Identifying and Helping with Eco-anxiety

What is eco-anxiety?

Little did I expect, when I trained as a cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist, that my background in ecology and environmental policy would cross over so directly into my therapy practice. But the rising tide of ‘eco-anxiety’ means I am seeing an increasing presentation of this form of anxiety in my clinic.  And particularly as environmental awareness grows among students and young professionals (a key client base for me).

So, what is it?  Eco-anxiety is essentially an overwhelming sense of impending environmental doom and a chronic fear for the future state of the planet and future generations.

Why is this? Well a number of key recent events seem to have helped trigger this:

  • The United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) special report in 2018 provides clear evidence that we have about 12 years (now 11) to make major progress on keeping average global temperature increases to below 1.5oC. This will mean a 45% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, down to net zero emissions by 2050.  Only then can we avoid the environmental consequences of disrupting our natural systems.
  • This year, 2019, the equivalent UN body for nature, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) highlighted that never before in human history have species extinctions been so great, principally because of human destruction of natural habitats – forests, wetlands, grassland etc.
  • David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II final episode on the BBC brought public attention to the all-pervasive threat to the global environment of ocean plastics; from causing death of wildlife from single-use plastics like straws, to the sheer waste of resource, energy and money our throw-away society involves, right across the globe.

Symptoms of Eco-Anxiety

The sense of hopelessness and helplessness sufferers of eco-anxiety experience can be profound, infiltrating the simplest of everyday tasks. Hyper-vigilance abounds, to the smallest of signs perceived to reinforce evidence for runaway climate catastrophe or environmental disaster. Symptoms might be typical anxiety symptoms of racing heart, feeling sick, shallow breathing when noticing apparent signals to an impending crisis. Or it may be anger or sadness at seeing people not caring about single-use plastics. And that leads to worry.  Worry about bringing children into a world that seems doomed. Or the overwhelming sense of responsibility of the environmental impact of others.

Not all the signs are negative – positive action is happening (by school children, Extinction Rebellion etc). And a warm or wet patch of weather is not in itself an indicator of climate change. Weather and climate are related, but not the same. That simple truth is easily overlooked when anxiety is at play. What seem like clear signals of imminent catastrophe are believed, whether they have any relevance or not. Unhelpful coping strategies then serve to reinforce a negative appraisal that something bad is happening, often alongside worry about worry.

That is not to say we don’t face a climate or environmental crisis – we do. But there are some things we can control and some things we can’t.  And of course we need the wisdom to recognise the difference!

The power of Cognitive Behavioural Hypnotherapy and the “cognitive-behavioural” approach.

As a cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist, and as an environmentalist, I find that CBT, mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy offer some especially helpful models for working with eco-anxiety. Not least, they emphasise core beliefs, the present moment and personal values.  When people clarify their values they are more able to take useful action in service of what’s important to them, rather than worry about them.

Combining these with hypnosis, and a good understanding of the pertinent environmental issues, then CBH offers a uniquely relevant and powerful set of techniques and skills for helping the eco-anxious.

So, for example, behavioural action can provide a sense of hope rather than helplessness. Perhaps to be more active in the local community, to engage in environmental campaigning, or to encourage the workplace to be more energy efficient.  To talk about it.

Perspective can be enhanced by being more present, allowing an enjoyment of and connection to nature, rather than constant worry about the state of the environment.  The crisis may, instead, be an impetus for people to act together for the sake of humanity.  So the importance of the environment can be the basis for the solution to eco-anxiety, rather than the root of fear.

 

Bill Sheate, June 2019

About the author

Dr Bill Sheate is both an academic (in environmental policy) at Imperial College London and a cognitive behavioural hypnotherapist (trained by the UK College) specialising in anxiety and stress in higher education (Imagination Therapy – www.imaginationtherapy.co.uk). His London-based practice (in Bloomsbury and South Kensington) has a strong emphasis on providing resilience skills training to students, as well as one-to-one therapy for staff and students (and others). Bill teaches on the Diploma in CBH at the College, is a GHR Acknowledged Supervisor and runs a CBH Peer Support Group which he facilitates on behalf of The UK College of Hypnosis and Hypnotherapy.

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