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


  1. Posted for Marina:
    I tried to post a comment, but it would not allow and I got frustrated and gave up. But here's the gist of what I wanted to say: Using the words "healthy" and "addiction" together is, in my mind, a contradiction. As you so wisely pointed out, "attraction" is a much better word. Context, attitude and intention are everything. Anything and everything can be addictive if balance is lost and dis-ease results. Anything and everything can be an attraction if balance is maintained and health results. I used to laugh and say that "nature is my drug of choice." But I'm not chemically dependent...........


  2. From Allison:

    I think the points you make are extremely significant! Bravo! If only we could take all six billion people on the planet addicted to artificial substitutes for natural fulfillment (like shopaholism) and-- like your client-- help them (through Mike Cohen's Natural Systems Thinking Proess) experience just how much more deeply rewarding and fulfilling natural attractions can be...and how simple it is to find and follow natural attractions (the best things in life are free!). How can we accomplish this en masse with the opposing forces of capitalism and commercialism that are so ubiquitous and powerful? Perhaps once these systems collapse people will be ready to hear our message about how to find positive, powerful, meaningful, and deep natural fulfillment instead of turning to the harmful addictions our society has conditioned us to want.

    I have not read Bradford's book, but my perspective at this time is that there actually is no such thing as a "healthy addiction." To me, the term addiction means something specific: an artificial substitute for natural fulfillment that-- because it is not the 'real thing'--never completely satisfies...and thus we are left wanting more. Our longing becomes insatiable, and we often way "overdo" this artificial attempt to find fulfilment.

    In contrast to addictions...
    We have natural attractions that lead us to fulfill biologically developed/inherited expectations (Leidloff!) that connect us in a healthy, mutually supportive way with the rest of the natural world of which we are a part. When we fulfill these real needs by tuning in to our 53 senses...that lead us to what we need in the moment...we experience deep natural fulfillment. By naturally fulfilling the need we sense in the moment (i.e. drinking pure water when we sense thirst and then later excreting it when we sense it is time to do so), we fulfill our role in the water cycle--which supports our personal health as well as the health of the rest of the natural world. On the other hand, when we satisfy our thirst by drinking a soda in response to ubiquitous advertising... we may satisfy our sense of thirst--BUT, it is not healthy for us personally (google the horrors!) nor is the cola industry healthy for our planet (mining the metals for cans and machines, the excessive use of energy during production, the resulting carbon dioxide production, the fertilizers and pesticides--pollution!- - /soil depletion for growing the food ingredients like sugar/coca leaves, etc.). Colas are an artificial substitute that satisfies our sense of thirst, but they are not healthy for us or the planet. And many people are addicted to them.

    To sum up: To me, things that naturally fulfill our biological and unconditioned psychological expectations/attractions and lead to personal health/fulfillment as well as support the rest of the natural world are "natural attractions" and NOT addictions. We can recognize them also because fulfillment feels so deeply good... sleep when tired, excretion when the urge is upon us, water when thirsty, food when hungry, oxygen when we're attracted to inhaling, exhalation with the oxygen is depleted (and we give our plant relations the CO2 they are longing for), true friendship when we experience a longing for our natural sense of community... Addictions, on the other hand, are compensations/substitutes for natural fulfillment that do NOT truly fulfill--but do just enough so that we are eternally left wanting more, more, more... Examples are substituting television for our natural sense of creativity, trying to use materialism as a substitute for emotional and spiritual health and well-being, and relying on prescription or recreational drugs, or psychotherapy and self-help programs as a substitute for healthy, mutually-supportive relationships.

    You allude to this distinction in your blog post, Sarah. I just personally prefer to take the distinction a step further. There is no "healthy" addiction, just healthy fulfullment of life-supportive attractions that support self and planet. Addictions are unhealthy compensations for our disconnection from natural fulfillment.

  3. Yes, yes! Allion. I agree. Do you remember a book by William Glasser from the the 70’s I think – Positive Addictions? It was a similar idea as Bradford’s. He focused a lot, if I recall, on running as an addiction. I could relate to it because I was a runner at the time (before my doc said no more of that for you!). The runner’s high, as they called it, was just amazing. I got the same feeling from swimming, which I took up after that, but in CA the pool we had then wasn’t heated and by October my lips were turning blue by the time I got out of the pool and I had to quit for the season.
    It was more painful than quitting smoking, because it had such a good effect on me instead the harmful effect smoking had. I got great joy from quitting smoking. As hard as it was to do, I felt so pleased to become a “non—smoker.” I felt much better once I escaped it. But I found no joy in having to quit swimming. In fact vowed to never swim again and I haven’t because I couldn’t/can’t bear the pain of quitting again.
    So … I totally agree with you that the idea of a positive or healthy addiction twists of entire concept of addiction. That’s why I prefer using the term attractions too. Still, there are some attractions that have a much stronger chemical component than others … ah for the runner’s high! We had a great hike yesterday. Must do it more often!!!

