Q: How do I deal with the anxiety of seeing piles of trash and thinking about what waste is doing to the planet?
The health of the planet is deeply connected to our mental health. While people who are directly affected by environmental disasters and climate change are at the greatest risk of developing mental-health problems, many who aren’t in the line of fire are suffering as well. Increased awareness of the looming threats to the environment and bearing witness to the current changes are psychologically distressing. Watching the toll of these irreversible changes on the planet can lead to what is known as eco-anxiety: the ongoing worry, fear, and frustration about the future for oneself and for future generations.
A sense of hopelessness and helplessness often accompanies eco-anxiety. Threats to the environment are so complex and widespread, sometimes it’s hard to imagine how an individual can make a meaningful difference. Watching the devastation of a violent storm hundreds of miles away or seeing piles of trash in your neighborhood can feel equally intimidating. Resignation, guilt, and fatalism can result in not only eco-anxiety but also eco-paralysis.
While a lot may be beyond your personal control, look for everyday ways to contribute to the health of the environment. A recent report by the American Psychological Association titled “Mental Health and our Changing Climate” recommends taking positive actions like walking or biking to work and using public transportation instead of driving. Not only are these actions good for the earth, they are also good for you. Whatever you do, make sure you are walking the walk. If you say you care about the planet, make sure your lifestyle reflects it. Use clean energy, buy local food when possible, use green products, and, last but not least, get to the voting booth.
Dr. Samantha Boardman is a clinical instructor in psychiatry and an assistant attending psychiatrist at Weil Cornell Medical College in New York and the the founder of positivepercription.com.
This story originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Marie Claire.