Updated: Jun 7
A Survey of the Eco-Emotions
Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist
The New Normal
As environmental conditions around the world degenerate more rapidly than the most cautious scientists have predicted, we struggle to cope with unprecedented and deeply frightening situations and unsettling emotions.
We experience multiple new stressors and find ourselves having a wide variety of bewildering responses. We’re assaulted with news of deteriorating conditions around the planet…forests ablaze on multiple continents… heart-rending stories of human refugees fleeing disaster… tales of animal suffering as multitudes of species disappear… scientific studies with grim predictions… video of melting glaciers, plastic pollution in the ocean, clear cut forests. We see the climate changing in our own neighborhoods… hear upsetting tales from distant family members and friends…or suffer actual climate disasters where we live. Floods, rising seas, the warming poles, hurricanes, wildfire, heat waves, extreme weather of all kinds are the New Normal.
In December 2017 the New Normal arrived in our town. After years of worsening drought we were used to experiencing regular wildfires and had learned to keep valuables pre-packed for just such an emergency. As smoke and ash made it difficult to breathe, Linda and her husband Larry evacuated as the rapidly-spreading Thomas fire began to rage. “We spent two weeks in a distant hotel watching the news as our home area was assaulted day after day, not knowing if we’d have a home to return to. Finally we returned to an ash-covered home – thankfully still intact - and then lived through torrential January rains that resulted in lethal mudflows that killed 23 people in our community.”
Climate change was no longer something that happened in distant places or would happen to future generations. It was here and now, and our whole community was in fear, rage and grief. Simmering eco-anxiety had been with us for years but now we had entered the realm of eco-fear and full-blown eco-trauma.
This article hopes to provide some answers for those concerned about the confusingly wide range of emotional and psychological responses we are all having to the deep environmental disturbances in our lives and around the planet. Research on the current disastrous state of the human-nature relationship is underway, but we are still in the pioneering phases of understanding the mental and physical health implications of climate and environmental changes and disasters. First we’ll look at some of the newly-named, environmentally-related mental health conditions that pioneering medical professionals, ecopsychologists and other observers are describing; and then we’ll explore some of the treatment methods that are being researched and experimented with by healers in various countries.
The Challenging Eco-Emotions
Eco-Anxiety (aka Eco-Fear)
Many of the emotional conditions we’ll talk about are already familiar to us in their non-environmental forms, but the “eco” in front of their names creates newly specific meanings that relate them to the environmental causes of the current disorder. For example, most of us are familiar with garden-variety anxiety and the various causes of fear and panic. We’ve read about or experienced the methods generally recommended in Western and other cultures to help us understand and treat that condition. But eco-anxiety is far more complex. In fact, one of the gravest mistakes a therapist can make in treating eco-anxiety is reducing it to an already-familiar individualistic diagnosis and treatment plan, focusing solely on childhood trauma or individualistic cognitive-behavioral treatment.
The first step in a successful treatment of eco-anxiety is realizing that a fearful response to a real condition isn’t pathological at all. Eco-fear is completely normal and useful, even if profoundly disturbing. Whether we’re a family friend, a First Responder or a professional healer, the best initial response to eco-anxiety is deep listening with an open mind and heart so that we don’t invalidate the anxious person’s emotions, worldview and fears about what is realistically occurring on our home planet and in the place where they live.
The repetition of “eco” in describing these emotional conditions can be off-putting to some (and even smack of greenwashing) but it’s good to remember that “oikos” (“eco” in English) is Greek for home. When our home is threatened, fear is natural and even healthy, just as it is in a burning building. We need to take our fears about our current situation seriously and not assume they’re a dysfunctional “mental health” problem or that a person suffering from eco-anxiety is somehow ill. The fear in eco-anxiety is the body’s healthy response to a frightening situation, a signal that something must be done and action must be taken. After all, if your home is on fire, fear (and then hopefully action) are the appropriate responses.
That doesn’t mean there may not also be pre-existing, co-occurring conditions that the eco-anxiety is exacerbating, however. Mental health is never simple. This new environmentally related anxiety or trauma may be triggering older trauma in our lives and multiple diagnoses may apply.
