Stress and the Environmental Crisis: How Self-Care Supports our Planet
Updated: Jun 7, 2022
I found myself under a lot of stress when I started to write this post, fluctuating between states of mild panic, paralysis and self-doubt. I thought if I just tried harder, I could get the job done and overcome the stress I was feeling. But that just created even more stress which not only felt bad, it impacted my cognitive abilities as well. Put simply, I was overwhelmed.
I started to slow down and pay closer attention to what I was feeling in my body. I recognized the pressure I was putting on myself to do justice to a topic that was so close to my heart while juggling multiple other priorities. The harsh voice in my head trying to motivate me wasn’t working. I paused, acknowledged how hard this felt and that my anguish was coming from a good place, a place of care and compassion for this planet. As I shifted from a self-critical to a self-compassionate stance my nervous system began to relax. Something in me began to soften and I started to regain the clarity, focus and motivation I needed to continue with the task at hand.
Somewhere along this bumpy inner journey, it dawned on me that my stress reaction was a universal human experience, a microcosm of the behaviors played out in countless ways on a global scale. The need to mitigate the environmental crisis has never been more urgent. And yet, paradoxically, we must find ways to slow down and make space for the depth of our experience so we can avoid becoming overwhelmed and remain receptive to new ideas. Only then can we draw upon the wellspring of our inner resources - such as creativity, adaptability and innovation - to endure these turbulent times and find solutions to the complex, global challenges we face.
Stress as Status Quo
There will be no end to war unless each of us calms the conflict within ourselves - Viet Thanh Nguyen
When considering the collective stress we are facing as a society - the global pandemic, mass shootings, racial and social injustice, war, economic collapse, intergenerational trauma, and more - it is no wonder that the World Health Organization describes stress as “the Health Epidemic of the 21st Century”. As the devastating consequences of climate change are felt across the globe, this adds further layers of stress that are hard to bear. The effect that stress has on our nervous system is not always a bad thing. When we experience a threat to our physical being, our fight, flight or freeze threat defense system kicks in to alleviate the danger and keep us safe from harm. However, when we do not get a chance to mentally recover from moments of pressure and remain locked in a reactive state, our physical, mental and emotional health suffers. It becomes harder to regulate our emotions and our cognitive functioning is compromised, making it more challenging to take care of ourselves, and adequately address the causes of stress.
More than 3 in 4 Americans (77%) say the future of the nation is a significant source of stress, up significantly from 2019 when 66% of adults said the same. While our stress levels are increasing, we lack the adequate social support system and resources to manage it effectively. There are people on the front lines of the environmental crisis who, faced with such a heavy burden, need access to psychological support that keeps them resourced and avoids the risk of burnout. Many of us feel stuck, powerless or unsure whether we can really make a difference, while others remain in denial, opting to do nothing rather than admit what we do not know. However we relate to the destruction of our planet, there is no doubt that the encroaching existential threat brings up a host of difficult emotions and strong feelings such as anger, despair, grief, fear, disillusionment and hopelessness. All of these reactions are valid and we are all equally deserving of emotional support and compassion. How we choose to relate to these experiences affects not only our own health, but the health of our communities and, ultimately, all living systems on the planet.
The Paralysis of Fear (or Overwhelm)
Of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear war, none is so great as the deadening of our response - JoAnna Macy
It is estimated that 98% of people are disengaged from the environmental crisis. We numb our feelings, shut down and become rigid in our views not for a lack of caring for our world but rather because we lack the resources to manage our emotional distress and motivate ourselves to take meaningful action. As Joanna Macy states in The Work that Reconnects, “As conscious beings we all feel or experience the pain of a threatened and suffering world whether we choose to acknowledge it or not”. Instead of denying our experience, we must find ways to embody it, to get in touch with our grief and our pain, to make space for it rather than pushing it away. When we honor our emotions in this way they become the fertile soil in which we can ground ourselves and allow new ideas and possibilities to emerge.
These difficult emotions are not going to magically go away and we cannot hide from them, but we can allow them to guide us, to act as fuel to help us move through the difficulties that we face and transform our reality. We can start by recognizing the strong emotions that arise - this is mindfulness - and meet ourselves with compassion not because we’re trying to change our difficult experience but simply because we are struggling. We can remember that our experience connects us with one another; that we are not alone. There are people who share our pain for the world and our desire to alleviate it. Let this knowing be a catalyst for change.
When we react from a place of fear, we can direct feelings of anger or blame toward others (and/or toward ourselves). This isolates, disempowers and disconnects us rather than motivates, connects, and unites us in a common purpose.
As I struggled to write this post, the voice in my head that demanded I “just try harder” had the opposite effect from what was intended. Rather than motivating me, it left me feeling threatened and attacked, exacerbating my stress and making it impossible to make any real progress. When we shout at people, literally or figuratively, for not doing enough, or try to shock them into action, it is unlikely to produce positive results. Let us not compound the stress we are already under but find ways to feel supported, adaptable and capable of finding creative solutions to complex problems.
From Separation to Integration
It is no longer time to rush through the contested world blinded by fury and anger – however worthwhile these are. Now is the time to ‘retreat’ into the real work of reclamation, to re-member again our humanity through the intimacy of our relationships - Bayo Akomalafe
If we can slow down enough to turn our attention inward and meet difficulty with self-compassion, perhaps we will feel our shared connection more deeply and come together in mutual understanding and collaboration to make a real difference to the well-being of ourselves, our communities and our planet as a whole.
The world is changing and our paradigm is shifting. Our old ways of being, of regarding the natural world as something we can conquer or control, is unraveling. A new story is emerging. One where we are part of an interconnected web of life. We are intricately connected with all living systems on the planet; we are not separate from nature. When we connect to this deeper truth of who we are and wake up from our illusion of separateness, we begin to see that the earth is not a problem outside of us that needs fixing. We see that when we truly take care of ourselves we become the earth healing itself.
I certainly do not have the answers. None of us have all the answers. The task of writing this post became a lot easier once I admitted that to myself! I believe that owning this, being honest and open about what we do not know, is an important step in the path towards true healing. Let's give ourselves permission to honor whatever we are feeling, validate our emotions and connect with others who are also going through this shared human experience. The world needs all of us to come together in mutual understanding and recognition of the unique contributions we all have to offer and the difference we can collectively make. When we feel a sense of belonging to each other and we recognize ourselves as part of an intricate, indivisible natural world, we are reminded of what connects us, and what compels each of us to act for the benefit of all living beings.
And lastly, let’s not forget what brings us joy. Opening to our joy nourishes our hearts and allows us to feel the richness of our experience, the joys and the sorrows, in equal measure. Remembering to reflect on what we appreciate about our natural world, how it nourishes and energizes us, is just as important as touching the depths of our sorrow. So, when you are struggling, I invite you to come home to the sensations in your body and marvel at the small wonders of life. Savor the touch of warm water on your skin, the smell of fresh coffee, the way the leaves dance in the breeze. You are not alone and life is a miracle.
Excerpt from Call me by My True Names, by Thich Nhat Hanh
My joy is like Spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom all over the Earth.
My pain is like a river of tears,
so vast it fills the four oceans.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.
Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up
and the door of my heart
could be left open,
the door of compassion.
Further Reading and Resources that inspired this post.
Earth Meditation, Audio Recording by Kim Levan
How to Turn Climate Anxiety into Action, Ted Talk by Renee Lertzman
The Work that Reconnects, JoAnna Macy
Calling Team Earth: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation, Sounds True Podcast with Tami Simon and Paul Hawken
The Times are Urgent: Let’s Slow Down, article by Bayo Akomalafe and Marta Benavides