Activism and Intentional Living Helped Me Manage My Eco-Anxiety - OC87 Recovery Diaries
eco-anxiety

Activism and Intentional Living Helped Me Manage My Eco-Anxiety

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Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:

I used to assume that, once I overcame my eating disorder, life would be easy. I believed, perhaps naively, that the trials and tribulations of everyday life would pale in comparison to the traumatic experiences I’d endured in my youth as I’d fought to overcome anorexia and depression. And while this last part is true—I have yet to, and hopefully never will, encounter a situation that comes close to rivaling those of the darkest days of my illness—my recovered life is far from the simple, carefree existence I once envisioned.

Once the vast majority of my focus no longer centered around my eating disorder, I began to look outside of myself and examine the “real world” from which I’d hidden away for almost a decade. I had always been vaguely aware of social, political, and environmental issues, but now it was as if I was seeing them in a new light, as a young twenty-something recently freed from the confines of mental illness and ready to take on the world. The exorbitant injustice, inequality, and violence that permeated the news and social media astounded me, and I felt confused, upset, and anxious.

eco-anxiety

It’s important to note that, as my eating disorder had progressively improved, my anxiety had steadily worsened. Anxiety had led me to begin dabbling with disordered eating in the first place and, in the years that followed, restricting food had served as a way to manage the worst of my nerves. In repairing my relationship with food, I’d eliminated calories as something for my anxious mind to obsess about, and it was desperate for something else to latch onto. This is, I’ve learned, the inherent and frustrating nature of anxiety.

Despite years of therapy and self-searching, I didn’t fully understand my anxiety and what made it tick. In treatment, the life-threatening nature of my other diagnoses had pushed my anxiety to the back burner, an issue to be dealt with “down the line” when things weren’t so dire. Well, now the time had come to finally address it, but I wasn’t sure where to begin. I knew I didn’t want to go back on medication; I had a complicated history with medication, and while it had helped me in my teens, I had only just weaned myself off and wanted to try and manage life on my own. At the same time, I also knew I couldn’t continue as I was, overwhelmed by the alarming information I was consuming, angry at the world for being so dysfunctional and unfair, and scared for the future I’d fought so hard to obtain.

The issues impacting the climate were my main source of panic. At night, I’d struggle to fall asleep amid visions of climate catastrophes descending on me and, during the day, I felt tired and heavy, as if I was shouldering a thousand-pound burden of rising sea levels and biodiversity loss. I also felt like an outcast in my community. No one around me shared my crippling concern for the planet, and everywhere I went, I was hyper-aware of consumerism at play. It got to the point where simply driving through a shopping district would precipitate a meltdown, and I’d sob in my car, surrounded by flashy businesses and the pervasive stench of gasoline, cursing our capitalistic society, guilting myself about my personal contribution to climate change, and feeling as if walls were closing in on me.

eco-anxiety

The American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” In a 2020 APA study, 47% of eighteen- to thirty-four-year-olds surveyed said that the stress they feel about climate change impacts their daily lives. Research has shown that teenagers and young adults are disproportionately worried about climate change when compared to adults—understandably, as we’ll have to live with the effects of global warming the longest. Furthermore, our age contributes to a feeling of helplessness, as many youth concerned about the state of the climate aren’t even eligible to vote.

Eventually, my eco-anxiety became so severe that I had to stop consuming climate information altogether. Cut off the source—in this case, Instagram and CNN—and direct my focus toward other, lighter things. But this was only a Band-Aid for the problem; it didn’t address my underlying anxiety disorder, and I still longed to find some way to lend my hand to this issue that I felt very passionate about. I realized that, if I was going to partake in the climate movement without being debilitated by anxiety, I had to do three things: learn ways to manage my anxiety, focus on what was in my control rather than stress over what wasn’t, and find a healthy activism-life balance so I wouldn’t burn out again.

eco-anxiety

 

