Eco anxiety: 12-Step Recovery Process That Works

Updated: Oct 22, 2020

I remember looking at my friends’ drinks. They all had straws in them.

I looked away, but my eyes landed on my friends’ plates instead. There were chicken and eggs in their food.

All I felt was sadness and despair. I was past feeling angry. And at that moment, I wish I could feel the bliss of ignorance.

Even if I stopped hanging out with blissfully ignorant people, I would still face the reality of climate change in my day-to-day.

Cars everywhere.

Empty boba tea plastic cups in the trash.

Waste not segregated.

McDonald’s new 3x spicy chicken.

I was angry and frustrated at first. But then I saw no point of being angry and frustrated.

Then, I tried doing something about it, from individual action to a climate rally. I talked about it on my blog and social media. Letting it all out.

But I was low-key distressed, and I managed to mask it with hope.

Then, I just felt numb.

This Grief Has A Name: Eco Anxiety

It’s not a formal medical condition (yet) but it’s affecting many who actually care about the environment and climate change.

It has affected me.

Eco-anxiety or solastalgia is the distress caused by environmental change.

Some people would literally have panic attacks when they see plastic straws, trash, meat and cars all at once.

Some people would just feel hopeless and resort to inaction.

My reaction had been more of the latter. I was buying into the question that people have been saying to me:

“Why go vegan/plastic-free when we’re all going to die anyway?”

Rationally, I know that it’s important to take positive actions for a better future.

But in times of anxiety, your mind tends to not think so rationally.

And I did wonder what’s the point of everything.

I empathised with Greta Thunberg when she posed the question along the lines of

“why go to school when politicians go about business as usual in the face of climate change?”

I understood her.

How I Deal With Eco Anxiety

It’s easy to get stuck in the panic loop. It’s comfortable feeling numb and not having a care in the world.

You might as well be dead.

But deep down you know that life is still worth living for. So you need to get back up.

I’ve gone through several periods of this anxious/numbing episode that I thought I’d share with you how I’ve got back the motivation to even write this blog post.

Disclaimer: this is not proven medical advice. I’m only sharing what I’ve found to be effective for me in the hopes that it would help you too if ever you face this situation (God forbid!)

12-Step Recovery Process From Eco Anxiety

1. Cry it all out

There’s nothing better than letting it all out and I find crying to be the best way to do so.

You could also scream or let out your anger on a punching bag. But please, try not to let it out on another person and commit violence that would hurt more than it would heal you.

2. Stop and do nothing

I know you have tons of things to do. But at this moment, please, just stop. Trust me.

Like what my housemate said to me, I have been on “go, go, go” since the start of the year. I had not taken a break or gone on a vacation. For me, it was either work, dance classes or events that kept me on the go mode.

If you didn’t know already, I recently quit my 9-6 and started freelancing. I knew that the reason I wanted to do this is to take control of my time. Now that I could, it felt liberating at first, but the fear and anxiety quickly crept up. This was one of the triggers that reminded me of my pre-existing eco-anxiety.

I resisted every temptation to keep going because I thought that being productive meant progress. But I couldn’t keep going and I forced myself to stop.

And damn, it felt so good to not do anything.

3. Journal

This is another way to let it out, but more privately. For me, it’s easy to write down my thoughts as I’ve been doing it since I was a kid. But even if you’re not used to journaling, you should just write down your thoughts.

Writing down what you’re thinking makes it real. What you were thinking a minute ago is now on physical paper. You can actually see your thoughts. Writing legitimizes your thoughts and that’s why I find this medium so powerful.

And you don’t have to buy a fancy Moleskine notebook. Just grab a piece of A4 paper and vomit out whatever’s inside your head. You can later choose to keep it or throw it away (responsibly).

4. Read a novel

I used to be an avid reader before working life took over. Adulting is hard, I don’t recommend it to anyone. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve lost touch with my sense of being and got trapped in anxiety. Reading gave me clarity and pleasure. So I picked up the book that my housemate, Suba, just finished and started reading. It helped that I forced myself not to do anything prior to this (see #2).

