Speaker 1: Rasheda Begum, Health Editor, Bupa UK
Welcome to the Bupa podcast. In this episode, we look at how to turn eco-anxiety into positive action. Climate change is a very important challenge and it's normal to be worried about it. My name is Rashida and I'm a health content editor at Bupa.
In this podcast I talked to Bianca Clarke, who is a cognitive behavioural therapist at Bupa, who tells us about what eco-anxiety is and why we might experience it and what ways we can cope when we are concerned about the environment. I also talked to Leah Jones, who is head of behavioural insights and research at Bupa, who talks about the different behavioural changes we can make in our daily lives to benefit the environment and also how we can make these behaviours stick.
Bianca, what is eco anxiety?
Speaker 2: Bianca Clarke, Cognitive Behavioural Therapist, Bupa UK
So, to understand echo anxiety, I think firstly we need to understand that anxiety is a very normal human thing. We all experience anxiety during difficult moments, stressful periods of time.
However, the anxiety can become problematic when it becomes excessive, when it's chronic and long term. And as a result of this, we might just feel really out of control with it. Anxiety can come in various forms, but eco-anxiety is just one example of anxiety and worry that is focused on a specific context or topic, the topic being ecological concerns, the future of the world, climate change, the state of our planet, the environment. And as therapists, we are aware of other common areas that people might be worried about, such as health or global problems such as wars and pandemics.
So, it absolutely makes sense, that we might become focused on these specific things because they are often very important or deeply meaningful to us. And these areas of concern, they may represent a potential threat to our quality of life and survival or to those that are close to us and the generations to come, so it's completely understandable to have worries and concerns about this. However, we might think of it as eco-anxiety when it becomes very overwhelming for a person, where it's having a huge impact on a person's life, and the person's finding it very difficult to cope with those worries that are coming with it.
Thanks, Bianca. And what are the signs that somebody may be experiencing eco anxiety?
Anxiety can feel very different for different people. But there are some common themes that we might notice with anxiety, when somebody has experienced anxiety.
So one of the first things some people tend to notice with anxiety is often the physical feelings that can come with it. We might get some quite uncomfortable physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, we might feel quite tense, feeling hot and sweaty, brain fog, we can't quite think straight. The list can go on. There's lots of different symptoms that people can experience with anxiety, and it can be different for different people. But either way it can feel very, very uncomfortable.
But these physical feelings that we get with anxiety, it's linked to our fight and flight, which is a survival mechanism that we have built within us. This mechanism kicks off when our brain perceives that there's a threat and it floods us with adrenaline in our body. And this flight and flight it can be really useful for us, in situations where there's an obvious straightforward action that we might need to take.
So, for example, if I start to cross the road and I didn't see there was a car there, but I see that car at the last minute, that adrenaline from my flight and flight kicking off will help me to take some really quick action so that I can keep myself safe. So, it's what would probably spur me on to run across the road really quickly and get out of that car’s way. And so that's an example where fight and flight can be really helpful.
But sometimes this can cause difficulty in situations that are quite complex, or situations where there's no easy straightforward solution. Much like climate change and the environmental damage that we're seeing.
And so, some people say, you know, “I just want my anxiety gone” and “I want these physical feelings gone”, but actually we need this mechanism in us to keep us safe when we need it. And sometimes it can lead us to take positive action, but sometimes it might just get in the way. It might become quite overwhelming, and it might lead us to try to cope in ways that aren't that helpful for us. And then that leads us into thinking about another sign that we might notice, which is a person's behaviours.
So in terms of behaviours we might notice in ourselves or even other people when they're anxious, we might notice that they're avoiding things. There might be a lot of avoidance. There might be this shutdown. We might try not to think about things, we might try to push our thoughts away. We might try and distract ourselves so we don't have to think about things, or we might find ourselves procrastinating, putting things off. And these are typical avoidance behaviours that we might notice in ourselves.
On the other hand, we might find that we seek reassurance. It might be from other people. It might be by doing lots of research online. And while we do these things to give us that reassurance, it actually tends to feed our anxiety.
And the thing that we're concerned about then pulls us in even more. We then want to know more, we start reading more. It pulls us in even further. And then that makes us feel worse and overwhelmed, even though that wasn't our intention. So, we might notice those physical feelings and also some behavioural patterns that might not be so useful for us.
But also with anxiety, of course, comes a pattern of thought. We might find that we have racing thoughts. We might find that we're overthinking and we find it hard to get out of that cycle. And there might be themes of uncertainty that feel quite difficult to tolerate.