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Working with my therapist, I began to explore alternatives to medication to handle my anxiety. I developed a meditation practice and made movement and being in nature a part of my daily routine. I got off all social media and relied on a few trustworthy newsletters to keep up-to-date; although I was initially conflicted about deleting my Instagram and Twitter accounts, it has been monumental for my overall mental health and self-esteem, and has freed me from unhealthy comparisons and doomscrolling. For a while, I kept a CBT thought journal and tracked moments of high anxiety, which helped me identify my triggers as well as learn to counter irrational and/or alarmist thinking.

eco-anxiety

Focusing on what was in my control involved, firstly, making a number of lifestyle changes. I was already vegan but I started making most of my food from scratch to reduce my usage of plastic. I also significantly cut back on how much I was buying, began biking to commute around town, and stopped flying on airplanes. These individual changes, while small-scale in the scheme of things, gave me a sense of empowerment and aligned my lifestyle with my morals.

I also began to use my writing to educate people about the issues impacting the environment and encourage individual and system change. This became my primary form of activism, and one I felt comfortable with and capable of. In the past, I had always had a very specific idea of what an “activist” looked like: a loud, fearless, fiery-eyed young person storming the streets with a provocative protest sign. And while I have nothing but respect for the Extinction Rebellion activists of the world, this extremely visible form of activism had seemed inaccessible to me, as someone who is very introverted and prone to sensory overload. But I’ve learned that there is no “right” way to be an activist and that activism, at its core, is doing what you can, with what you have, to raise awareness and inspire change. It isn’t a “one size fits all,” and we all must find a way that works for us.

eco-anxiety

Maintaining a balance between my activism and my life is something I have to be conscious of every day. My eco-anxiety and hyper-productivity make it so that my activism can quickly become my life, and I’ve had to set very specific boundaries for myself to ensure that this doesn’t happen, including having set times in the day when I’m not allowed to work or consume any climate news. When in balance, activism serves an overwhelmingly positive role in my life by giving me purpose and power, connecting me with others who share my interests and passions, and, ultimately, keeping my eco-anxiety in check.

Like most things pertaining to my mental health, my anxiety is a constant work in progress. It ebbs and flows, at times lapsing into dormancy for days on end; at others inundating my mind with panicked thoughts and forcing me to be extremely mindful and intentional. The climate continues to be my biggest stressor, although I now have much healthier ways of managing and channeling this stress. I sleep easier and have better energy and more optimism, and it has been a long time since I’ve had a breakdown in a shopping center.

“Remember your intention,” my therapist once said in regards to managing my eco-anxiety. These words have stuck with me. I cannot be an effective activist if I’m riddled with anxiety and fear; likewise, being anxious and afraid won’t change the science. The world is a hard and messy place, and the constant access to negative and alarming information has contributed to a sharp increase in anxiety and depression among young people, in particular. I allowed myself to be buried by this negativity because I didn’t think that there was anything I could do, and I didn’t believe that I had a place or a future in this world. But this simply isn’t true.

Around the globe, entire communities and networks of people young and old are working to make the world a better and more just place, and to safeguard the future for my generation and those who will follow. Being a part of this community has restored my hope for the future and my belief that this better world is possible. It’s so easy to focus on everything I’m fighting against, but these days, what keeps me going and feeling good is the vision of all that I’m for.

​EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR / EDITOR: Gabriel Nathan | DESIGN: Leah Alexandra Goldstein | SITE ORIGINATOR: Bud Clayman

 

 

Julia Tannenbaum is the author of The Changing Ways Series, a contemporary young adult trilogy that chronicles a teenager’s journey to overcome anorexia. She wrote and published her debut novel Changing Ways when she was eighteen years old. She is an advocate for mental health awareness, climate justice, and animal rights, and has had her writing published in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and blogs, including the Hartford Courant and the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). She lives in Connecticut. Learn more about her by visiting her website: https://thenaturalnovelist.com.