Hi, My Name Is Sarah And I Need An Ecopsychologist

Existential angst? That’s for amateurs. True purveyors of panic disorder know that solastalgia is where all the cool kids hang out.

You might know it: that feeling of powerlessness when you see your local nature reserve steamrolled to build a new housing estate, or the helplessness you experience over climate change. The feeling that, as an individual there is so very little you can really do, and worse, there is no escaping it. Move to the wilds of Canada? I don’t think so. Run away to the Australian Outback? Not a chance.

For me, it began after watching The Age of Stupid. I left the screening gasping for breath. That’s it then, said my brain. Humans are too stupid, too selfish, too ignorant. My life, my plans, my hopes will never come to fruition because in 10 years time we’ll be embroiled in all-out global war ending, inevitably, painfully, finally, in a Cormac McCarthy-style denouement of doom and horror. Wonderful.

My form of campaigning – environmental journalism – came to a pretty abrupt stop after that. I couldn’t focus on anything environment related without being sent back into that panic. I didn’t want to read anything or speak to anyone. In a desperate rush to meet a deadline without doing any of the things that are usually required to write an article I used an old interview with a very well known politician, got all my facts wrong, wrote an opinion that was funny round the dinner table but mortifying when I saw it in print, got threatened with the Press Complaints Commission and that, as they say, was pretty much that.

A year and a half later and I’m just about ready to get back on the eco-horse. I’m feeling strong. I’ve got a bucket full of optimism and another of patience. I’ve started speaking to old contacts again, explaining that my absence was largely down to panic and terror and the occasional insanely unprofessional outburst.

Curiously, instead of cocking their heads to one side in faux sympathy with the crazy lady I’ve found people relating.

“Omg,” they say. “I know exactly how you feel.”

“Some days it’s all I can do to keep it together.”

“Some days I have to lie down in a dark room for a very long time.”

“It’s not just the weight of work on my shoulders,” one person told me, “I feel like I’ve got the entire future of humanity on them.”

Environmental campaigners deal with a lot. News about the state of the world is bad enough, but to be interested in conservation or renewable energy or growing your own food or not wasting stuff is also to open yourself up to plenty of abuse: we’re all soap-dodging, tree-hugging, work-shy deluded, good for nothing liberals, not to mention all those secret meetings we have about being power crazy commie socialists who want to control the world through taxes and fear and conspiracies about invisible see-oh-twos.

Because it’s something we’re passionate about or interested in, it doesn’t seem to follow that it can also be stressful. Yet daily, we are surrounded by the loss of things we care deeply about. Daily, we are let down by ineffective laws or politicians. Daily, we are disappointed in humanity. These aren’t the kind of things that fly in gently and kiss you on the forehead and it’s exactly because of that passion and interest that it is stressful.

Porcelain, Kate MacDowell

The existence of solastalgia was first discussed in Philosophy Activism Nature by Professor Glenn Albrecht in 2005. In academic circles, it’s a word that crops up from time to time but it isn’t something we hear in everyday conversation. Perhaps more commonly discussed is ecopsychology, which on a very basic level links psychology and ecology, suggesting that exposure to the natural world can aid, among other things, mental health problems.

The corollary of ecopsychology is that our diminishing natural environment can create or exacerbate mental health problems, or simply lead to a serious freak out. But while ecopsychology has its own eponymous peer-reviewed journal, and there are organizations dedicated to helping those with mental health problems find solace in the great outdoors, those involved in environmentalism are largely unsupported.

It is, of course, entirely possible that there is no support out there because no one is asking for it, but maybe no one is asking because no one else is asking. We can’t keep it quiet forever though, people are starting to notice we’re cracking up. So here goes nothing:

Hi. My name’s Sarah and I find dealing with all this environment stuff pretty stressful. I don’t want to have another conversation about arsing wind turbines or bloody recycling. I just want some action. Climate change scares the living daylights out of me and makes me furious in equal measures. Please be nice to me, and to everyone else out there. In the meantime I’d like to offer some tips for keeping it together when it all seems to be falling apart.

Look for the positive stories
Joy can be found in small places. Every success, no matter how small, is inspiring. Environmentalist and author Paul Hawken said, “If you just look at the data, and you’re optimistic then you’re not looking at the data. However, if you look at the people, and you see what’s happening in the world and you’re not optimistic then you don’t have a heart.”

Tell people you’re not prepared to discuss it
If you want to use reusable nappies, it’s no one else’s business. Tell them it’s not up for discussion. If you want to sell your car, it’s no one else’s business. Save your energy, save your sanity.

Don’t read the comments
Just say no to comments, unless they are on a particularly supportive and positive website (I heard about this great one called Ecosalon). Put the internet down and walk away.

Spend time with people who get it
Is there a Green Drinks in your area? If not, set one up. You don’t even have to talk green, but you know if you do it probably won’t make your head explode.

Celebrate life
That’s what it’s all about after all. Hug some trees, call your mom, smile at a stranger, spread a bit of joy. Feeling really enthused? You could even hug a climate change denier.

Image: Spanner Films, An Artist’s Journal, Tigr