Eco-anxiety is becoming an increasingly prominent mental health issue across the world. To help those who find environmental news and climate change a huge anxiety trigger, British-Australian psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose has written A Guide to Eco-Anxiety: How to Protect the Planet and Your Mental Health (published by Watkins Publishing).
The book is real and honest about the planetary problems humanity is facing but it also provides achievable, practical and motivational tips on how to channel anxiety and use it in a proactive way.
In this extract, Anouchka shares her advice on how to become more resilient in the face of climate change.
A strong wish for certainty not only limits your options, but hugely contributes to anxiety. If life is only allowed to unfold along strictly proscribed lines, then it’s bound to be haunted by the possibility of careering off-track. It’s just not realistic to imagine that things will always go as expected. Earthquakes happen. Marriages end. Objects get lost. People die young. It’s terrible, tragic, but it’s also real life. While you may not want to invite tragedy in, you can also try to remember that bad, sad things are survivable. As long as you’re alive, you can try to make the best of it, whatever ‘it’ is.
So, with uncertainty up there as the overarching principle, here’s a list of other suggestions on how to make yourself the most resilient creature you can be.
1. Have feelings
Let yourself be as sad, angry, disappointed – or even as excitable and happy – as you need to be. Holding feelings at bay is exhausting, and can leave you feeling inauthentic and depleted. If the gap between your inner world and your outer presentation gets too big, it can become hard to function. It’s also generally much easier to process feelings by expressing than by denying them. Feelings have an annoying habit of prodding until you give them some attention. If you attend to them quickly, they might even get off your case.
2. Enjoy nature
It’s still there, loads of it, and it’s the most impressive thing there is. Even the most advanced invention only exists thanks to plants and animals – none of us would be here without them. The fact that you are able to witness nature is surely enough to have made your life worth living, however things pan out. Just thinking about how it all got here can give you a mental orgasm!
3. Be grateful
Although life can be painful, it really is an extraordinary privilege to be here at all. Whom you direct your gratitude toward is up to you. It might be your god, it might be your parents, it might be your animal predecessors, or the strange act of chance that animated those first microorganisms. Something has put you here.
4. Be a good friend
Swapping ideas with people, knowing what goes on with them, and letting them know what goes on with you, makes life better. Sharing stuff, from thoughts to food to feelings to clothes, helps everyone. Try to find the best friends you can, though – the kindest, most thoughtful, engaged types who will return your trust and openness with interest. If there are none in your neighbourhood, look further afield, or online. Virtual communities can be great too.
5. Ask for help
And help others. As long as you do both, you’ll know how rewarding it can be to be there for another person. It’ll make you less afraid to ask for things when you need them. On the other hand, if you ask for help first then other people will know that they can ask back. In either case, it’s generous.
6. Be accepting
While you might be consumed with fighting for change, it’s also important to accept that some things are beyond your control. It can be hard to keep everything in perspective when the situation looks dire, but try to remember that there will always be good and bad things – and it’s OK to enjoy the good things, even when the bad things are going full-throttle.
7. Be still sometimes
You can do it “formally” through mindfulness or meditation, or you can just stop doing stuff and notice how it feels to just be. It can be easy to get into living like a maniac, filling every minute with tasks, including the stressful task of sleeping for the correct number of hours. Stopping once in a while to notice the unlikely freakiness of just being here can be such a relief. You don’t need to be useful all the time, nor happy. It’s OK just to be.
8. Feel the floor
There is something underneath you that will stop you if you fall. Who could ever have come up with such a brilliant contraption? When things get too much, you can just drop to the floor and let it hold you. It never fails or lets you down. (Don’t do it at the top of a steep hill, obvs, unless you’re looking for excitement.)
9. Be self-aware
This can mean anything from knowing your strengths and limitations, to understanding your moods better. Therapy can be great for developing self-awareness, but so can honest conversations with friends and family. Self-awareness can help you to develop resilience by giving you a more flexible attitude toward yourself. If you’re anxious or grumpy, maybe you have your reasons, but maybe some of your reasons are dodgy. Accepting that you’re sometimes mistaken, flawed, and that your mind plays tricks on you, can help you to step down rather than get into unnecessary battles – including with yourself.
10. Befriend yourself
It’s tempting to be much harder on yourself than you would be on someone else. (I know some people do the opposite, but I doubt they read ecological self-help books!) When you’re giving yourself a hard time, stop and try to think what you’d say to a friend who was doing the same. I’m betting there’s no way you’d be that mean to anyone other than you.
11. Take good news seriously
And seek it out. It can be easy to focus entirely on the things that are going wrong and to forget about the stuff that’s going right. But good news is important because it demonstrates that there is a point in trying, and that it’s possible to get good ideas off the ground.
12. Take breaks
It’s really important to switch off. You might feel that constant activity is the only justifiable response to the crisis, but it’s unsustainable. Focusing exclusively on the problem will definitely end up being bad for your health. People who work full-time on the climate crisis all report feeling stressed and needing to practise “functional denial” from time to time. It can be hard to switch off, so maybe you’ll have to show some ingenuity in coming up with distractions that work for you. It could be sport, cinema, Bumble, Sudoku, cage fighting, sugar craft. I’ve had my ears pierced three times in the four months it’s taken to write this book.
13. Be open-minded
Life could really be anything. The fact that you’ve been born into one particular set of circumstances doesn’t mean you have to recreate them wholesale. It’s OK to be poorer than your parents, to live differently from your school friends, or even to have no real idea of the life you want. Things could change drastically and still be OK.
14. Read and write
Exchanging ideas doesn’t have to happen in person. There are so many brilliant books and articles about climate change: for example, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, Mike Berners-Lee’s There is No Planet B, Greta Thunberg’s No One is Too Small to Make a Difference, and Donna Orange’s Climate Crisis, Psychoanalysis, and Radical Ethics. Although it can be alarming, it can also be comforting to see how other minds are coming at the problem. Producing your own writing too, in whatever form – novels, poetry, blogs, journalism, diaries – is a great way to spread ideas, or even just to externalize them. Things look different when you see them written down.
15. Be dumbstruck by the cosmos
If you think plants and animals are good, there’s something even more astounding. It exists in a timescale that’s almost painful to think about, and it operates according to beautiful, complex mathematical laws. The earth is only one tiny unimportant scrap of this huge interrelated system. However badly humans manage to fuck things up, we’ll make absolutely no dent whatsoever in the properly grand scheme of things.In fact, the laws of the universe dictate that we’re going to get fried anyhow. While this might not sound like the cheeriest news, it’s certainly a reminder that we probably shouldn’t get too hung up on “getting things right” on planet earth. Even if it all goes pear-shaped in our lifetimes, we’ll have had our little window of opportunity to check in with the sublime.
Anouchka Grose is a British-Australian psychoanalyst and writer. She is passionately concerned about the effect of the climate crisis on our mental health having witnessed the phenomenon of eco-anxiety grow exponentially in her own work as a therapist over the last two decades. She writes for the Guardian and has appeared on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour and Beyond Belief, and is the author of several other books on subjects from psychoanalysis to love to vegetarianism.
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