Humans spend a lot of time worrying about things that haven't happened yet. But with everything going on in the world, it's easy to see why. We have a lot to consider, with hurricanes, bushfires, and pandemics. The world is in disarray. So how do we cope?
No Strangers to Natural Disasters
In 2019, Australia had bushfires rip through the entire country, almost obliterating entire species. 210 days, 478 deaths, 46 million acres, and an estimated one billion animals perished.
For a small population of fewer than 30 million people, the country couldn't cope with the sheer mass of the fires. The firefighters were at capacity and were working round the clock for months, completely exhausted and with no end in sight.
After months of fighting the fires, the US threw out a lifeboat and sent more than 100 of their firefighters to help save what was left of the Australian landscape. The last of the fires were able to be controlled around the end of February 2020.
The smoke was still lingering when news broke of a super-virus making its way across the oceans. It took only a matter of weeks to spread globally. To date, it has taken more than 3.3 million lives globally.
Just as the pandemic was revving up, California was then belted with the same fate Australia had faced only a few months earlier. On a smaller scale, but no less devastating. 4.5 million acres of land were burned to the ground. Homes destroyed. Animals were wiped out.
2020 was a horrendous year for natural disasters. Here are just a handful of the deadliest environmental events:
Indonesia had a typhoon that killed 42 people;
Indonesia then had flooding that killed another 66;
The Philippines had a volcano erupt, killing 39;
Turkey had an earthquake that killed 41 people;
Then an earthquake-tsunami killed 117 in Turkey and Greece;
The Dominican Republic and Haiti had 77 people killed by a hurricane;
India and Bangladesh were hit by a cyclone that killed more than 85 people;
Afghanistan lost 150 people in flash flooding; and,
Central America lost an unknown number of people to Hurricane Eta.
We'd Like to Speak to the Manager of Earth, Please
Natural disasters stick in our minds because it shows us that humans are no match for Mother Nature. Even with all of Australia's resources fighting the fires with all they had, the fires couldn't be contained for 210 days.
Those months of bushfires gave people a glimpse into a world where, should we stay complacent about climate change and not take action, a global catastrophe that wipes us all out is an imminent possibility.
All it takes is a few devastating natural disasters, and we'll no longer be a problem. Like a dog shaking off fleas.
And that is what is known as "environmental anxiety."
Caring Causes Colossal Concern
Caring about something that is out of our control is usually met with bouts of anxiety.
People's anxiety was at its peak during the bushfires in Australia and the pandemic. But anxiety also rears its ugly head in other ways, such as:
Standing in the honey aisle and deliberating over the selection. Then remembering that article you read on how honey bees are dying out and we need them to survive.
Making yourself sick from eating everything on your plate after watching a documentary on food waste.
Watching documentaries, like Seaspiracy and Planet Earth, and feeling an overwhelming sense of guilt and hopelessness.
An Emotional Burden
"More than two-thirds of Americans (67%) are somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change on the planet, and more than half (55%) are somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change on their own mental health…" American Psychiatric Association, October 2020.
Raise your hand if you're in those statistics ✋🏽
It isn't sustainable to live life in a state of anxiety. Stress can cause many health issues, especially if it is long-term. And while governing bodies are now starting to take action, climate change is not going to improve overnight — it's going to take years — so we need to look at ways to manage our environmental anxiety.
The Effects of Stress
Stress can have a mental and physical effects, which include:
Weight changes: being stressed out for more extended periods can cause your cortisol levels to rise. Some of us tend to eat more when we are stressed, so we sometimes gain weight during stressful times. In addition to gaining weight, stress can also cause weight to accumulate in the abdominal area. Known as "toxic fat", abdominal fat deposition affects cardiovascular health;
Immunity problems: chronic stress can cause your immune system to shut down;
Digestion issues: when we are nervous, our stomach can feel like it is "turning". Stress can affect our nervous system in a very similar way. If you are stressed out all the time, your digestion is going to become affected;
Reproduction problems: much like our digestive system can get affected, so can our reproductive system;
Skin issues: psoriasis, eczema, acne breakouts, cold sores, and any other skin conditions you are prone to can flare up during stressful periods;
Autoimmune diseases: often, stress can be the catalyst for many autoimmune diseases.
Body aches: muscle and joint pain can occur when we are stressed. Often we are tensing up our bodies from stress and don't even realize it.
Sleep problems: our sleep patterns get disrupted when we are stressed, and we can end up grinding our teeth, which then can cause jaw and dental issues; and,
Depression: this goes hand-in-hand with stress and anxiety.
We must listen to our bodies at what it's telling us. How many of these symptoms do you have regularly?
Ways to Manage Your Stress
It can feel like a mammoth task, tackling your anxiety. But, like a diet that sticks, you have to do it gradually. Here's a list of baby steps you can take to help you tackle your environmental worries:
1. Acknowledge that you are anxious about our environment. Accept that you are overwhelmed by the challenges we are all facing. Recognize how you feel.
2. Realize that you are not alone. The majority of us feel the same way, but everyone handles it in their own way. Some people are just as anxious as you are and experience things the way you do. Other people bury their heads in the sand. We cannot control how other people react to things around us; all we can do is control how we respond.
3. Start with meditation anytime you feel overwhelmed or anxious. Meditation can be as simple as taking ten deep breaths with closed eyes. Take a warm bath. Or you can light some candles and play calming music. The point is to stop your mind from racing, slow your breath, and try to relax.
4. Talk to someone about how you feel. Talking about something affecting you will take away its power over you and put it into perspective. We can't read the label from inside the jar; sometimes, we need an outsider to give us their perspective on things.
5. Join communities of aligned folks. Bolger, Zuckerman & Kessler state that having a sense of connectedness to a group can help you feel happier – and it also acts as a buffer for both mental and physical health problems.
Facebook groups are great for building a network of like-minded people. Just be careful not to surround yourself with doomsday conspiracy theorists. Look for positive influences and people who are being proactive in this space — like people who clean up the beaches on the weekends or sustainability influencers.
6. Make small changes in your habits. Taking small steps to become more ethical or environmentally friendly that is easy to maintain will make you feel better. It can be as simple as:
Buying a compost bin for your kitchen;
Signing up for PACT Collective;
Buy more sustainable products; or,
Meal prep your lunches to reduce food waste.
7. Become an influencer in this space. Educating others on their impact and how they can make small changes in their own lives to help the planet. This will make you feel good for spreading awareness and help to reduce your anxiety as you are being proactive rather than reactive.
8. Don't read or watch things that spike your anxiety. It's good to stay aware of things going on, but not to the detriment of your mental health. Don't watch it if you find your mental state declines after watching Planet Earth on Netflix. Documentaries are great to build awareness around topics. But you, my anxious little friend, don't need more awareness. You need a hug.
9. Last, of all — be kind to yourself. This isn't going to be fixed overnight, and you certainly can't fix it no matter how eco-friendly your home is. But feeling guilty about it will only exacerbate your anxiety. You can make small changes and influence others to do the same.
Here are a couple of online environmental communities you can check out:
Care2: The world's largest community for good, where you'll find over 45 million like-minded people working towards progress, kindness, and lasting impact.
Green Wiki: An online community where you can be hands-on in helping them build awareness through online projects.
Or try out a free Facebook Group:
"We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly." - Anne-Marie Bonneau.