How I Manage My Eco Anxiety
As a Highly Sensitive Person
I’ve watched many of the eye-opening environmental documentaries, such as Chasing Coral, Forks Over Knives, and Our Planet, in addition to other truth-revealing videos found across the web.
After watching this material, I have invariably gone to bed with an acute pain in my chest along with a deep sense of grief, mingled with unease. The insomnia would always set in as I hashed out every known environmental dilemma in my brain.
As a highly sensitive person and empath, it is not unusual for me to experience physical discomfort and mental distress at the news of another’s trauma - whether they be humans, plants, or animals. Typical for people like me, is the tendency to absorb other being’s pain. In this context, anxiousness about climate change is very much like internalizing and taking on the pain of the Earth. While this experience might not be understood by, or common for the majority, more and more people are experiencing some form of what psychologists are now terming “environmental anxiety”.
"Eco-anxiety" is described as worry, depression, distress, or a sense of helplessness that is triggered by an awareness of the environmental issues we face. According to a recent poll, nearly three-quarters of millennials experience it to some degree after reading or listening to the news.
Even without watching shocking documentaries, looking at heartbreaking material on social media, or watching the news, I have eco-anxiety flare ups. I try to maintain a positive mindset that believes every effort myself and others make has a positive impact. I do wholeheartedly believe that philosophy however, I’m still gravely concerned about the future of life on our planet.
I know that the planet will continue to evolve and find a new balance in it’s millennia long cycles. I know that life will continue on, but I wonder what the quality of life will look like for future generations.
Will there be any wild places left for my children and grandchildren to enjoy? Will the waters be rich with life, and drinkable? Will the air be breathable? Will the temperatures be bearable? Will there be food available? How much biodiversity will remain? How violent will the weather patterns become, and how soon will it displace large populations? What will the wake of PTSD look like for those communities that survive the catastrophic natural disasters? What warfare will these dire circumstances introduce?
With this environmental worry comes a sense of overwhelming powerlessness. I also question if my sustainably-minded actions make enough of a difference. Sustainability is a highly complex system. Many believe that the impact of simply existing as a human in our post industrial revolution society is considered to be unsustainable. Our linear economy sets us up for failure time and time again. A circular economic concept that some are working to implement at a political level offers a bright spot of hope during a dismal time. Even with that beacon of hope, do enough people care to make the necessary changes fast enough?
These contemplations are just some of the typical distressing thoughts myself and others experience. It can become a hamster-wheel experience of intrusive thoughts. The fear is real.
Allowing these types of thoughts to percolate in my mind, and ultimately discourage me, is not good for my mental health, nor is it productive. At the very least, this anxiety motivates me to turn my fear into action. These anxious thoughts, after all, lead me to make my own life changes toward a more sustainable life. After wrestling with these thoughts for years, I decided to choose not to let these concerns send me into a tailspin. Rather, I’ve allowed them to inspire the discovery of a better way to live.
So, how do I manage my environmental anxiety in order to live my best life? I find balance through using the same tools I use to cope with general anxiety, hyper-sensitivity, and being an empath.
This is what I do…
Everything in our world is constantly in flux. Nature changes and so too does our understanding of what sustainability can and should look like. Ourselves, and everyone else around us are constantly evolving, imperfect human beings. Acceptance is coming to terms with our current reality. Practicing acceptance doesn’t mean believing this is how it is going to end. Rather, it’s an acknowledgement of what the present moment truly is, and understanding that this is a beginning. Acceptance is observing what is happening, determining how much it really matters, then deciding what to do next.
The illusion of perfection plays a big role in having a healthy mindset. I have found that letting go of a perfect ideal has helped me accept and manage the eco-anxiety I experience. We are all works in progress. Not a single soul on this planet is perfect. There is no such thing as zero waste. Our current global state is also a work in progress. Nature itself is a wonderful example of impermanence, imperfection, and incompleteness. With this understanding, I can choose to decrease my impact without holding myself, or anyone else, to unrealistic expectations. This understanding also allows me to give myself, and others, grace when mistakes are made, or when we simply can’t be waste free or sustainable.
Balance my Media Intake
Just like crowds, loud sounds, and over-socialization can trigger overwhelm for highly sensitive people, depressing and overly biased media can be a toxic stimulate. Admittedly, it is extremely difficult to log into social media apps or watch the news without being bombarded by negative environmental news.
Part of educating myself on environmental topics means that I inevitably subject myself to traumatic information. However, I have the power to turn it off when it becomes too much. I have the power to seek out positive environmental news. For every eye-opening, heart wrenching eco-documentary, I seek out an inspiring nature story.
I also try to watch and read any popular or shocking material with caution. I strive to research who funds and creates the content I ingest, so that I know if I’m subjecting myself to an accurate perspective or something created just for shock value. Striking a balance between educational and positive environmental media is key to maintaining hope, re-inspiring my initiatives and mitigating negative stimuli.
I think it is important not to turn a blind eye to any negative news just because it feels uncomfortable. One could argue that that is how we got ourselves into this environmental dilemma in the the first place. We need to become aware of our negative impact, but as highly sensitive people, we need to be wise about how and when we subject ourselves to this content. Having a grounding practice helps me ingest difficult material while staying centered. To do this, I walk barefoot in the grass, disconnect from technology, breathe deeply, spend time alone, take a nap, or submerge myself in water. These practices might seem silly to some, however they are powerfully healing to highly sensitive people.