In Western culture our usual sources of guidance for dealing with mental stress, including doctors, mental health professionals and spiritual guides, are often of little help in dealing with these new emotional conditions. Not because these practitioners aren’t kind or well-intentioned, but because both newly minted and experienced healers and helpers find themselves with little training on how to understand, diagnose and treat the escalating environmentally-caused public health challenges - medical, psychological and social - that now confront people around the world on a daily basis.
The List of Eco-related, problematic emotional states continues to grow.
Eco-anxiety/eco-fear is just one of many environmentally linked emotional conditions people are now experiencing. As we struggle to understand what is happening to us in unprecedented situations, new descriptions and coinages appear almost daily. Here are some that researchers, clinicians and other observers have named, and more continue to arrive.
Eco-denial. We block the bad environmental news. We’re distracted by daily life or we numb ourselves out in many different ways.
Semi-conscious eco awareness. As more and more news of climate or environmental issues appears on our radar, we may start to feel uncomfortable and anxious. Or perhaps we actively deny what’s happening: Everything’s fine! Environmental news is just fake news promoted by people we don’t like! No need to worry!
Eco-dissociation. The state of being disconnected from and deaf to the pain of the rest of nature. The “forgetting” or delusion in Western industrial culture that we humans are somehow separate from and superior to the rest of nature rather than embedded within it. We aren’t aware that we’re one small part of an extensive planet and cosmos or that what happens to the rest of nature on Earth happens to us. But as ecopsychologists often point out, there can be no human health on a sick planet.
Eco-awakening. Quickly or slowly, we awaken to the reality and enormity of the environmental threat to life on Earth, both human and more than human. The reality of the Sixth Great Extinction and escalating Climate Disruption become clear. Perhaps something in the media awakens us, or hearing of friends’ and loved ones’ experiences. Or perhaps we ourselves experience a climate-related disaster like a heatwave, hurricane or wildfire. As Carol Koziol, founder of the Canadian Ecopsychology Network reminds us, we can awaken intellectually or emotionally or both at once.
Eco-anxiety. Psychiatrist Dr. Lise Van Susteren also calls this “pre-traumatic stress disorder.” As we awaken to the enormity of the threat not only to our own lives and loved ones but to all life on Earth, a state of ongoing anxiety may result. Even if we and our loved ones have been lucky to avoid actual experience of environmental disaster, we fear it may arrive soon. This state of fear is not evidence of a mental health problem but evidence of awareness of what’s happening in the real world. This may be the first time someone has had this level of ongoing anxiety or ecoanxiety or it may worsen a pre-existing anxiety disorder that has other causes. Eco-anxiety can escalate to individual or mass panic as people read news stories telling us that we have only 12-18 months left to avert complete disaster, not the 10 years that the scientists had previously predicted. Ecoanxiety can also become an ongoing obsession with every detail of environmental news. Frantic efforts to live a completely nature-friendly lifestyle is one treatment people in this state often try, but it soon becomes obvious that the problem is way bigger than whatever individuals can do to deal with it and demands a collective, social response. Even group ecoactivism may not solve the problem, as burnout can occur and people are still left with the ongoing, escalating reality of environmental degradation.
Eco-rage, climate rage. Anger at those we perceive as responsible for the ecocide. Frustrated at not being able to stop the bad actions of others, we may strike out.
Eco-trauma and climate trauma. If our environmental experience is severe, it becomes true trauma, which doctors, mental health professionals, First Responders and others are now better trained to treat. But ordinary people in towns like mine that experienced climate disasters in 2017 and 2018 now find themselves on the front lines as untrained First Responders, treating eco-shock, community grief and climate trauma alongside other disaster professionals.
Eco-PTSD. Climate related Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Once people have experienced environmental trauma or climate-related trauma, they can experience an ongoing state of hypervigilance, over-arousal and extreme sensitivity to anything that reminds them of that event. For example, after repeated wildfires, evacuation and lethal mudflows in my area of California, I find myself becoming tense at weather conditions or predictions of conditions that led up to those disasters. The difference lies in the fact that, unlike the concept of classic PTSD, which often focused on one specific one-time trauma, eco-trauma is ongoing and accelerating: what James Howard Kunstler called “The Long Emergency.”
