"...Matt stared blankly out at the hills beyond the shimmering surface of the river. A few sheep moved slowly uphill, devouring the lush, fresh grass that swathed the hillside on the opposite bank. Here and there, bright yellow gorse bushes exploded like frozen fireworks, held captive in the summer sunshine. Unbroken blue arced overhead, punctuated by the swooping brightness of white gulls, screeching their pleasure at the freedom of the sky.
Around him, the buzz of the classroom seemed to fade as he lost himself in the view beyond the dirty school window. He leaned against it, the cool of the glass refreshing in the heat of the room. His exercise book open, his work finished, he drifted beyond the glass again. This time he noticed the buildings. Grey, squat, square against hills, grey scars marking out the rutted tracks made by the military vehicles parked on the docks below. A black, arched doorway set into the base of the hill, surrounded by ant-like guardsmen, their dark figures menacing in the brilliance of the day.
He felt the sudden, familiar surge, starting in his stomach and flowing through his veins until his arms and legs became frozen, his eyes unable to rip themselves away from the scene that was about to unfold. Fear, unadulterated, unreasoning, unstoppable gripped him. The sunlight now became a glaring horror; the ammunition dump beneath the hills would be a target. He knew it, he feared it. The light grew brighter and still he could not tear his eyes away from the scene. Here he knew would be complete, instant obliteration. When the bombs fell, at least he wouldn't suffer.
'Miss!' called Chuck Henson, 'Miss! Matt's crying,' he said, a sneer curling his thin, sweet-blackened lips.
Matt felt a tear rolling down his cheek, perhaps it was the sun that had made his eyes water, perhaps it was the certainty of what he had imagined. He looked away at last and felt the heaviness of thirty pair of eyes on him..."
Book – Untitled (as yet incomplete but working on it honestly!) Steve Buss
I’m sorry to say it, but Miss Roberts, Barry Hines and the Eighties all have a lot to answer for! In 1982, I was twelve years old. Our English project for the summer term was… well, I’m not sure actually but it seemed to consist of Atomic and Post-Apocalyptic Horror. ‘Threads,’ ‘Z for Zachariah,’ ‘Adam’s Ark,’ were all on the reading list (thank goodness for Sue Townsend and Adrian Mole for lightening the mood). To this day, I still can feel the fear of nuclear war. I can still see the horror of a nuclear attack depicted in the BBC’s adaptation of ‘Threads.’ That fear left an indelible mark on me and at the time, occasionally paralysed me in the face of other threats. Everything seemed to merge into one, homogenous terror.
To be fair, I expect my teachers were trying to convince us that war was a bad thing. Lesson learned. What my twelve-year-old self couldn’t have known was that much of what was being said by the then USSR was bluff and that within four years, the Chernobyl nuclear plant would explode and bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union. I didn’t know that within the faceless entity of a seemingly oppressive and inscrutable nation, there would be a leader that would emerge and bring common sense back to US/USSR relations. Gorbachev did more to alleviate a terrified Devon boy’s fear than he will ever know!
Skip forward nearly forty years and I see a similar anxiety in people across the world. Not this time (although you can never really rule it out totally), the threat of a nuclear holocaust but the real possibility of dramatic, devastating and cataclysmic climate change. I don’t know if we had a term for the early Eighties nuclear terror but today, instances of Eco-Anxiety are on the rise and it is extremely likely that a great many of us are suffering from it.
Although not officially diagnosed in DSM V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition) published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), eco-anxiety has been identified as being a chronic fear of environmental doom. In 2018, a survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change and George Mason University Centre for Climate Change Communication, indicated that around 70% of people in the United States were worried about climate change, and around 51% feel "helpless."
It is easy to see this trend across the globe: school strikes, Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg… People are mobilising to take action against the inaction of world leaders and their failure to grasp the nettle and deal with the issue of greenhouse gas emissions, plastic in the oceans, loss of habitat and the increasing lengths industry will go to in order to exploit dwindling resources. Mental health officials all agree that the cumulative impact of climate emergencies across the world can cause lasting and acute damage to our mental health.
I’m not just talking about the people in the front line of climactic catastrophe here either. Of course, those people in the midst of the Australian bushfires, flooding across the UK in recent years and the increasing ferocity of ‘Hurricane Season’ across the US, have all been dreadfully impacted, physically, mentally, financially and nations have mobilised to support recovery in those instances. But I am also talking about those, like Matt, viewing through the window, those vicariously absorbing the fear and the horror of what could be in a few short years.
