We are an anxious bunch. We spend a lot of our time worrying about things that haven't happened yet. But, lately, I can understand why. We have a lot to consider, what with hurricanes, bushfires, and pandemics. The world is in disarray. So how do we cope?
No Strangers to Natural Disasters
In 2019, Australia — my homeland — had bushfires rip through the entire country, almost obliterating native species. Two hundred ten days, 478 deaths, and 46 million acres later, an estimated one billion animals perished in those fires almost two years ago.
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 us 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 we received the news of a super-virus making its way across the planet.
Just as the pandemic was revving up, I had moved to the US (great timing, by the way). 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 burnt to the ground. Homes destroyed. Animals were wiped out.
It wasn't just fires we were dealt in 2020, either. 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,
- The exact amount of people in Central America died from Hurricane Eta.
Oh, and let's not forget that pesky pandemic, which, to date, has taken over 3.3 million people globally.
I'd Like to Speak to the Manager of Earth, Please
The fires in Australia have stuck in my mind. Because they were so close to home — I lived and breathed it. We had to wear a filtered face mask to breathe. But 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 me a glimpse into a world where, should we decide not to do anything about climate change, a global catastrophe that wipes us all out is an imminent possibility.
I see it when Mother Earth has had enough of us using her, taking everything from her, and giving nothing back; 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, my friends, is what I like to call "environmental anxiety."
Caring Causes Colossal Concern
My whole life, I've always thought of myself as an environmentalist at heart. But when you care that much about something, it's usually met with anxiety. Over the years, my environmental anxiety would come and go with various incidents.
It was at its peak during the bushfires in Australia — and lasted for months. But it also rears its ugly head in other ways, regularly. Especially now that climate change is such a hot topic. Let me know if you can relate to any of these scenarios:
I would stand in the honey aisle, deliberating over the selection, and then find myself stressed out about the future of bees. I remember reading an article that said we need the bees or we'll all die.
I'd eat every last scrap of food off my dinner plate til my stomach was bursting because I remember watching a documentary on food waste. The guilt of not eating it all made me feel worse than being too full.
Watching Cowspiracy and Seaspiracy is the worst horror movie of all time because they're real. The only difference is that sleeping with the lights on does nothing to ease my terror.
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. So because our environment is not going to change overnight — it's going to take years — we need to look at ways to manage our environmental anxiety.
The Effects of Stress
Here are all the things stress affects on:
- Weight: 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", the abdominal fat deposition affects cardiovascular health;
- Immunity: chronic stress can cause your immune system to shut down;
- Digestion: 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: much like our digestive system can get affected, so can our reproductive system;
- Skin: psoriasis, eczema, acne breakouts, cold sores, and any other skin conditions you are prone to can flare up during stressful periods;
- Autoimmune disease: often, stress can be the catalyst for many autoimmune diseases.
- Body: 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: 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. I've put together a list of baby steps you can take to help you tackle your environmental worries:
Acknowledge that you are anxious about our environment. Accept that you are overwhelmed by the challenges we are all facing. Recognize how you feel.
Realize that you are not alone. The majority of us feel the same way, but everyone handles it in their way. Some people are just as anxious as you are and take it the way you do. Other people are burying 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.
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 sit for an hour with candles and play some calming music. The point is to stop your mind from racing, slow your breath, and try to relax.
Talk to someone about how you feel. Talking about something affecting you will take away its power over you and put it into perspective. And we can't read the label from inside the jar; sometimes, we need an outsider to give us their perspective on things.
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.
Make small changes in your more ethical or environmentally friendly habits that are easy to maintain that will make you feel better. It can be as simple as:
- Buying a compost bin for your kitchen;
- Signing up for Terracycle®;
- Buy more ethical skincare products; or,
- Meal prep your lunches to reduce food waste.
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.
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.
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:
You've got this.
"We don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly." - Anne-Marie Bonneau.
Emma Jade has been a trained esthetician for over 15 years. She is a sustainable skincare writer, educating and building awareness around proper skin health that doesn't cost the earth.
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