Ecosensitive people. Some of us are extremely sensitive to others’ wellbeing – not just other humans, but also animals, plants and even places as well. These “canaries in the coal mine” are often the first to sense pain in the environment. Some experience environmental illness. Psychologist Jerome Bernstein’s book Living in the Borderland offers a positive and compassionate reframing of this ability.
Eco-grief. Buddhist ecopsychologist and ecophilosopher Joanna Macy, widely known for her books World as Lover, World as Self, Coming Back to Life and Active Hope, was one of the first Westerners to describe and validate this condition. She and her colleagues have offered a wide variety of healing protocols for dealing with environmental loss for decades. “Honoring our pain” is one of her wisest recommendations. Ecopsychology is a whole-systems approach to understanding the human-nature relationship that encourages our deep understanding of the fact that humans aren’t separate from or superior to the rest of nature but are deeply embedded within it. So nature’s pain is naturally felt by us, just as one part of our body may experience a sympathetic weakness or pain in response to illness in another organ. Loss in any part of the whole is experienced by the whole. Grief counselors and death and dying experts can offer expert guidance in dealing with our own and our community’s grief over the incalculable losses we’re now experiencing.
Eco-depression and "environmental melancholia" (Renee Lertzman's term). As we know, grief can become depression, melancholy and even despair if we don’t find support people and help them find new joy and purpose in life.
Eco-burnout. Of special note are the symptoms arising in more and more environmental activists and scientific researchers who experience a kind of burnout related to eco-despair as their efforts to wake others or change the situation are rebuffed, ignored, repressed or punished. Many environmental activists, climate researchers, meteorologists, biologists, environmental lawyers, activists and many others now find themselves in acute mental distress as research results and statistics continue to document rapidly deteriorating conditions on Earth without a commensurate response from human society. Their urgent warnings go unheeded. In our current US administration, of course, they also experience active punishment for alerting us to the "bad news." Some ecotherapists are trying to focus on helping this special population.
Eco-despair is the most serious form of eco-depression. For those who are intellectually and emotionally awake to the escalating deterioration of planetary conditions and the ongoing destruction of the habitat that supports all current forms of life, including humans, the lack of substantive progress towards survival can lead to a loss of hope. This can be especially dangerous for those who have invested years in extensive activism that hasn’t resulted in environmental conditions getting better. This emotional risk is one reason that eco-activism isn’t always the cure-all treatment for painful environmental emotions that people hope it will be. For those who have come to the conclusion that life on Earth as we have known it is coming to an end, despair and grief are inevitable.
Eco-suicidality. Some physicians and therapists are reporting that a few of their patients are so upset about the state of the environment that they are suicidal. The numbers may increase as conditions continue to worsen.
Eco-acceptance. As Elizabeth Kubler-Ross outlined in her famous five stages of death and dying (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance), there can be a stage beyond bargaining (e.g. activism), depression and even despair. Leaving hope far behind, some in organizations like the “Collapse” movement and the Dark Mountain Manifesto group take it as given that the human species (and of course many other species) will not survive for much longer. They focus on moving into various ways of understanding, adapting, enjoying and enriching their remaining time on Earth. Buddhism is another path that teaches us how to accept impermanence and death with equanimity.
Eco-guilt and eco-shame. The idea expressed by some environmentalists that the human species can be seen as a destructive virus or parasite on planet Earth has caused some people to feel deep guilt and shame about human-caused ecocide. Others focus on their own environmental sins, not just to improve their behavior – which can be a healthy response - but to berate themselves for continuing to do Earth-harming activities. This can devolve into environmentally-related eating disorders and a new condition some are calling “flight shame” when traveling by airplane or another planet-polluting transportation without carbon offset action. Deena Metzger also calls this “extinction illness.” “Extinction illness – our bodies, minds, souls reeling with the terrible reality of what we have done, are doing. Extinction is our fault.”
The Waking Up Syndrome. We may find ourselves cycling among the various stages of awakening listed above, endlessly trying to process the disturbing new facts of life. Sometimes anxious, then angry, and perhaps then depressed. In some ways this seems similar to the Kubler-Ross’s Stages of Death and Dying mentioned above, but here we’re not dealing with a one-time death or loss but with what James Howard Kunstler calls “The Long Emergency” that never ends. Understanding this can help us have patience and compassion with ourselves and others as we cycle through the ups and downs of the eco-emotional roller-coaster.
