The Lancet Commission on Health and Climate Change was formed in 2015 and concluded that tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st Century. Although the implications of climatic and environmental change on physical health are increasingly well documented, the emotional and mental health and wellbeing implications still receive less attention.
Eco-Anxiety and Solastalgia
Two relatively new concepts in terms of mental health and emotional responses to environmental destruction and climate change are eco-anxiety and solastalgia.
The term solastalgia (a portmanteau of the words ‘solace’ and ‘nostalgia’) was first used by the Australian Professor of Sustainability and Environmental Philosopher, Glen Albrecht, to describe the negative psychological effect that living through natural disasters and destructive changes to our immediate environment and living space can cause.
Research into the effects of living through natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina in 2005 has shown that it increases the chances of developing depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. A key feature of solastalgia that sets it apart from related concepts used to understand environmentally-induced distress, such as eco-anxiety or eco-grief, is the explicit focus on place: solastalgia is a place-based lived experience.
As Richard Louv suggests in his 2011 book ‘The Nature Principle: Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age’, “if climate change occurs at the rate that some scientists believe it will, and if human beings continue to crowd into de-natured cities, then solastalgia will contribute to a quickening spiral of mental illness”.
Eco-anxiety, ecological grief, eco-grief or climate change anxiety, is a chronic or persistent anxiety about ecological disasters and threats to the natural environment such as pollution and climate change. Fears for our future and feelings of powerlessness are commonly linked to anxiety, stress, depression, anger, helplessness, sadness and feelings of hopelessness. In this way eco-anxiety can be amplified by fear and feelings of powerlessness in being able to do anything in the face of an impending catastrophe.
Responding to Ecological Grief
On a wider level, preventing and overcoming ecological grief and eco-anxiety most likely will require a seismic shift in the relationship that humanity has with nature and with the Earth. This relationship commonly centres on how we can use (some may say exploit) the Earth’s resources for economic gain, rather than recognising the vital role that nature and planet Earth play in maintaining mental and physical health and emotional wellbeing.
Coping with Eco-Anxiety
Coping with eco-anxiety can involve accepting your feelings towards ecological damage and climate change, and learning to live with both the positive and negative emotions of eco-anxiety. Acknowledge when you are feeling overwhelmed and find ways to reduce your anxiety and take a break. Spending time in green spaces and blue spaces – places where you can be in nature and mindfully interact with plants and trees, or watch the sea – can have a really positive effect on your mental and emotional, as well as your physical wellbeing. So get outside in the fresh air and take a walk in the woods, wander along a beach, swim in a lake or mindfully spend time in the local park.
As well as engaging with activities that can help you to relax and de-stress, it’s equally important to recognise what makes you feel anxious and learn to disengage from them if possible. Be aware of the effect that news and social media are having on your anxiety levels so think critically about the news that read and don’t just accept what it says. Both news media and social media can seek to exploit fears and worries so you might find that limiting your screen time and stopping doomscrolling* and look for ways to feel more empowered. Staying informed about climate change doesn’t mean that you have to engage in activities that increase your anxiety.
*Continuing to scroll through bad news, even though that news is saddening or depressing for you.
Increase your Nature-Connection
The fact that you are worried about the environment is a strong indication that you care about it, but unfortunately many people with high levels of nature-connection also commonly experience higher levels of eco-anxiety. However, connecting with nature, appreciating its beauty, and finding meaning in nature can also help us to cope with our eco-anxiety. Engaging with nature is also an important part of looking after ourselves. When you go into nature you remind yourself that you are not a passive observer, but an integral part of nature and the natural world. Spending time connecting with nature has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety and depression, lower heart rate and increase concentration.
A recent study [link: https://www.newscientist.com/article/2206249-two-hours-a-week-spent-outdoors-in-nature-linked-with-better-health/] found that spending two hours a week outdoors in nature is linked to better health and well-being. Engaging in a bit of nature-mindfulness or trying Forest Bathing may also offer ways you can reconnect with nature too. A fundamental aspect of Forest Bathing as a practice is called ‘reciprocity’. The reciprocity principle encourages you not to just take from the forest – Forest Bathing is not about you exploiting nature by extracting wellness and pleasure from it – it is about a partner relationship, characterised by communication and give-and-take that resonates well with being eco-conscious. Reciprocity increases awareness of the many ways in which we are connected with nature.
Increasing your connection with nature can also lead to greater environmental impact. People with higher levels of nature-connection often do more for nature, both in terms of reducing their impact on the environment through using fewer resources and through taking positive actions to help wildlife.
Think About the Carbon Footprint of Things You Buy
Changing your shopping habits can help you to make reductions to your carbon footprint and environmental impact. Shopping locally can reduce the food miles of the things that you eat. Clothing made from natural fibres such as cotton and wool minimise the release of micro-plastic particles that are released into the environment by some synthetic fibres.
Volunteering your time is one of the best ways to make an impact and help you to feel good too. Find a local litter pick or beach clean-up that you take part in. There are also specific groups such as Wild Swimmers Against Litter on Facebook.
Taking action by changing your lifestyle to reduce carbon emissions or by getting involved in social activism can reduce your anxiety levels by bringing a sense of personal empowerment and feelings of connection with other like-minded people. You can’t solve climate change on your own, but joining a group of some kind will enable you to make friends and enable you to express and share your feelings of eco-anxiety.
About the Author
Hugh Asher lives on a croft in the Highlands of Scotland and is a certified Forest Bathing Guide. Forest Bathing is an evidence-based wellbeing practice that involves walking slowly through wooded areas, mindfully using all your senses. He also runs a ‘social croft’ (like a care farm) with his wife Sarah, and both social croft activities and Forest Bathing harness the power of nature to support and improve emotional and mental health and wellbeing. A fundamental part of all he does is about promoting ‘nature-connection’ – encouraging people to develop stronger and more beneficial relationships with the natural world. This concept is important in combatting climate change and promoting environmental and ecological stewardship in that people with higher levels of nature-connection often do more for nature, both in terms of reducing their impact on the environment through using fewer resources and through taking positive actions to help reduce environmental impact.
He is the author of three self-published booklets on Forest Bathing and Nature Connection and one on ‘Coping with Eco-Anxiety’. You can find out more at www.silvotherapy.co.uk and www.darachcroft.com.