When I was asked to write a blog for the Green Living Chorley website about using mindfulness to manage ‘Eco-Anxiety’ I was a little flawed by just how big a blog this could become. Once I started planning the structure I realised that this could at least be a substantial book, if not book one of an ongoing series!
What is Eco-Anxiety?
In trying to work out where to take the blog I decided to define eco-anxiety, a condition that I am sure many members of the group are aware of to a greater or lesser extent.
Our anxiety about our beautiful planet and the current climate emergency can bring up a range of emotions in us all. Worry, sadness, anger, helplessness, depression, overwhelm? Coupled with relationship issues where we have close – or not so close – associates with very different perspectives to us on climate change. We can easily feel alienated from people, often living in our own communities and this disconnect enhances our feelings of frustration and ill-being.
The thing about all these emotions is they activate our bodies fight or flight response which is controlled by a primitive part of our brain called the amygdala. Fight or flight is a great mechanism, when we sense danger, it sends messages throughout our body to shut down non-vital processes like digestion and to ramp up the important processes that will help us maximise the fight or flight response – rapid breathing, an increase in heart rate and blood pressure to send oxygen and food to our muscles, which tense up ready to run or attack. This ancient response was meant to be a quick switch, flicked on as we sensed the imminent danger from a tiger attack and then back off again as soon as the coast was clear. But as the climate emergency we face today is ongoing and getting worse, we probably won’t be switching our rapid response switches off any time soon. As most of us have also tuned our worlds around the climate emergency we find ourselves constantly reminded of this state of imminent attack; we read books, choose eco-active friends, devour news, focus our social media around an eco-active lifestyle and for some of us we even take it to work with us every day. Phew!
How Does Mindfulness Help Eco-Anxiety?
So how can mindfulness help us?
Mindfulness is such a vast topic, when people ask me to talk to people for 5 minutes I generally feel I will need at least 5 days. So often in the popular media it is distilled into a simple, little interaction to deliver calm or relaxation at will, but this is beyond dumbing down what mindfulness is and what it can deliver.
Mindfulness is simplistically presented as developing an attitude of mind that is non-judgemental and anchored in the present moment. Learning to live more of our lives in the present moment means we are far more aware of our actual minute by minute experience rather than being distracted and lost in the constant dialogue that can play out in our heads, worrying about the future and regretting events in the past. When we are fully aware in the present moment we are able to have greater clarity on what is actually happening and what action we can take to have an impact. When we are able to achieve a more present state of mind we can choose to be less distracted by side issues, choose with wisdom how we respond to events – rather that reacting automatically – and we begin to see our thoughts for what they are – just thoughts, not facts – so they begin to have less power over us.
One of the main tools used in mindfulness to achieve a more focused mind is meditation. My favourite simple explanation of meditation is it’s like taking our mind to the gym. We are all very familiar with the process of going to the gym or partaking in our chosen exercise to tone and strengthen our bodies but most of us spend very little time thinking about or working on toning up our minds. This is what meditation does and by including a daily meditation practice of 15 to 20 minutes in your day you can start to achieve more focus in the present moment and more control over how your thoughts are shaping your moment by moment experience.
A daily meditation practice will also help us to calm our over active amygdala and reinstate a more appropriate response to the climate emergency. It will help us to become more aware of body sensations and notice when tension – and stress – is increasing, so we are able to intervene long before it becomes a problem. We will become less prone to triggering our fight or flight response and when we do we will notice it sooner and be able to choose to take steps to calm and end the process. It will help us become more aware of emotions arising within us and give us tools to allow these to follow a more natural path of arriving, being here a while and dissolving away. It will give us a greater awareness of the circumstances that create our greatest anxiety and give us clarity to choose when and how we put ourselves into those situations. Mindfulness can give us the tools to take better care of our minds, bodies and souls and it is only by taking better care that we will build some resilience and be in a stronger position to take on the battles we choose to fight.
Mindfulness can be a powerful tool in helping us to equip ourselves for the battle against the eco-emergency and preparing us to accept and embrace the change that lies ahead. It will also enable us to enjoy our lives much more, appreciate the richness and beauty that this planet lays out in front of us day after day, the wonderful connections that are being built with our fellow Chorley residents and to immerse ourselves in the pleasure and pride that we feel for being part of this sea-change.
6 Tips for Daily Mindfulness
So how can we bring more mindfulness into our lives, fit ourselves for the challenges that lie ahead and seek out all the joy that our lives have to offer us on a daily basis?
1. Meditate. Develop a daily mediation practice of between 10 and 20 minutes. Try to meditate at the same time each day and if you can connect it to an existing habit as it will be easier to keep to e.g. I get up and I meditate or I have a coffee then I meditate or I take the children to school and then I meditate.
2. Stay mindful during daily tasks. Pick a few tasks you do each day e.g. clean your teeth, have a shower, feed the dog, drink your first cup of coffee. Try to stay completely mindful during that task each day. To do this stay fully engaged with all your senses, what can you see, hear, smell, taste and touch?
3. Take notice. Start to take more notice of things around you in your daily life. For example if you have a regular journey to work, school etc. Try to stay fully engaged and not become lost in thought. Notice the people around you, the traffic, the trees, the buildings. Really take notice, you may be surprised by what you haven’t seen before.
4. Use mindfulness bells. These are moments in your day which remind you to be present. My favourite is whenever I see a bird in the sky I stand still and really watch it. Not thinking about, just watching, noticing how it flies and following its journey across the sky. I also like to watch clouds in the sky and when a phone rings I try and use this as a moment to be present before jumping in and answering the call.
5. Just breathe. Really just become aware of your breathing, follow the whole of your in breath and the whole of your out breath. The process of conscious breathing has a soothing effect on our nervous system so can help us to alleviate stress and as we can only breath in the present moment it is a great way of interrupting our thought and worry flow and coming back to the present where we can reset and notice what has been happening.
6. Spend time in nature. Just spending time in nature has been shown to have a calming effect on our bodies and minds. If we spend our time mindfully, really noticing the trees and plants, smelling the air, hearing the birds and sensing the breeze on our skin, just a few minutes a day can be extremely beneficial. Make this a habit and notice the constant changing face of nature. A garden, park, field or wild remote space all count.
If you start to incorporate these simple exercises into your day, you should slowly notice a change to your way of being, you may become calmer, more focused, notice yourself making better decisions, be less reactive or having more productive communication with people around you. These simple exercises can be a really useful first step for bringing more mindfulness into your day and living a happier and more purposeful life.
Originally written for Green Living Chorley blog.