I made sure that it’s a fairly uplifting fictional book. Suba assured me that Matt Haig’s “How to Stop Time” is a good read and sure enough it was. It helped me get through this wave of eco-anxiety.

5. Spend time in nature

Nature has healing effects. You can search for the scientific rationale to this but we’re not getting into that now. Based on my experience, I always come out of a park or forest feeling happy. And that’s what matters.

So if you think you’ve caught the eco-anxiety bug, go to the nearest park or even a spot with a bunch of trees and just absorb the energy from Mother Nature.

6. Talk to someone

If you’re thinking that “no one understands me” or “I have no one to talk to”, STOP.

People do want to understand and they can lend you an ear. You just have to reach out to people you’ve recently spent time with or you’re most comfortable with and tell them what you’re feeling.

It was hard for me, as my natural disposition is to keep it all in. But if I want to get back up, I need to force myself to do something uncomfortable. So I opened up to the nearest people – my housemates. And damn, the conversation helped me so much.

They reminded me of my good qualities and how far I’ve come so far. They made me see that I had worked hard for something and it did have an impact. They also reminded me why it’s important to keep doing what I’m doing.

7. Write down why you should care

Now that you’ve cleared your mind a bit, it’s time to get back to focusing on what matters to you.

I find that writing down why I should care about the environment helps to then realign my values. Even though I know I’ve written down so many times in so many different places. Again, it legitimizes your reasons.

8. Get re-educated

We human beings are fickle and we forget the simplest things sometimes. So it doesn’t hurt to re-watch Cowspiracy or re-read Bea Johnson’s “Zero Waste Home”. This time, you have the upper hand. By learning the same thing twice or thrice, you absorb the information better. It’s proven science.

9. Re-assess your lifestyle

Once you’ve done step #8, it’s time to look at your life now. What have you done? What can you do?

Already vegan? Try eating more local produce.

Already saying no to straws? Try buy everything bulk and package-free.

Is your day-to-day in alignment with your values? Do you live plastic-free but work for an oil company? Are you vegan but doing marketing for a non-vegan F&B company?

It might seem inconsequential but it adds up. What you do for someone or something as your day job occupies your mind. And your mind is what drives your energy and intention.

I know that we’re all making ends meet here. But we should all strive to align our actions with our values. I am still in the process of doing so but I know I’m taking the steps instead of just letting things be.

10. Join a group

A few months ago, I lost my spark in the climate cause. So I decided to join a climate rally. Being around passionate people who believe in climate justice inspired me and I got back the motivation I needed.

It’s the same reason why I previously joined the youth climate policy group, Malaysian Youth Delegation, and the NGO Malaysian Vegan Society.

Currently, I’m volunteering with Roots & Shoots Malaysia to get myself involved in the environmental scene again and offer my writing and social media skills.

11. Speak out

At this point, you’d probably feel comfortable to be an active advocate once more. You’re ready to speak your mind.

And this is exactly what I’m doing right now. Having gone through this whole experience of being numb, then recluse, then acceptance, then finding myself again, my cup is now full once more to pour out to others.

12. Repeat

While this climate change issue is still here, I believe that this is a cycle that I would have to go through, time and again. Even though I might not experience a severe panic attack, it’s important to repeat this 12-step process just so that I don’t get burnt out.

I need to remember to take breaks, take a walk through nature, talk to someone, let it out and offer my service to others.

I think that’s how one gets through hardship.

Remember, you’re not alone in this!

At times of despair, you would think that the whole world is against you.

That they don’t understand you.

But the truth is there are people going through a similar experience.

It’s just that maybe they are better at not talking about it.

And while I believe it’s important to recharge alone, I don’t think you should go through this alone all the way through.

Being with a community of like-minded people helps to find your purpose and your why. It helps you see the possibilities and opportunities when you’re around people with the same vision.

So yes, first roll yourself into a ball and cry as hard as you want. You don’t have to see the light of day for a few days if that’s what you feel.

Spend some time with yourself to reacquaint with your desires.

Then, find the strength to be with people again. To work together again.

Because this world needs more imperfect people who have gone through shit to make a change for the better.

I can’t do this alone and neither can you.

And if we are going to die anyway, might as well die together doing something we truly believe in.

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