Using Nature as a Remedy for Eco-Anxiety

BY MATT ZHAO

On a given sunny day in Salt Lake City, Utah, a group of people may gather at the International Peace Gardens, sitting in a circle on the grassy lawn, and hiding from scorching rays under the shade of a tree. These people have probably congregated for a weekly meeting of the Good Grief Network, a local support group designed to address the subject of “eco-anxiety.” Laura Schmidt is a co-founder and leader of the group, and she fondly recalls these outdoor meetings as a remedy to her own, personal grief. Before working as an Outreach Director with HealUtah, a grassroots advocacy group for pro-environmental policies, Schmidt first experienced “eco-anxiety” in graduate school, when she learned about the high rates of species extinction that happens on a daily basis. This factoid only became an issue once she realized “the stress was interfering with [her] work.” After asking fellow students, Schmidt realized that she was not alone in dealing with this problem. “Everyone has their own reasons for attending the group,” says Schmidt. For her, it was knowing that “the world has lost some of its magic.”

Eco-anxiety is a mental health illness and form of anxiety that stems from the potential impacts that climate change can have on an individual. The term was first used in 2011 by Glenn Albrecht, an Associate Professor in Environmental Studies at the University of Newcastle in South Wales, to describe the feeling of helplessness when “watching the slow and largely irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold.” The term was then adopted by a range of psychologists, appearing in a 2014 report from the American Psychological Association that details the psychological impacts of climate change. While trauma and shock are well-known consequences of climatic disasters (such as storms and droughts), eco-anxiety represents a more specific reaction towards the gradual shifts in our planet’s ecosystem. For some, eco-anxiety manifests itself as resignation and frustration “due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change.”

Anxiety disorders have become a common diagnosis in American society. The National Institute of Mental Health says that an estimated 40 million Americans deal with a form of anxiety disorder. While there is no way to discern if global climate change is a prominent cause to these levels of anxiety, there is some certainty that the issue of environmental wellbeing is becoming a larger concern for Americans in recent years. According to a Gallup Poll taken in March 2017, 47% of Americans worry “a great deal” about the quality of the environment, up from 42% of Americans in the previous year and 37% of Americans in 2012.

The connections between global climate change and mental health issues are not fully understood, but many psychologists still say that eco-anxiety is a real and pressing condition. An important question, then, is, what can be done to address the mental health impacts?

Raymond De Young often wonders about this issue. As an Associate Professor of Environmental Psychology at the University of Michigan, De Young constantly looks for ways to mitigate the stresses of his job. On a crisp but sunny November day in Ann Arbor, Professor De Young may be seen standing next to towering fir trees and the babbling Huron River, awaiting the arrival of his research assistants. At the end of each semester, Professor De Young likes to schedule a special “check-in” meeting at Nichol’s Arboretum, a natural conservatory at the University of Michigan, with the intention that the stressed-out graduate students must walk through one of the many forested trails to arrive at the location of the meeting. These meetings are not for evaluating the work of the environmental students, however. “The meetings are for creating culture,” says De Young. He likes talking with his students about other topics of interest, such as the volunteer work he does at the local campus farm. Having these people, who are perpetually loaded with environmental work, forget about climate change for even a short amount of time is a benefit to their overall health. The time is for “reflecting and realizing that it’s not completely hopeless,” says De Young. “To not have anxiety is to be out of touch, but the more importantly thing is to learn how to respond.”

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Students walking along one of the many paths in Nichol’s Arboretum (4/18/18)

The APA reports several other ways for our society to build resilience against climate change and to help the inflicted victims. One method is focusing on supportive social networks, as an individual’s “personal capacity to withstand trauma is increased when they are connected to their networks off- and online.”

Schmidt would agree with this assessment. Her idea for starting an eco-anxiety support group stems from personal experiences in Al-Anon meetings, and her methods for coping come from the twelve-step program of addiction recovery. In both programs, the first step is to accept the problem and its severity. “It’s about reconnecting,” Schmidt says, “reconnecting with yourself, reconnecting with others, and reconnecting with our Earth.” According to Schmidt, “you must clean out your past traumas before doing any work, or else they will just come up again.”

From there, the important thing to do is just to “show up.” Sitting with other people that are experiencing a similar trepidation has its benefits in communality, and opening up to discuss the issues allows for greater introspection into the root of the problem. The positives of community are often emphasized by Adair Kovac, another member of the Good Grief Group. Kovac has attended several support groups for major social issues, such as PANDOS, an indigenous and environmental nonprofit, as well as a local queer group and an animal-rights group. Kovac says that Good Grief’s focus “isn’t primarily on teaching, but rather on providing spaces for authentic conversation and evoking people’s own wisdom and observations on the issues.” Good Greif also applies the Alcoholics Anonymous technique of having participants sit in a circle and face each other when they talk. Oftentimes, people will talk about having survived a disaster, or they might offer advice on how they fought through their depression with meditation. “This creates a sense of a team going up against hard issues,” says Kovac, “but ones that aren’t too scary to be faced since [they’re] doing it together.”

In just a few months, Kovac will become the primary organizer of the Good Grief Group in Utah, as Schmidt plans to launch another branch of the support group in Nebraska. Interest in this group has come from all over the United States, as well as parts of Europe and Canada. But for now, Schmidt simply hopes to “dive in head first and strengthen the group.” According to Schmidt, “[Good Grief] will expand, and continue to expand. The way [they’re] doing it doesn’t have to be the only way, as long as there’s a forum where a discussion can be had.”

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