So, this idea of not knowing or not being sure of what's going to happen, so we might have a lot of what if's about the future. We might find that we really want these answered, and so we keep thinking about those what if's, trying to come to some kind of answer that doesn't seem to appear. And we might find ourselves really stuck in this cycle of hopelessness, thinking things won't ever change.
So, there are lots of different thinking styles and feelings and behaviours that we might notice when we're feeling quite anxious that are really common in anxiety and eco-anxiety is not exempt from those, but what separates eco anxiety is that the topic of worry or concern is around climate change and those ecological concerns, things of that nature.
But do remember that anxiety and concern around this is a good thing in some ways, because if nobody was bothered then nothing would be being done about the problem. However, it's when the anxiety becomes excessive it becomes a huge impact on a person's life. It's really taking over. That's when we might need to think about bringing some of that anxiety down.
Absolutely, and what are the sort of challenges in understanding eco-anxiety compared to other types of anxiety or mental health issues?
So, the challenges in understanding eco-anxiety, I think there definitely are some challenges there in understanding this. And I think a lot of it boils down to the fact that this is quite a new emerging area in mental health.
And although eco-anxiety has probably been around quite a bit longer than we realise, there is no specific diagnosis for eco-anxiety, so there's no specific diagnosis included in the DSM 5, which is the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This is the book that describes many of the common mental health problems that we're familiar with, such as depression and various other anxiety disorders.
And, so it's a relatively new concept and it's something that is being studied more and more. And whilst it isn't currently considered a disorder in the manuals or in the books. It is a very real and potentially distressing concern for people.
And the way that we think about anxiety, it can be very different from person to person as well.
So eco-anxiety can be labelled as a concern or an anxiety problem in its own right, especially for those who report that they don't really worry too much about other stuff, and it's just the worries about climate change and those ecological concerns that is affecting them at the moment. Or it could be interwoven with other concerns.
So, there are people that experience a range of worries, and one of them might be ecological concerns, amongst the range of worry. And in that case we might label this as a generalised anxiety rather than specifically eco-anxiety. So it can really vary from person to person. Same with any other anxiety problem, to be fair.
But I do think we do need to consider recognising it as a mental health condition on its own, because the world is changing and along with external changes comes new problems that we might develop internally, be it physical or mental.
And just because it's not in those diagnostic books at the moment and it's not in the general training that professionals might undertake right now doesn't mean that it shouldn't be in there later or even now.
So yes, I guess there could be some challenges with understanding this, but really when we break it down, it's not hugely different to some of the other anxiety disorders that we do have more information about.
The underlying themes that are there are very similar, such as emotions coming up of anxiety and sadness. Those feelings of overwhelm, thoughts around unpredictability, a sense of the unknown, those what ifs, the feelings of being out of control, rumination, where we just can't stop thinking about it. And paying attention to maybe specific details which might tend to be the negative or the threat focused details, there might be that underlying theme of self-criticism.
You know, “I haven't done enough” and that sense of guilt, which might lead to withdrawal, loss of motivation or that other direction of things, of seeking more and more information, for reassurance.
So even though eco-anxiety is potentially its own thing, the themes that underlie it are very, very similar to other anxiety disorders. And I have started to see more people bringing eco concerns and eco worries throughout my clinical practice as the years have gone by and I don't think I'm alone in that. I think other therapists have noticed that too.
And the great news is that we know there is need for support with this area and this has been noticed. There is more and more research going into this area and there are starting to be more training opportunities as well, that go beyond a clinician's initial training to expand their skill set to start working with these problems.
And now Bianca, I'd be really keen to hear about what interventions there are to help people with eco-anxiety?
So yeah, definitely as mentioned this is a growing area of need and research and with that comes a growing amount of support and it can be really helpful to engage in something that helps you to take positive action and focus on what you can do or what is in your control, rather than focusing on what you can't do and what is out of your control.
A gentleman called Stephen Covey -he's a self-help author- and wrote a great book in 1989, so quite a while ago, but still great today. The book was called the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and he talks about this very thing.
So, people who focus and what they can do and what is in their circle of influence will be spurred on to do something, and subsequently they notice that their ability to make an impact will grow, which then increases their confidence in themselves and their ability to keep having that impact that they want to have.
And so, a little anxiety alongside thinking about the “can dos” and “what I can do” can be really helpful in making change towards this battle. But there are also people who might focus on what they can't do and will find that their ability to impact and their circle of influence will become smaller and smaller, and they'll become more focused on the problem, start to feel overwhelmed and out of control.
