Eco-anxiety: moving from despair to action

Are you suffering from eco-anxiety?

  • Are you dismayed by the latest news about climate change, biodiversity loss and ecosystem collapse?
  • Does your heart sink when you hear about the relentless decline of insects, or coral reefs, or glaciers?
  • Do you worry that the future may involve extreme weather patterns, widespread crop failure, or an unravelling of present-day society?

It can feel quite overwhelming as we take in what is happening to Earth right now.

We may undergo what Francis Weller calls a “painful apprenticeship with sorrow” as we reflect on the extent of what is being lost, and the problems we or future generations will face.

Former structures and certainties in our life can begin to feel unstable or hollow. We can struggle with grief, guilt, anger, and despair. Anxiety may become ever-present.

Anxiety is a messenger

People often do their best to view eco-anxiety as a false alarm. They try to turn down the volume of the worrying mind, in order to escape the nagging vulnerability and pain. How much easier to escape (!) – through denial, distraction, or comforting stories of safety and stability.

But anxiety is a sort of ‘messenger’. It alerts us to the presence of threat or danger. So if we know the threats are real and severe, anxiety needs listening to. And at that point, finding the right response involves:

  1. Facing the difficulty.
  2. Accessing our resources.
  3. Taking appropriate action.

1. Facing the difficulty

Trying to absorb the full implications of this climate crisis will, inevitably, throw up some extremely difficult emotions. In order to arrive at appropriate action, we must not only face the facts of what is happening, but also our feelings about it. 

Grief and sorrow: the grief and sorrow that we feel in the face of environmental destruction are in direct proportion to the love that we have for nature. And it is not only ours: this suffering belongs to all of humanity. It’s important to treat it with compassion. Can you tell yourself, tenderly, that you are here for your grief and want to take care of it?

Guilt and despair: when we look at the role that we ourselves have played in what the planet now faces, it can be easy to feel guilty. And looking to the future, we may realise we’re bound to cause further harm. With windows of hope for the earth seemingly closing by the day, we may sink into bleakness and despair. What happens if you attend to the present moment, and commit to sitting beside this pain? 

Anger: anger is our ‘fight’. It is a challenging emotion, as so many expressions of anger are hurtful and destructive to others. But anger appears naturally when we are protecting something precious that is threatened. And it has huge energy, which is potentially beneficial if handled with care. If you honour your anger with kindness, recognising its desire to protect, how does it respond?

Relationships illustration

2. Our most important resource

Human civilisation has brought untold benefits, as we have learned to control our environment and the planet’s resources – and often each other – to bring incredible wealth, health and comfort.

But seeing nature and people through the lens of ‘usefulness’ slides easily into objectification and separation. Slowly but surely, we become disconnected from the rest of the natural world, and from our fellow human beings.

This process of untethering, though freeing and empowering in some ways, can also leave us terribly lost and empty. We lose our sense of rootedness and belonging. We no longer feel like an essential part of a whole.

When this happens, we are cut off from our most powerful resource: a sense of meaning and purpose.

How to access it

Meaning and purpose keep us energised and engaged even when we encounter setbacks and losses. They fuel our actions, inspire the imagination, and nourish the soul. This makes them essential resources when confronting long-term, ongoing difficulties such as the climate and ecological crisis.

The best way to revitalise a sense of meaning and purpose is to reconnect with the world and the people around you.

Reconnection will look different for everyone. You might decide to spend more time in nature. Maybe you’ll grow herbs on your windowsill, or put bird-feeders in your garden. Perhaps you’ll seek out a supportive community… or create one. You might simply focus on ‘being of service’ – to family, or friends, or animals, or the wider community – so that you develop, as Catherine Ingram puts it, “a sense that you are being well used, like good compost in the field of life.”

Indoor gardening illustration

3. Taking appropriate action

Action is the ultimate goal of any healthy response to anxiety. Action provides a sense of empowerment and allows the pent-up energy of anger to be put to good use.

Of course, we often act in the hope of obtaining certain results. But it’s important to try and hold this lightly. A narrow focus on results can be disheartening if those results don’t materialise.

With eco-anxiety, it can be more helpful to focus on aligning your actions with your values. There is a steadiness that arises when your deepest-held values are allowed to ripple out into all your daily actions and choices.

Action might be inner or outer, large or small. It could include:

  • Setting aside regular time for a calm personal space.
  • Getting involved in environmental activism – e.g. campaigning, protesting, lobbying.
  • Working for ecological or social justice (Paul Hawken estimates there are up to two million groups actively working in this field around the world).
  • Finding a space where you can work through your emotions about the climate crisis.
  • Learning about ways society can do things differently – e.g. permaculture, sustainability, decolonisation.
  • Participating in projects that may help communities adapt to a climate-changed world – e.g. regenerative agriculture, transition town initiatives.
  • Taking practical steps to live more lightly on this earth.

Finding your path

Making your way through eco-anxiety is a process. You will need time to explore your emotions and consider potential responses. There may be areas where this collective crisis intersects with your own personal or ancestral history and experience, creating particular knots that need untangling.

If you don't have the right support in your community, counselling can provide a helpful space to think it all through. It takes enormous courage to face such outrageous loss and seismic change, and find a way forwards. But you don’t have to make the journey alone.

Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.

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Written by Sarah Hamilton, Psychotherapist & Counsellor

Sarah Hamilton is a BACP-accredited psychotherapist and counsellor working in private practice in Hay-on-Wye, Herefordshire (www.haycounselling.co.uk). Sarah offers both face-to-face sessions, and also online therapy by secure video and telephone. She works with adults and teens, and has particular interests in trauma and mindfulness.… Read more

Written by Sarah Hamilton, Psychotherapist & Counsellor

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