Eco-anxiety and how to ACT with NUTURE

The ecological crisis’s that we face are causing enormous anxiety, and angst, in the younger generation.  More and more people now report to me that they have growing anxiety about one or more of the ecological crisis’s that we face.  This grows worse as no effective acts

The American Psychological Association has defined as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. Like normal anxiety, this condition can involve immobilization, manic re/activity, exhaustion, and insomnia. This indicates that eco-anxiety occurs on a spectrum and can be beneficial or harmful to the individual's life depending on the strength of the emotion.

The difference between stress and anxiety

While similar there are very clear differences between the two.

  • With acute stress, there is a clear precipitant (there is a new round of bush-fires, more news of extreme heat, or cyclones becoming more severe and affecting or killing family members) and the stress resolves as the crisis resolves. In anxiety it’s there constantly (six months is the official definition).
  • With stress you can still go out and enjoy your spare time with friends or family. Anxiety will start with reduction to your free time so that you can focus on the threats and have greater difficulty relaxing.
  • Anxiety also is linked to certain styles of thinking that can create a greater sense of unease. Catastrophising in an extreme way is a good example of this. For example, you worry all of your children will be impoverished and their lives cut short by increasing extreme weather or that there is no way humanity can now change its own destruction.
  • Your behaviour can also start to change and become more fear driven. You become more rigid in both behaviour and thinking and refuse to use anything that may be dangerous to the planet, you may become unreasonable angry and get lost in this, and so on. 

People and be assisted with both stress and anxiety.  In addition, other mental illness are also affected by the background levels of stress in society and the events of ecological crisis can add significantly to that background form both direct traumatic experience is severe weather events to tertiary trauma which occurs as you here of it third hand through the news.

Our three emotional brain systems

In general, outside of the physical structure of our brains, we have three emotional brain systems, identified by Prof Paul Gilbert and summarized by Chris Iron,s as follows:

  1. The threat and self-protection system. This system evolved for detecting and responding to threats in the world. It is underpinned by the Hypothalamic- Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis, the sympathetic nervous system (activation and inhibition), immobilisation, regulated by the unmyelinated dorsal vagus nerve (Porges, 2007) and the neurohormone serotonin, all of which help to coordinate the physiological response to threat. Once triggered, these physiological changes can leave us with particular types of feelings or emotions (e.g. anxiety, anger and disgust), which urge our bodies into action to protect us from the threat (by fight, flight, freeze or submission). The threat system functions by means of a ‘better safe than sorry’ heuristic, and therefore can quickly bias cognitive processes. It is highly ‘conditionable’, and therefore ‘learns’ through experiences encountered in these.
  2.  The drive system. This system evolved to motivate us to seek out and acquire important things that are helpful for our (and others) survival and flourishing. It gives us bursts of pleasurable feelings which motivate and urge us towards things, and then further positive (reward) feelings when we achieve the thing we were aiming for, thus making it more likely that we engage in that behaviour again. The drive system is underpinned by the hormone dopamine, and is therefore an activating, high-energy.
  3. The soothing-affiliative system. When animals aren’t experiencing a threat, nor seeking out something, it may be helpful for them to be able to slow down, rest and recuperate (sometimes known as ‘rest and digest’). This process gives rise to a sense of calmness, contentment and peacefulness. There is often a sense of ‘slowing down’ with this system, and it is linked to activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. This system evolved within early mammalian attachment relationships, and is associated with the myelinated ventral vagal nerve, which has been found to be important in the evolution of the parasympathetic nervous system, the regulation of the sympathetic nervous system and in facilitating social engagement (Porges, 2007). Consequentially, the soothing-affiliative system is sensitive to signals of care, kindness and Neurophysiologically, this system is associated with the neurotransmitter endorphin  and  the  neuropeptide  oxytocin.  Research has highlighted oxytocin plays an important role in bonding, trust and the regulation of HPA/threat system activity (Insel, 2010).

 Treatment for anxiety involves a range of methods to reduce anxiety.  Anxiety means that these systems are unbalanced by the nature of our internal and external worlds and treatment involves bring that balance, using a range of counselling techniques, into balance.  This often involves increasing the affiliative brain and decreasing the threat focus brain. 

As a beginning, on things one can do by oneself with others, I advise people to ACT with NURTURE


Accept the world is changing fast acknowledge and accept your feelings of fear, accept that none of us need to be perfect.

Create new ways to feel good about yourself, learn practice self-compassion and compassion.  Feel free to Cry publicly about the loss on Nature but do not accept platitudes, as everything will not be okay.

Train with others in in non-violent communication and train in using less “Ï” personal pronouns.


Waste less and walk more

Investigate the problems we face, investigate goods that you purchase, complain if they are not natural and especially if they harm the planet.

Talk with other patiently, listening to them and explaining patiently why major radical changes are needed

Habit breaking and new habit creation are critical skills we now need to create, and break all old habits, with the aim to minimise the involvement of petrol, oil or coal.


Nurture yourself with nature

Unfold your consumer habits through RAIN – Recognise behaviours and purchases that damage nature, Accept that you can set and example and act, Investigate all your behaviours (maybe one per week) and investigate new behaviours and ethical consumer goods

Re-use, re-purpose, recycle

Train yourself in old disciplines (cooking a meal and eating with friends or family (without screens), making your own gift cards and presents, growing a tomato plant in a pot, etc)

Understand the true depth of the ecological crisis’s occurring – of the use of agricultural chemicals destroying the land and oceans (from nitrogen and phosphorus to the herbicides and pesticides killing off insects including bees)

Rituals need to be made that that celebrate the simple things of life and help us to connect, and feel joy and awe with the natural world.

Engage, personally, with daily actions, and engage with others to force greater and greater change – time is running out.  When you engage, you also connect with thosewho are like-minded and you gain a sense of belonging.



Copyright Thinking Healthy - John Julian