And a lot of us can easily fall into this and it's not something to blame yourself for or punish yourself for if you are stuck in that loop or focusing on the negative, and the “can’t dos” as well and it's very easy to fall into that, because that's often what we're bombarded with, it’s the negative and the stuff that's really going wrong.
But we might just need a bit of help just to get to the “can do” side and manage that sense of overwhelm and that debilitating anxiety that can come up. So, it's important to recognise as well that there are some people in society that have more influence than others.
For example, the Prime Minister can probably have a lot more influence, than me or you can. But there is always something that we can do to play our part and we need to focus on those things.
For example, if we are someone that quite enjoys public speaking, then we can maybe do a podcast like this one. Or we can create videos on social media. If we're somebody that maybe doesn't like being kind of too exposed in some way, then maybe we can communicate with others that are close to us about the steps that we're taking as an individual. And this can then influence others to change their behaviours and have a knock on effect there, increasing our circle of influence.
We've also got things such as ecotherapy, connecting to nature is really beneficial for those experiencing eco-anxiety. Ecotherapy can help build a two-way relationship with nature. It helps you to connect with nature and allow nature to give you what you need and the enjoyment from nature, but also allows you to give back to the area as well.
So ecotherapy, there's lots of definitions of it, but it might involve things such as collecting rubbish or planting trees. It can involve projects that are bigger, it can really vary. And another great thing with this is that it can allow a person to get physically active, which is great for the body and the mind too, because physical activity can decrease a person's stress and anxiety levels because of the physiological changes that occur in the body during and after exercise.
And funnily enough, actually, when it comes to exercise, I heard about a fantastic new way of exercising the other day, which is something called plogging.
And I thought, what on Earth is plogging? And when I looked deeper into this, it made so much sense. So, it's basically running or jogging and picking up plastics at the same time.
And I thought, well, how motivating is that because the further you run, the more plastics you can come across and pick up and you're making a change each time you go for your run. So that's great for your mood and mental health and physical health, but also great for the environment as well and enables a person to live in line with their values of helping the environment at the same time as fitting in something for themselves.
And so essentially, we can tap into whatever way we prefer to take action. As I said, some people are great at speaking and influencing others. Other people maybe like to do things in a different way, maybe on a smaller scale, and it might just be about getting out in nature and looking after their local nature areas.
And so, they're great things to do on a self-help type basis. But some people feel that they might need a bit more guided support. And if so, then mindfulness can be a great way to get a bit more guided support.
Mindfulness can really help you to connect deeper with nature, really appreciate and start feeling what is around you in the moment, without passing further judgement on it. It can help you feel much more present rather than being very future focused, thinking about all the what ifs, or even being stuck in the past thinking about all the bad stuff that's happened, it can really just help you connect much more in here and now without any further judgement and really seeing things for what it is right now.
Mindfulness you can do alone, or you could do it with a mindfulness teacher or even a therapist that integrates mindfulness.
We've also got CBT (cognitive behaviour therapy), which is the most commonly delivered therapy in the UK at the moment. It's got the most evidence behind it and it is very effective for people with anxiety problems.
What it does is it focuses on recognising unhelpful patterns of thinking and unhelpful behaviours and making changes to these to have an overall impact on a person's mood and helping them to live in line with their values and work towards their goals. It might involve learning how to manage different types of worries, tolerating uncertainty, sitting with that feeling of not knowing that can be really uncomfortable and ultimately just working towards what we want to be working towards and prevent that shutdown response or that avoidance response that we might find ourselves experiencing.
And it can really help us to recognise that there is a lot going on that is out of our control, yes, but it doesn't mean that the small bits we can do something about don't mean anything.
So, I really like the saying, I can't remember where I heard this saying, but it's stuck with me ever since I heard it was that “lots of smalls can lead to big”.
So, lots of small things that we can do just because they're small, it doesn't mean that they're useless or no good, because lots of those things all add up and the way I like to see it is a bit like a piggy bank. When you start saving money, it might be that you save 50p a week, or 50p every time you remember, and it seems like a really small and significant amount. But when that piggy bank gets full and you smash it open and you count how much money is there, you can really see how all of those small 50ps is actually add up and make a much larger sum.
So, it's the same kind of thing really there with the actions that we can take is that lots of small actions can lead to a big change overall.
And CBT, it can really help you to reframe your mind around maybe an all or nothing approach that we might have where we think, well, we need to do everything or we need to have a massive impact. It can help us reframe and start taking those small steps.