Connect to Nature
The follow up practice to reducing negative stimulation is by replacing it with something nurturing and healing. For me, and many other highly sensitive people, ironically being in nature is the necessary tonic for our distress. Not only does connecting to nature physically and mentally soothe my system, but it re-inspires me to take action in preserving all that I cherish.
I’m not talking about putting on a face mask and drinking wine to ease my qualms about the world. Although, those activities are nice! I am talking about doing the hard, internal, scary, self-healing work.
Anxiety, generally speaking, occurs when our minds fixate on the future. It is essentially fearing some sort of future occurrence that has not yet, or might not ever happen. It is the cognitive process of projecting un-healed pain onto a future timeline. As someone who is highly sensitive to the energy of beings around me, anxiety can also manifest as a result of projecting other’s baggage that I’ve picked up somewhere along the way.
I find great relief in caring for myself physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, in order to get to the root cause of my anxiousness. Practicing zen meditation helps me heal cognitively and emotionally because I sit in stillness and watch my thoughts flow. Familiarizing myself with my thought patterns helps me untie the knots and organize my thoughts. Combining meditation with breathing exercises also helps me release the baggage that I’ve accumulated.
Physically nourishing myself, taking a break from work, and getting enough sleep is highly important. I’ve noticed that I’m always more anxious when I’m hungry, tired, or overworked.
Spiritually speaking, I find relief from my anxiousness, when I engage in a ritual that connects me to my soul-self and higher source. I like to honor the shifts in season at the equinox and solstice markers. I also like to meditate, burn incense on my alter, or pray in acknowledgement of a driving force in the universe.
Practice Mindful Awareness
Mindful awareness has been a revolutionary tool in managing the anxiety and overwhelm I experience. It is a meditation in action that has armed me with the mental tools necessary to take control of my mental state and reframe my perspective. When I find myself fixating on something that is causing me stress, I pause. I remember to breathe, then I begin practicing mindful awareness in the present moment.
Practicing mindfulness is simply the act of neutral observation in the present moment. It is so easy to get caught up in hypotheticals, and past discrepancies, future possibilities and discrimination. The truth is that we only have the current moment to accept the past and create the future. Practicing neutrality, as opposed to being judgmental, helps me stay positive in the present moment.
Through mindfulness based practices we understand that every action has an impact, whether we are able to see the effect or not. It is the practice of becoming aware of how our actions in the present moment impact ourselves and the world around us. I believe sustainable living is rooted in mindfulness. Making sustainable lifestyle choices is about making intentional decisions, in full awareness, that positively impact ourselves and our environment.
Focus On What I Can Do
One of the best ways to turn my fear into action, is by focusing on what I have the power to control. I can control how much single-use plastic waste I produce most of the time, so I strive to live plastic free. I can control where I source my food, and how much water I use. I can control if I travel sustainably. I can control the clothes that I buy, and the companies I give my money to. I can choose to support political representatives and business that represent my values. I can educate others on what I know about living sustainably. I can volunteer in my community to help others. I can support others on their own sustainable living journeys. I can peacefully campaign for change.
Yes, many of these abilities are a reflection of the privileged life I am so grateful to have. Many people simply don’t have the luxury to choose to live sustainably. I believe that with my privilege comes responsibility.
Focusing on what I can do helps me realize that I actually have a lot more power to make a difference than I originally thought. Even though I can’t make our environmental crisis disappear, or be perfectly sustainable myself, I can do many things that help improve the situation. Not only is it my responsibility and duty, it is my honor, because I can.
Explore a Creative Outlet
Exercising my creativity is great way to mitigate the eco-anxiety I experience. It is a process that brings me into the present moment and strengthens me in many ways. In one sense, it empowers me to explore new ways to live sustainably. In another, it can pull me away from intrusive negative thoughts about the environment. My blog, for example, is one creative outlet I have that has empowered me to channel some of this energy in a positive way. However, when I feel overwhelmed by technology, or talking about the subject of sustainability too much, I dive into a different creative passion so I can stop the negative thought train.
Establish a Support System
Environmental distress can be too much for one person to bear, but it is something that a group can help manage. There is power in joining, or establishing, a social group that works toward the same outcome. It helps make the problem feel smaller and our own power to make a difference, bigger. Since beginning my low waste journey, launching my blog, and building this community, I’ve connected with an amazing global network of people. We all experience similar struggles and triumphs on a daily basis. This slow and sustainably minded community has been one of the most encouraging and uplifting elements of my journey so far.
When engaging in a sustainably minded community, it is important to surround myself with supportive and encouraging people. I have noticed that some people can become too aggressive in their efforts to persuade others into this lifestyle. I have also seen people shame and pass judgement on those that don’t live up to their expectations - especially in a digital space. This type of behavior creates an unhealthy environment that is especially harmful to my sensitive nature. I recommend finding (or establishing) a group that holds a safe space for people to discuss differing opinions, so that all may become inspired and supported.
Do you suffer from Environmental Anxiety?
If so, how do you manage it?
*If you feel that you may experience environmental anxiety or depression, I highly suggest seeking council from a licensed professional.