  4. From Allison
    Hmm about the runner's high... I'm wondering if it originally developed to 'reward' early hunters who had to run great distances for prey, thus supporting their efforts to get food and survive, but that in our disconnected culture the runner's high becomes a "high point" in a life devoid of many of our other biological expectations for fulfillment-- a substitute for living a life balanced through all 53 senses. So in this case, the running could be considered an addiction--but not a "positive" one (as Glasser asserts) because as you discovered, too much of ANYTHING is not healthy.

  5. The point of shopaholics can also be conversely associated, for example I've experienced intense guilt and anxiety from purchasing things, in some context this could be attributed to eco-anxiety. I've met people though that have rationalized this fear to their contempt for capitalism. One of these cases though was made by a clepto-maniac. They experienced something similar to a runners high every time they stole, and likewise felt that they were rewarding themselves and society through these actions.

  6. I agree, Elise, that guilt is often a feeling that follows an addictive behavior. Even thinking about pursuing an additive behavior can elicit guilt and anxiety. If one is not an addictive shopper, though, feeling guilting about buying items one needs is more likely to be associated with low self worth. Still feeling guilty and anxious about purchases can indeed be part of eco-anxiety.
    Fortunatley understanding how the natural world works can definitely help overcome this source of concern, because one comes to appreciate the natural exchange and fulfillment of needs that occurs throughout the web of life and larns to distinquish the difference between excess and fulfillment.
    Thank you so much for posting your comment.

  7. From Shelia:

    First, I see the greatest problem as being the "selfish" and "hoarding" behavior which fear will generate in people. From that will come even more conflicts and we will slide backwards in our great gains to achieve inclusivity of all peoples. That is the one reason which has motivated me to put my efforts and personal funds into developing the Center of the World Festival of "peace plays" and promoting the Red Cross Mental Health Team.
    I cannot sit by waiting for a collapse--I am trying to put out my energy into the "universe" and tap into other spirits who see that we must fight "negativity" as it arises in "conflicts". I am so hopeful that we can do that, just by the fact that enough of us sent forth energy to elect Barack Obama--he is our sign of "inclusivity" and that we will "out-number" the selfish hoarders. So, I face reality, and at the same time, I do not engage in negative thinking.
    I engage in positive actions based upon the knowledge of the negative. I DENY the negative, but I am not in DENIAL. Shelia

  8. Interesting distinction, Shelia, between negative thinking and being willing to recognize, discuss, and respond positively to changes that happening to permanently our current way of life, which is itself in many ways negative, both for us as individual and the planet.
    I too see no value in "negative thinking."
    To state that there is an event occuring that one needs to prepare for or act on is not negative thinking, as you say. That is taking positive action.
    Sadly the individuals to whom both Carolyn and are referring are defining information they do not want to hear as negative thinking. It's like defining observed information that a hurricane is heading toward our town as negative thinking, and if were ignore it, it won't hit us.
    So the distinction you are making is an important one for us all - to distinguish negative thinking from refusing to think at all about somesthing one doesn't wish to hear.
    Thank you very much for your comment.

  9. I just saw an excellent quote from Global Research that is relevant to our discussion here.

    From an article entitled Restoring Confidence Will Not Restore the Economy
    "Keeping quiet about how bad things are won't help. As the leading independent economists and financial experts all say, the three things that will help are:
    1. Honestly addressing the causes of the crisis
    2. Honestly addressing the necessary - if bitter - medicine needed to get out of the crisis
    3. Holding responsible those who caused the crisis

    This same thought holds true for all aspects of the environmental and economic challenges we face. Keeping quiet about them and leaving them for others of "do something about" or hoping all will somehow be well as long as we think positive thoughts that won't help. Taking positive action will help.
    It is also important that we each include ourselves in those we hold responsible because, with rare exception, we have all contributed albeit usually unknowingly.