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ECO-ANXIETY: The latest mental health crisis, or a call to action?

By Hazel Buckingham

As conversation about climate change and switching to eco-friendly lifestyles is a buzzing, so is the talk of another phenomenon. You’ve probably heard the term ‘eco-anxiety’ bandied about and a quick Google search will present you with countless news articles, all ready to slap a diagnosis on you and ask you point blank: ‘Do you have eco-anxiety?’

I’m more concerned if you don’t have ecoanxiety, rather than if you do. The term was officially recognised by the American Psychological Association in 2017 when a report was released that acknowledged it as an “additional source of stress” caused by the long-term impacts of climate change. This additional source of stress can manifest through sleep issues, thoughts of constant impending doom, anxiety and depression. Not to mention a raft of physical health issues such as a weakened immune system and raised stress hormone levels.

But eco-anxiety is not a pathological individual issue or a mental disorder. It is, however, important to recognise it as a psychological phenomenon and it is having a serious impact on people’s daily lives. Eco-anxiety is a legitimate reaction to the state of the world. So, how do we manage our feelings and use this anxiety for action? Or as some put it, how do we go from eco-worriers, to eco-warriors?

Acknowledge your own feelings and validate others

Whether you start an eco-journal or a mood diary (there’s some great apps for this to keep it waste free) or start conversations about what’s happening in your mind, acknowledging your own feelings about the climate crisis is important. Speaking up about your feelings and the changes you’re making with those close to you can help validate other people’s concerns and inspire them to action too. While individual change is important, the most effective responses to this crisis are collective. It’s important that this is happening to everyone remember, so we must respond as a collective. Get your voice heard by the powerful

As we make collective changes, we also need to see systemic changes. The system will change when we demand it does, otherwise it will keep operating in its own interests. Protesting with your purchases or voting with your dollar is important, as are those online petitions you sign. There are already some great iniatives in Plastic2Parliament, which encourages New Zealanders to freepost all their nonrecyclable plastics to MPs, or you could look into Extinction Rebellion or Fashion Revolution. These are both international activism movements that work to facilitate change and conversation.

Grow carrots in your backyard

Russell Brand says that if we all grow carrots in our own gardens we can change the world. But it doesn’t need to be carrots! Cultivate a mini ecosystem in your own backyard so that there’s a piece of nature you can protect yourself. There are around 4,000 NZ species that are endangered or at risk of extinction, many of them insects and plants. We need our tiny friends to get us through this. Growing our own food cuts out the middleman in the supply chain and allows us to protest with our purchases (or lack of).

Be okay with imperfection

You don’t have to be a perfect vegan with a zero-waste home and a sustainable wardrobe. Start to make little changes where you can such as choosing to eat less meat and dairy and using less single-use plastic. Remember to be kind to yourself when you slip up, forget, or have no other option. Do what you can, when you can. It’s better for us all to be imperfectly trying, than a select few being absolutist about this.

Be wary of how you cultivate your social media

Who you follow and where you take your information from can make all the difference to your mental health and eco-anxiety. If you need a place to start, I love @ethicallykate – a kiwi who has lots of great tips and I find myself learning something new from her most days. While eco-anxiety is something a lot of us have to live with, do reach out to professional support services if it all gets too overwhelming. And for those of us living with eco-anxiety daily – you are heard, you are valid and your concerns are legitimate. Be motivated to action when and where you can be.


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