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Why tapping into your 5 senses with a walk in the woods can counter climate anxiety

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Our planet is changing. Our journalism too. This story is part of a CBC News initiative titled “Our changing planet“to show and explain the effects of climate change and what is being done about it.


The dose16:34What’s the best way to deal with eco-anxiety?

World leaders attempt to push climate action forward at COP26 in Glasgow as the world reeling from increasingly extreme weather events. Canada has been hit by deadly floods, forest fires and thermal domes. These seemingly overwhelming problems make some people nervous enough to want to see a doctor. Dr. Brian Goldman speaks with Nancy Blair, Registered Counseling Therapist, on how to best deal with eco-anxiety. 16:34

Louisa Horne’s shoulders drop as she steps into an arch of trees in the tranquil woods – a balm for the stressful bombardments of city life and the gloomy ecological anxiety she sometimes feels.

Just over two years ago, the 62-year-old joined a conservation group that aims to preserve a 27-acre lakeside site in the Halifax area, in hopes that the future generations can use it as a sanctuary from any environmental degradation that may occur elsewhere. .

“These conservation sites are a destination,” said Horne. “You would spend the afternoon, you would have your picnic, you would walk, you would sit by the creek, you would sit on a bench or you would listen to the birds. It is a therapeutic type experience.”

As world leaders gather at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, many are increasingly concerned – even stressed – about climate change. So much so that it has spawned a growing recognition of what is called eco-anxiety, or the chronic fear of environmental disaster.

Mike Lancaster identified a few traces and another volunteer estimated that more than 40 species of birds made their home at the 27-acre site. (Submitted by Louisa Horne)

For Horne, getting out into the wild helps a lot, as does helping with conservation efforts in her own backyard, like the work she does with this group. Recently, she volunteered to sift through newly collected maps of plants, insects, birds and soil at the site, which sits on the shore of Brine Lake just west of Halifax.

“I am re-energized by the despair you may have about anything you listen to on the news,” she said.

This summer, four students helped build the dossier to conserve the area by finding old trees and a well no one knew existed in the dense forest, home to around 40 species of birds.

“You were basically trying to get through it,” Horne recalls. “There you go, on some of the transects, the students found apple trees, pear trees and a hazel tree, which was just a totally breathtaking thing.”

Preserving the space, Horne plans to be able to look, listen and smell the ground, while his grandchildren hunt tadpoles, frogs and rabbits at the site. This ultimately raises his hopes for their future on this planet.

Louisa Horne is one of the members of the group, seeking to conserve the site for the community and future generations. These conservation sites are a destination to spend the afternoon, she says. (Submitted by Louisa Horne)

Nourish the brain with nature

In her climate counseling and animal-assisted therapy practice in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, licensed counseling therapist Nancy Blair says she sees more and more people who are afraid of the damage caused by climate change, both globally and locally.

It designates a recent prepublication study submitted to The Lancet by Caroline Hickman, University of Bath. Hickman, along with his British, Finnish and American co-authors, interviewed 10,000 people aged 16 to 25 in 10 different countries and found:

  • 75 percent said they were afraid of the future because of climate change.
  • 56% believed humanity was doomed.
  • 45% said their feelings about climate change had a negative impact on their daily life.

Blair says ecological anxiety is a rational and healthy response to what’s going on in the world. And right now, that’s on top of the anxiety surrounding COVID-19.

Individuals can suffer on their own, she said, not knowing that others experience it as well. So getting involved in environmentally focused groups can help, even something as simple as so-called climate cafes, where people meet informally to talk about the climate crisis and share advice on reducing our carbon footprint.

Nancy Blair is a licensed counseling therapist in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia who has helped people cope with eco-anxiety. (Catharine Tutton / Nancy Blair Counseling)

Acting on your own daily habits and interests – such as reveling in how a dog wants to meet neighbors on a walk outside, planting a pollinator-friendly garden, or tackling habitat loss in your home. region – are all empowering ways to combat despair, she said.

Getting out into nature – to hear, see, smell and feel all it has to offer – also commands our five senses in ways that built environments don’t, Blair said.

“The brain likes to be creative,” Blair told CBC host Dr. Brian Goldman. The dose Podcast. “It clears your mind, gives you energy, and helps you cope with what’s going on.”

By being mindful and in the moment, fears and anxieties about what might happen can dissipate. “It’s very nourishing,” she said.

Build emotional resilience

Hickman describes ecological or climate anxiety as an emerging mental health problem; it’s normal to have a response to environmental degradation, such as melting ice, forest fires and deaths that followed the recent thermal dome event in western Canada – all growing issues that create anxiety, shock and insecurity.

“What we found in our research is that the reason it hurts is because it causes moral injury because of something unfair,” said Hickman, psychotherapist and co- member of Alliance for Climate Psychology, with Blair.

“We can’t get by without convincing ourselves that we’re going to take care of it somewhere down the road.”

Hickman said she doesn’t tell people with climate anxiety that they shouldn’t feel this way. Instead, she helps them build their emotional resilience to cope with the world, without shutting it down or using substances like alcohol.

The two advisers suggest that one thing people can do now is watch what political leaders and civilian delegates – especially young people – are saying and doing at COP26. This will arm them with the knowledge to follow up with politicians or other leaders if they find future action is lacking.


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