Eco-anxiety is characterised by a number of features and I suspect, there are still others to discover. What we do with these feelings differ in as many ways as there are people to deal with them but it is likely that most people will feel some, if not all, of these symptoms in regard to their views on climate change.
Acute symptoms and side-effects include:
· trauma and shock
· post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
· substance abuse
· raised feelings of aggression
General symptoms include:
· increased feelings of anxiety
· reduced feelings of autonomy and control
· feelings of helplessness, fatalism, and fear
· feelings of guilt
Eco-anxiety affects body and mind, with physical symptoms including raised blood pressure, suppressed appetite, cravings, headaches, sleeplessness and sometimes panic attacks. Certainly, those experiencing eco-anxiety will have a number of these symptoms when related to ongoing concerns about the global environment and climate change.
And it affects everyone. Certainly, instances in younger generations are higher given that their future will be most impacted by lack of action on climate change but also people in their middle age or old age may be impacted by a sense of guilt at not having done anything in their lifetime to combat the effects of climate change. This all-pervading sense of powerlessness seems common to all generations however and may, perhaps, be one of the keys to understanding eco-anxiety and the road towards finding successful ways of dealing with its effects.
Working in nature, I am often reminded of its resilience and its power to heal itself following either a man-made or natural catastrophe. In my first blog, I mentioned the woodland where I practice nature-connection having been devastated by industrial activity and how, over time, nature has reclaimed the land, bringing the industrial structures down to earth and creating a home for hundreds of different species of invertebrates, birds, mammals and reptiles. Australia, which is experiencing its worst ever bushfires, is already seeing signs of new growth in areas completely devastated by fire. Nature heals. That is the message of my nature connection groups and it is the message written large all around us.
In the course of my work with groups in nature, we have devised some helpful ways of dealing with eco-anxiety that perhaps you may want to try if you feel that you are affected by eco-anxiety.
Five Helpful Approaches to Coping with Eco-Anxiety
1. Positive Filtering
Ok, so the first criticism people often come up with is that this is akin to ‘burying your head in the sand.’ By filtering out all of the negative stories about nature and the environment, aren’t we ignoring ‘the truth?’ My answer, by ‘filtering in’ the positive stories about nature we are actually creating a much ‘truer’ picture. Not everything is bad and there are many people active around the world making a positive change for the better. It is easy to watch the news headlines (which I may say can be really depressing) and believe that is the story entire, however, media companies are in the business of gaining viewing figures or selling copy and disaster sells. One of my old teacher trainers once told me that the route to successful History teaching was ‘sex, death and toilets!’ He was right. Magna Carta was as nothing to medieval sewage systems or the exploits of Henry VIII! And so it is with the news.
Practical steps you can take include limiting the amount of time you spend looking at news channels, joining positive nature groups on social media and sharing those stories with people you know. I am not advocating willing ignorance of scientific fact but I am encouraging you to see the bigger picture.
Check out NatureWise’s own Facebook group:
2. Join an Action Group
Much of the impact of eco-anxiety centres around the feeling of helplessness, of an inability to effect lasting global change. My question would be, in what other situation in life can you? Even the Prime Minister cannot make other nations tow the global environmental line and they are in a position to make themselves heard.
Think of it like throwing a pebble into a still, calm lake. The pebble is small. The lake is large. At first, as the pebble arcs through the air, the lake is undisturbed. Then, there is the splash. The first sign of something different on the placid surface of the lake. Then, the ripples spread. The lake can no more stop them than you can. They spread and they spread, sometimes reaching the shore, gentle but certain.
Taking action might only involve starting an online group or a weekly support meeting, it may involve organising a litter pick or even starting an allotment, but it is ACTION, it is proof that you are not helpless and whatever you may think, people see it. Greta Thunberg began by going on strike, spending her school days outside the Swedish parliament. In 2019, she organised two multi-city global strikes involving more than a million students on each occasion. I suspect that, at the age of 15, Ms Thunberg had little idea that her actions would lead to a global movement that is still gaining momentum.
