided Career Handbook and consider how I would expand them to focus on basis not only for today's growing sense of eco-nomic anxiety, but also on how socially conditioned compunctions lead to addictive behaviors that have and continue to contribute to the environmental problems we face thoughts on addiction from . In particular it promted me to consider
Just about any activity can become an addiction or obsession, I wrote, in my Handbook. Not only the things we usually think of, but also many things we habitually turn to as an escape from circumstances that are chronically unfulfilling substitutes for natural feelings of happiness so often find missing in our lives.
Some addictions are more obviously detrimental to our lives and our bodies than others, of course, but it’s not the specific activity itself that makes a certain behavior an addiction. It’s the role it plays for us, and our relationship with it. For example, buying new shoes, eating a piece of chocolate cake, staying late at the office, taking a spinning class, playing a computer game, or cleaning house can each be an enjoyable and/or useful experience, or they can become enslaving addictions we are compelled to do without regard for our natural attractions at the time.
Spending time reconnecting with nature and becoming accustomed to the experience of following natural attractions helps us to recognize this difference. First, however, one needs to have a somatic sense of what a natural attraction feels like. This is actually quite easy to recognize. For example, silently say aloud to yourself the colors of the words you see below:



Did you say the words Orange and Green; or did you say Green and Green? Either way, notice the differences you experience in your body as you try to read and say green when you are seeing orange versus when you read and say green when both the color and the word match. This subtle somatic response is an indication of how our bodies identify a natural attraction versus something we're not actually attracted to but have been taught or otherwise come to think we're attracted to. The particular somatic sensation one feels will differ from person to person. For some it might be in a tightness in the pit of their stomach, for example. For others it might be a pressure in their chest, their throat, or some other physical sensation.
With that sensation in one's awareness, the following table lists a few of the contrasts we and others have noticed between the experience of addictions and the experience of natural attractions.

You and your clients can take this chart with you into a natural setting of some kind (i.e. backyard, park, garden area) and spend some time there following your natural attractions (the Green/Green - G/G - sensations). Then pause to notice the differences between these experiences in nature and any addictive or obsessive activities plaguing you.
An example I have permission to share is from a client who was addicted to shopping. Whenever she'd had a tense, stressful day at work, which was often, she would treat herself with a trip to the mall on the way home to buy "a little something." Usually after a long week at work, she and her husband would spend Saturday shopping at their favorite stores. This pastime had resulted in a large and growing credit-card debt. It also meant their home had become cramped and was hard to keep organized and cleaned. So they were hoping to buy a larger house, but their credit wasn't good enough to qualify for a loan.
The relationship between this type of addiction and the ecological and economic problems we face today is, of course, obvious. But this couple is far more typical than we as a nation want to admit. We have been deluged for decades with advertising messages and appeals, even from our US Presidents, that shopping and borrowing are essential to the economy and downright patriotic. Ubiquitous messages tell us that owning more things is the answer to our problems. It will make us sexy, healthy, successful, and ... happy. Although there are reams of research that show this is not the case; that, in fact, such addiction to materialism is correlated instead with feelings of dissatisfaction, depression, and anxiety (see The High Price of Materialism by Tim Kasser).
But, as George Lakoff professor of linguistics and cognitive science points out, words heard repeatedly matter, and I mean the word matter literally. "Even words we hear casually and listen to incidentally, activate frames or structures of ideas that are physically realized in the brain," Lakoff explains. "The more the words are heard, the more the frames are activated in the brain, and stronger their synapses get - until the frames are there permanently."
So if we are to escape the compulsions to which words have misguided our desires, we must get out of their digital or mediated milieu and reconnect with the truth our somatic experience will remind us of.
In this case, after having my client identify the somatic sensation of a natural attraction, I invited her to spend some time in nature following her natural attractions; then to take a moment to complete a brief worksheet, re-"framing" in words her experience of what is attractive. At first this was difficult for her. She reported not having the time to go outdoors or that it too cold or too hot, or too windy or wet to be outside. But as I encouraged her to focus on how she could create attractive outdoor experiences (i.e. putting on more clothing, selecting an appealing time of day), she was eventually able to begin spending short interludes in nearby natural areas, following her attractions.
Several weeks later she volunteered to share an insight she and her husband had that past Saturday. They'd spent the day shopping for a new home entertainment system. She described their excitement as they explored the latest bells and whistles among their various latest models; how elated they felt as they drove home, proud owners of the new system they'd purchased. Then her tone shifted as explained how short-lived these feelings of elation had been and how tired she felt by dinnertime. Only hours after setting up the new equipment, she realized it had become meaningless to her. "You know, she said, "we didn't need this equipment. I wish we'd spent Saturday at the park instead of shopping. I would have felt relaxed and refreshed instead of burned out again."
Since then by preferring to pursue activities that are naturally attracted to them and leave them feeling "ful-filled," this woman and husband have identified a lot of activities that would qualify as what Bradford calls "healthy addictions," though I'd prefer to call the healthy attractions. They have taken classes together, traveled to unexplored nearby outdoor locales, even created new jobs for themselves, her inside her existing place of employment' him with a new company. In the process, they have saved enough money to whittle away at their debt. "I'm definitely not attracted to having a lot of debt," she told me, "but now I'm not even attraced to shopping unless I actually need something."
This experience, like that of so many other of my ecopsychology clients, illustrates a point made in a 1961 study by psychologists Keller Breland and Marion Breland called "instinctive drift:" once we remove ourselves or are removed from unnatural conditioning circumstances, we gradually "drift" toward those things which are instinctually good for us. This natural human tendency bodes well for our potential to move toward more environmentally responsible behavior. Because we are inherently part of nature, if unimpeded, we will inherently move toward that which is healthy for both us and the environment that sustains us.
Until it is possible to do this unconsciously within the context of culture expectations, the choice to move toward natural attractions instead of addictions and compulsions is one we personally can make by attending consciously to our sensory awareness. As time passes, we'll being to make such personal choices unconsciously again as our species once did so very, very long ago.