Solastalgia is an emotional state of grief or nostalgia caused by the loss or degradation of beloved places. In his new book Earth Emotions, Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, who came up with this term, explores the need for new words to describe emotions specific to our environmental era.
Environmentally related relationship problems. Marriage and Family Therapists are finding that differing levels of concern about environmental issues by spouses, family, friends and community can cause relationship rifts. Personal Coach Carolyn Baker addresses these difficult issues in Love in the Age of Ecological Apocalypse. Couples can also have disagreements over whether to bring children into an overpopulated world that is facing worsening environmental conditions.
Environmentally related youth issues. Children are especially vulnerable to a wide variety of these environmentally related emotional conditions, not all of them pathological. Education on environmental problems is now in every school and even in children’s media. Some children become very upset about the suffering of nature and fearful for the future, needing special support and guidance in processing environmental information and finding constructive ways to deal with it. On the plus side, much of the enormous positive energy on environmental issues is coming from young people like Greta Thunberg who are determined to save their own futures, channeling their anxiety and sadness into constructive action and demanding equivalent responses from their elders.
Environmentally-related social justice issues. As ecopsychologist Andy Fisher points out, we mustn’t forget that the Psyche-Nature-Culture triangle requires us to address society’s impacts as well as environmental problems. Inequality, racism, climate refugees, poverty, warfare over natural “resources” – all must be dealt with if we are to make progress on Earth issues. The worst burdens of climate degradation, for example, are unfairly being inflicted on people who haven’t caused the disasters, while the wealthy retreat to the few remaining relatively unscathed places. Fundamental environmental justice issues also require us to confront the sending of industrial and plastic waste and pollution to poorer neighborhoods or countries.
How Nature Heals Us
Researchers, health professionals, ecotherapists, and community leaders are in the relatively early stages of doing studies and coming up with treatment protocols for improving our physical and mental health through nature connection and immersion (or as some would say, improving our awareness of already-existing embeddedness) and addressing the various eco-related mental health challenges. Here are a few encouraging ideas.
What research is telling us so far. This section will be an overview of the most dramatic research to date showing the robust healing effects of even minor nature connection activities like walks in nature as treatment for depression, images of nature, hospital gardens, forest bathing, animal-assisted therapies for PTSD, etc.
Ecotherapies. This section describes methods that are now being used to treat eco-anxiety, eco-trauma and other conditions as well as for restoring general good physical and mental health. It will cover nature-immersion and wilderness therapies, horticultural therapies, animal-facilitated therapies, forest bathing, Japanese garden meditation and other prescriptions for improving health and opening our hearts, bodies and senses to reintegrate us with the rest of nature. Ecotherapeutic lifestyle therapies will also be discussed, including media fasts, recovery from consumerism, connection with the elements, seasons, places, planets, cycles and stages of life.
Biophilia EO Wilson coined this term for the innate love of the rest of nature all humans have. Tapping into that love is considered a basic part of all ecotherapies.
Joanna Macy’s “Work That Reconnects.” Over the last 40 years Macy has honed a series of psychologically sophisticated individual and group practices to help people awaken to and process what is happening to all of nature in our era. For instance in her spiral process work she (1) begins by helping people connect with their gratitude for whatever goodness is presently in their lives and surroundings, (2) then moves into accessing and honoring their pain about the state of the world (3) helps them see with new eyes (awaken to our deep relatedness with all that is) and then (4) “go forth” and contribute what they can. Macy recommends a three-part treatment protocol that each of us can adopt to prevent and treat eco-burnout: (1) some form of ecoactivism (“holding actions”) (2) a few actions towards creating the world we want to live in (for example, creating a local community permaculture garden) and (3) raising our level of consciousness by perhaps doing regular meditation, learning about ecopsychology or undertaking a deep study of systems theory. This balanced approach is especially helpful for those mired in eco-depression and despair. Macy insists that these healing practices need to be done with other people, never alone. And her Buddhist philosophy has helped her deal skillfully with facilitating others in accepting impermanence with equilibrium and serenity, no matter the predicted outcomes.