3. Get out into Nature!
I know, radical right? One of the ironies of eco-anxiety that we find in connection groups is that people are often highly concerned about the state of the global environment but have no idea about what is on their doorstep. Like Matt, the world is viewed through the dirty window, be it TV, internet or someone else’s opinion. By getting out into to nature, we are encouraging the ‘Here & Now’ experiencing of the thing that people love; reinforcing the reasons why they love it and encouraging a more mindful appreciation of being in nature. We do it all of the time – ‘futurecasting’ – planning what to do next: what’s for tea? which box set shall I binge on next? where do I want to be in five years? There is a time and a place, of course, but futurecasting gets in the way of appreciating what we have NOW. I have seen people ‘forget to love’ nature because they are so anxious about what it will be like in ten years’ time. I always come back to the mantra:
‘The past is history; The future is a mystery;
This moment is a gift; That is why this moment is called the present;
Beside the whole ‘Kung Fu Panda’ mysticism, being out in the open is proven to be good for you both physically and mentally. Connecting with nature lifts mood and at very least, a ten-minute walk is good cardiovascular exercise. Unconvinced then check out these links:
Forests & Wellbeing
10 Reasons to Get Out and Walk Right Now!
6 Benefits of Exercising in Nature
You don’t even have to get outside. There are hundreds of apps available for free which offer the opportunity to listen to ‘nature sounds.’ Clinical studies have proven that 2 hours of nature sounds a day significantly reduce stress hormones by up to 800% and activates up to 500-600 DNA segments known to be responsible for healing and repairing the body (Dr J. Dispenza)
But, if you do get your hands dirty, it gets even better:
I mean, come on, anti-depressant soil. What’s not to love?
4. Practice Mindfulness and Grounding
There are many different approaches to coping with anxiety but certainly, one of the most successful and easily accessible ways to cope when you feel your anxiety levels rising is to use a grounding technique. By practising mindfulness and grounding techniques daily, you can also help to avert panic attacks and build personal resilience making coping with intrusive thoughts and feelings much easier.
Here is a (long) list of some of my favourite techniques. Pick whichever seem to make sense for you:
· Carry a polished stone or piece of cloth with you to touch.
· Carry a soothing picture with you and look at it when you are feeling anxious.
· Eat or drink a favourite food. Savour it.
· Notice where you are, including the people, sites, and sounds.
· Concentrate on your breathing. Take a deep breath in through your nose and count. Exhale slowly through your mouth for twice as long.
· Slowly and deliberately cross your legs and arms. Feel the sensations of you controlling your body.
· Take a warm, relaxing bubble bath or shower and pay attention to the water touching your body.
· Light a candle of your favourite scent or visit a place with enjoyable smells (bakery, coffee shop, etc.)
· Find your pulse on your wrist or neck and count the beats per minute.
· Go outside. If it’s warm, feel the sun shining down on your face. If it’s cold, feel the breeze against your skin. How does it make your body feel? Sit against a tree. Feel the bark pressing against your back. Smell the outside aromas like the grass and leaves. Run your fingers through the grass· Go outside and watch the clouds or go for a walk.
· Get active. Do the dishes, clean your room, or redecorate. Organise your room.
· Listen to a familiar, comforting song and sing along to it. Dance to it.
· Write in a journal. Pay attention to yourself holding the pencil. Write about what you are remembering and visualise the memory travelling out of you into the pencil and onto the paper.
· Look up pictures or paintings online that you find beautiful. Save them as your background image or hang them in your room.
If you can think of others or if you already use some techniques which work for you, I’d really love to hear about them. It’s always great to get feedback and learn something new.
5. Bring it on Home
Another proven way to support feelings of anxiety and often, depression, is to bring nature into your home. I don’t mean adopt a grizzly or anything potentially ‘mauly’ obviously. Taking care of a plant is enough – for both of you. As well as being great for the plant, it is great for you. Plants not only absorb carbon dioxide and oxygenate our living spaces but having a natural view or tending a plant has a significantly positive impact on mental health. Studies have proven that house plants improve concentration and productivity (by up to 15%), reduce stress levels, and boost your mood. My daughter’s two plants, Doris and Matilda (I know), are busy helping her through university as we speak!
If you fear being a somewhat heavy-handed gardener, then all is not lost. Images of nature work just as well at boosting mood and triggering the body’s regenerating capacities. Although, I would say a spider plant is a pretty impossible plant to kill and the joy of taking cuttings and giving them to your buddies to spread the love is reward in itself!
In 1982, the world was a scary and potentially very short-lived place. I imagine that pattern could be repeated throughout history: The Black Death, the invention of the machine gun, the Industrial Revolution, the collapse of the Roman Empire to name but a few. In their time, events like these will have sparked fear and dread in thousands of people. Today, the potential for widespread fear is magnified by the ability to access information and misinformation on an industrial scale. What is true, as it was then, is that we do not have the capacity to KNOW the future. We never have had the power to know our future selves. We have NOW and that is all we have. What we choose to do with it is up to us. We may not be able to instantly create the impact that we ultimately want to see but our example can be inspiring.
Return to that lake. It’s not just you throwing pebbles. Imagine that.