Is the state of the planet stressing you out? Three ways to turn your eco-anxiety into hope
As I write this, the ELT division at Oxford University Press has recently wrapped up a fortnight of events and activities focused on our environmental impact. Colleagues in our offices around the world have been listening to speakers, making eco-pledges, and engaging in challenging and productive conversations about the impact we make on the planet, both as individuals and as a business.
This ‘ecoELT’ event was one way of encouraging employees to think about environmental impact at a personal and corporate level, and what we could change. As well as appointing its first Director of Sustainability, who will arrive in January, OUP has a number of projects underway to track and reduce environmental impact, looking at such areas as the shipment of books, the management of print orders and stock, and the reduction of print and plastic in marketing and packaging. Colleagues are also travelling less frequently; we now run more webinars, bringing authors, trainers and teachers together with less need for lengthy flights. We believe our new Director of Sustainability will bring a fresh focus to the work we have done so far, and we’re looking forward to new projects that aim to reduce further our environmental impact.
Recently, OUP announced the Oxford Word of the Year: climate emergency. Usage of the phrase has increased by over 100 times since 2018, and this reflects the changes we’ve all been observing in the worldwide conversation about the environment and climate change.
While it didn’t quite make the top spot, another phrase that made the shortlist for the Word of the Year was eco-anxiety. I think this is extremely telling. As many of us agree that we must step up and take ever more personal responsibility for the future of our planet and generations to come, many of us are also feeling under increasing pressure to save the world. If we aren’t careful, our legitimate sense of obligation could easily morph into full-blown eco-anxiety. While a little guilt about getting our coffee in a throwaway cup might act as a healthy nudge in the right direction, too much and we can start to feel paralysed and overwhelmed – which doesn’t benefit the Earth or ourselves. So how can we manage these feelings of stress and helplessness, and convert them into something that better serves us and our values?
1 Living our principles
Whether we make small adjustments, such as bringing reusable cutlery to work, or more major lifestyle shifts such as switching to non-dairy milk or giving up air travel, anything we do towards aligning the way we live and work with our personal values can have a powerful positive effect on our mental health.
On the other hand, it’s important to take things slowly. If you try to go vegan, ditch your car and start a vegetable patch in your back garden all in one weekend, you’re likely to get disillusioned and burn out quickly. One way of approaching lifestyle changes is to make a plan to introduce one new thing each month. As we come up to the end of the year, I’ve decided to make twelve planet-friendly resolutions to see me through to December 2020. For example, in January, I’ll change my habits and start buying only plastic-free toiletries and hair products. In February, I’m planning to get rid of the rubbish bin by my desk at work, which I’m hoping will remind me to put everything in the food waste and recycling bins in the kitchen instead.
2 Finding positive stories
Hopeful stories are essential to sustaining our own wellbeing in the struggle against climate change. In his fascinating TED talk on ‘apocalypse fatigue’, climate scientist Per Espen Stocknes explains that fear-based messaging – the doom-and-gloom language that we often hear about climate change in the news, for example – can have the opposite of the desired effect. Instead of being spurred into action, when we’re faced with a seemingly insurmountable crisis, many of us either feel overwhelmed and paralysed, or retreat into total denial. So instead, it’s essential to stress the benefits to human health and wellbeing of living more sustainably, and to emphasise the success stories.
I try to seek out uplifting stories by following hashtags like #ConservationOptimism and #ClimateChangeHope, and checking out sites like Happy Eco News. I also like to remind myself that the ozone layer is healing!
3 Building communities
Anxiety feeds on loneliness. When we feel like we’re alone in our concerns about the environment, this can add to our sense that the world is careening towards destruction and no one is doing anything about it. So for those of us who are feeling anxious about the future of our planet, it can be hugely beneficial to find like-minded souls to share the burden and to remind us of all the good work already being done.
Several of Oxford University Press’s offices around the world have thriving ‘green groups’ that meet regularly to talk about ways of making our personal and working lives more eco-friendly. If your workplace doesn’t yet have an environmental action group, you could consider setting one up.
Online groups can also be deeply nurturing and supportive spaces – ELT Footprint being a fantastic example! There are lots of blogs, Facebook groups and forums that provide places to discuss all things environment-related, including the feelings that can bubble up as a result of engaging with these issues.
Taking care of yourself
All these ways of managing our environmental stress come down to practising self-care: being gentle with ourselves, and understanding our own needs and limits. So if you are feeling like more of an eco-worrier than an eco-warrior right now, then remember you’re not alone – and that finding ways to turn your eco-anxiety into hope will actually help you to become a stronger, more resilient advocate for our planet.
Natalie Catchpole is a staff trainer and technical writer in the ELT division at Oxford University Press. She runs a mindfulness group and has a particular interest in the relationship between mental health and the natural world.