(c) Sarah Anne Edwards, 2009
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Friday, April 10, 2009

Predictions Becoming Realities: Are We Ready?

"What will global warming looking look like?" the LA Times headline blared, "Scientists point to Australia."
We had just returned from Tucson where we were doing a Training 4 Transition workshop and presentations on how to prepare for the effects of climate change, peak oil, and the ensuing economic instability to evidence that at least in Australia the predictions we've all been hearing about and too often avoiding are no longer future possibilities but current realities.

Prolonged drought and deadly bush fires, monsoon flooding, deadly mosquito-borne fevers, widespread wildlife decline, economic collapse of agriculture and killer heat waves -- epitomize the "accelerated climate crisis" that global warming models have forecast, the article declares.

And the psychological impacts are also just a we've been discussing here.

"Suicide is high. Depression is huge. Families are breaking up. It's devastation," Frank Eddy who runs a shrinking orchard told reporter Julie Cart, shaking his head. "I've got a neighbor in terrible trouble. Found him in the paddock, sitting in his [truck], crying his eyes out. Grown men -- big, strong grown men. We're holding on by the skin of our teeth. It's desperate times."

The article did not touch on what professional services are available to those suffering through such desperation. But it did point out, however, that:

- 200 Melbourne residents dying in a heat wave that "buckled the steel skeleton on a newly constructed 400-foot Ferris wheel and warped train tracks like spaghetti"
- days of temperatures at 110 degrees or higher with little humidity, and 100-mph winds,
- 4,000 gray-headed flying foxes dropping dead out of trees in one Melbourne park a quarter of Victoria state's koalas, kangaroos, birds and other wildlife dying from the heat
- entire towns destroyed in massive bush fires
- mile after mile of desiccated fields lying fallow
- 60% of the nation's produce farmers walking off their land or selling their water rights
- one rancher or farmer a week taking their own life and 14 dairy farmers committing suicide in the last five years

... and such dramatic anecdotal and empirical evidence hasn't sparked equally dramatic action from Australia's government.

Think that can't happen here? Think again. The climate in Adelaide where much of such suffering is occurring resembles much of our southwest, Los Angeles in particular. Other parts of the US are already suffering from severe weather anomalies at this very moment.

So the question is .... are we ready for this?

Are we ready personally? How are we preparing so that we as professionals can be available to help others instead of becoming paralyzed in our own desperation? Are we professionally ready? In this country known for its boundless opportunity, endless possibility, and rugged individualists, do we as helping professionals know how to assist our communities in adjusting to new realities such as these where choices are narrowed and even the rugged will face unimagined challenges?
Can we expect more of our government? What can we as both citizens and professionals do to assure a more immediate and effective response?
If you have been reading this blog, you already know a lot about what I and others have been doing. Safeguarding our homes as best we can. Setting up home and neighborhood growing possibilities suited to our locale, joining with others to restore resilience to our local communities, working to make needed policy changes, and learning nature-based psycho therapeutic methods for assisting our clients (and ourselves) to begin living more closely in harmony with our natural environment.
Still as I read and re-read this article, I sense the time to make such preparations is running out. I know we're all very busy. I know we're already stressed with other obligations and responsibilities. But just how important will our many other projects, plans, and duties be when we encounter what is already underway in Australia?
There are a wealth of resources here on this site already for responding to these challenges, but let's also share how we're preparing and support each other in our efforts.
We cannot do what needs doing alone.
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