It can help us if we are the type of person that maybe isn't in shutdown mode, but we might be in that mode of overly engaging with information, we might be watching the news a lot, we might be reading lots of negative information and finding that really difficult. It can help us to get that balance over how much information we need to know to make a change and also helping us to just get a balance overt that.
And so, there are a variety of things that you can do for self-help, but also with the support of a therapist or others to manage anxiety.
And remember the aim isn't to take away anxiety completely because it can spare someone to take action. But it is best in manageable levels so that it helps us to take positive action, which is essential in tackling the climate concerns and also for our overall mood.
So, a really great first step might be just to make a plan for what you want to do, what kind of changes you'd like to make. Maybe something that's realistic and achievable. Write down some concrete steps that you can take and maybe give them a go and just make sure that they are achievable and small to start with.
Thanks Bianca, that’s interesting and I really love the idea of plogging.
Having concern over the environment it signals us that there’s something we need to pay attention to, there’s a threat, and that we need to act now. And what we can do is take steps to try and minimise our impact.
And behaviour change has been identified as one of the solutions that should be looked at for addressing climate change. So, Leah, it would be great to hear from you about what are the behaviours that can harm the environment?
Speaker 3, Leah Jones, Head of Behavioural Insights and Research, Bupa UK:
Yeah, sure. Well, the thing is, there are so many behaviours that it's actually quite difficult to list every single one of them. But I've put together a list here of some behaviours, so some you might be aware of and some that you might not but. So here you go, so for example, travelling too much via emission producing transportation, so aeroplanes, cars, those kinds of vehicles.
Buying fast fashion, so fast fashion it's often made using unsustainable or un-environmentally friendly materials, they're often imported from far away. There's also ethical issues around that, but we won't get into that right now. Also, getting rid of things that are in good condition just because they're not fashionable or you don't want them anymore.
Buying single use items, say, drinking bottled water, for example. And also, here's an interesting one, so using tampons and pads, so sanitary items.
People are moving to reusable devices because of all the plastic that's used to create tampons and sanitary item. And using utility at peak times, so this fires up inefficient methods to meet the demand at those peak times.
There's also pesticides and weed killers. They can cause leaching, which means they get into our rivers and waters and can actually cause damage. And importing items as well, so you know the air miles involved in importing some items from across the globe that can be really damaging to the environment.
And eating meat as well so a lot of energy goes into producing meat compared to vegetables, not to mention the antibiotics required, which is bad for global health.
And overconsumption generally, so waste is a big problem.
And not recycling, so I think a lot of us are quite good at recycling the obvious things like glass, plastic, aluminium, paper.
But there's things like electrical items, these really should be recycled because we have a shortage of lithium for batteries and other metals. And also smoking as well, since smoking causes deforestation.
Cigarette butts they're not biodegradable and the cost to healthcare as we know is massive it’s about 1.4 trillion.
So, until relatively recently, a lot of these behaviours that I've just listed, they weren't considered harmful to the environment and were therefore largely integrated into most of our lives seemingly harmlessly.
I mean, think about health, the healthy eating plate that we were taught in school. There was always a protein section that was usually categorised with a picture of meat or fish.
And so, eating meat daily, it was a societal norm that we're now actually only recently trying to change. And this is really why it's difficult, you have a huge number of behaviours that need to change, for up to now has mostly been habitual, or they've been a societal norm. They've been cheap, they've been easy to do.
And also, we shouldn't forget that there are also points of misunderstanding or misinformation associated with a lot of these behaviours. Say for example, here's a question is eating local meat better or worse for the environment, than imported fruit and vegetables from far away countries. And you can see the logic there, you know, you're thinking about the air miles of transporting food and veg from far away countries compared to getting your meat locally.
But the truth is the air miles involved in importing is negligible compared to the emissions involved in meat production, so you can see how there can be issues of misunderstanding there as well.
Thanks Leah. You've described a lot of activities and behaviour have just become a part of modern life, but unfortunately they can contribute to adverse changes in the climate and the environment. So, Leah, what behaviour changes are there that we can make to benefit the environment?
So again, I've got a list here of various things that you can do I mean I could, I could actually go on for hours listing all of the good behaviours, but I've just got a few key ones here. And I’m sure you'll be able to think of others as well, but just to name a few. Choose local seasonal food where possible, again, this is to try and reduce the air miles involved in transporting goods.
And reduce food waste by planning meals in advance, you know, using your freezer to store leftovers, for example, rather than throwing them out. Using compost bins for any unsuitable food waste, you know your egg shells and your carrot tops, things like that. And try growing your own herbs or vegetables and you don't need them necessarily need a garden to do that, you just need a sunny window sill. And try to eat plant based foods more often and reduce meat consumption where possible.