Ecoactivism is often prescribed for many of the environmentally related conditions described above. My experience is that this is best done within a many-part protocol like Macy’s rather than as a stand-alone recommendation. Picking up trash on a beach may be satisfying for a while, but soon those who do it may realizes that whatever small actions they take will not stop the onslaught of negative consequences. To prevent burnout and cynicism, ecoactivism needs to include an attitude of doing one’s bit while letting go of the eventual results.
Ecotherapeutic Group Work. As Macy advises, it’s far more effective to deal with the eco emotions in a group than individually. The rapidly growing Extinction Rebellion movement has understood this and combines group support with direct political activism. They ask “Are you suffering from eco-anxiety? Facing the Climate Emergency alone can be overwhelming. As an individual, there’s only so much we can do to lower our personal carbon emissions - what we really need is for the world’s governments to act on this crisis… Together we are targeting those who have the power to make changes to the way society functions. As individuals the most powerful thing we can do is come together. There will be no solution to eco-anxiety until we know that adequate action is been taken.”
The Green version of 12 Steps. Another form of supportive group work involves an adaptation of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous to deal with green issues. Although of course not a perfect antidote, the general 12 Step approach, already a familiar process to millions, can help some people deal with difficult emotions and situations with increased equilibrium. The famous Serenity Prayer is “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.” This approach is easily adapted to coping with our current environmental situation. Some even decide to view Nature as their Higher Power, finding time spent outdoors as not only healing but spiritually inspiring. One example of this approach is the Good Grief Network https://www.goodgriefnetwork.org/ “The Good Grief Network builds personal resilience while strengthening community ties to help combat despair, inaction, eco-anxiety, and other heavy emotions in the face of daunting systemic predicaments. The state of the world seems unmanageable, chaotic even. For those of us paying attention, awareness of our systemic issues is confusing and painful. You may feel pulled to act, but don’t know what to do.” Such groups create safe spaces where people with a shared suffering can articulate their experiences and struggles and learn from each other through a 12-step process. Good Grief is described as a support group where people can come, speak and figure out solutions to their anxieties about global warming.
Ecoresilience As environmental conditions worsen, taking steps towards personal and community resilience can give us encouragement and focus. Adaptation to changing circumstances is a healthy response to the challenge we face. [The Appendix will include a list of recommended actions to take towards individual and community ecoresilience.]
Ecospirituality Throughout our species’ long prehistory and history, humans in almost every culture and circumstance have turned to various spiritual, ceremonial and inspirational practices for comfort and guidance. Most mainstream world religions now include a “green” perspective, and “spiritual but not religious” people are turning to practices like outdoor meditation and yoga to calm their emotions and provide relief from anxiety. This equanimity allows for greater effectiveness in whatever ecoactivism they undertake.
Learning from Earth-centered indigenous cultures (without cultural appropriation). Those of us living in earth-destructive, industrial societies may not realize that the presently dysfunctional human relationship with the rest of nature is of fairly recent vintage and specific Western origin. Many Indigenous, earth-centered cultures and village societies around the world watch us with dismay. We have much to learn from these cultures about how to live in alignment with the rest of nature. Amazingly, a number of elders and teachers from cultures we have abused and decimated are willing to share their recommendations with us. But we need to be humble in our approach and extremely sensitive to the dangers of cultural appropriation and not rush to undertake wilderness fasts, smudging, sweat lodges and other wonderful Indigenous practices that may be specific to a particular culture or nation. Pegi Eyers, an ecospiritual writer (Ancient Spirit Rising), recommends that before adopting other cultures’ practices, those of Western European descent explore the natue-based, pre-Christian practices of Old Europe.
Ecophilosophy and green ethics. It can be healing and inspiring to read some of the deepest thinkers on environmental issues as we move forward in our lives. Paul Shepherd, Thomas Berry, Riane Eisler (dominator vs. partnership), poet Mary Oliver.
The environmental situation is dire. Our home is indeed on fire. Conditions continue to worsen, with little pushback by global governments, international corporations or the general population. Facing up to such an enormous challenge will call on every psychological strength we humans possess. Emotional resilience and psychological equanimity are now critically important personality traits for each of us to foster in ourselves and share with loved ones, friends and community as we all struggle to take effective action to adapt to and hopefully improve survival conditions for continued life on Earth.