Or if you are going to eat meat, try and make sure that it is local meat. If you eat fish, try to buy it from more sustainable sources or local fishmongers. And again, have a reusable water bottle, coffee cup and cutlery.
Any of those devices that you use that you throw away after one use, try and replace them with reusable alternatives.
And again, back to the recycling point, if you can recycle as much as you can, so not just your paper, your glass, your aluminium, and plastics, also think about recycling, electricals, batteries, clothes, etc, etc.
And here's a good one, so buy clothes from second-hand shops, swap with friends, mend older garments. Or if you are going to buy new toes and new pieces, try and get pieces that you know will really last and be timeless, you know, the classic pieces that you're going to still enjoy still in years to come.
When it comes to transport, if you can walk, cycle, run, use public transport or car share where possible, anything like that is going to be helpful to reduce the use of emission producing transport.
And switch to a green energy supplier or tariff. And also, research where your investments go, say things like your pension funds. Just to make sure they are aligned with your values. And also do your laundry on a cold or a low heat wash.
And then finally, you can use reusable sanitary devices. I know I mentioned this earlier, but there are lots of new things on the market, things like period pants, moon cups. All those kind of usable devices that can prevent the use of single use plastics.
And interestingly, when we talk about these behaviours in terms of actual measurable consumer behaviours, consumers on the whole are actually boycotting environmentally damaging products and services, in favour of ethical ones as a result of mounting anxiety about climate change, so we are actually seeing a shift in people's behaviour.
Rasheda Begum: Thanks Leah. There are so many changes that we can do to make a difference, not just for the environment also for our health. Leah, how do we make a start on changing our habits and how can we make these stick?
Leah Jones: So, like I was saying that the problem is that there are so many behaviours that ultimately need to change. And in behavioural science, we know that the chances of success when we try and overhaul a load of behaviours all at once is actually very slim. For example, you can just imagine that if you decide to adopt a healthy lifestyle and overnight, you start exercising, you stop smoking, you reduce your alcohol consumption, you stop ordering takeaways and start eating more fruit and vegetables.
You can see that the chances of sticking to all of that in one go forever is going to be extremely difficult and practically impossible. And, hence why New Year's resolutions don't often stick. Well, the same goes for these kinds of behaviours too. There are several things you can do to ensure the best chances of making a permanent change. The first is to choose one specific behaviour that you know you can do and master that behaviour before you start thinking about another one.
So, let's look at an example, so for example, changing your commute from driving to a more sustainable option. So, consider whether it's feasible. Is it a 10 minute drive that you can turn into a 20 minute cycle or a 15 minute bus journey? Consider what issues might arise and how you're going to overcome them.
Are you going to want to cycle when it's raining or when it’s really cold in the winter - maybe not. Is there an alternative option that you can do on those days when you’re not up for cycling? Is there a bus route, can you car share, could you get a train, etc.
A technique that is often used to reinforce behaviours is something called if-then planning to commit you to your change.
So, an example would be if it's raining and I don't want to cycle, then I will get the bus into work. So, you can see it makes you think about the barriers and how you're going to overcome them. Another point is to get support from others.
So tell your family, tell your friends, tell your colleagues. They can offer social support. They can offer advice. They can offer suggestions, they may even want to join in, but they can also hold you accountable if you go back on your behaviour. And I think probably the most important point here is to be kind to yourself.
If you end up driving into work a few times a month, it's still far better for the environment than driving in every day, so don't give up if you have a bad day or a bad week.
In fact, you should reframe it and celebrate the wins. Look at all the successes you've had over the space of a week or a month. And be proud of yourself for doing that and not focus on the one or two occasions where you didn't. And again, don't be hard on yourself for not knowing everything there is to know about environmental hazards and the climate crisis.
It is a huge area of science and research that is constantly evolving and we're constantly finding out new things that we didn't know before, so you can't be hard on yourself for not knowing everything. And then just finally, I was reading an interesting scientific article looking at different emotions associated with the climate crisis.
And to put the findings very simply, where people feel angry about the climate crisis, they're more likely to take positive action than those that feel anxious or depressed. And I'm not saying that you should try and transfer your anxiety into anger, but going back to what Bianca was saying, consider how the framing of the climate crisis in your own mind and how you think and feel about it , think how that might be impacting your behaviour. So those are just a few tips to think about.
I’d like to say a big thank you to my guests, Bianca and Leah for talking with me on this podcast and also thank you to the listeners. We hope you found this podcast interesting and informative.