With a flick of the switch, the weather has turned autumnal to coincide with the beginning of the school year. Coupled with the tragic and apocalyptic hurricanes across the globe in Texas and the Caribbean, as well as devastating floods in South Asia, those prone to anxiety like myself may be having a hard time not to succumb to climate anxiety. Even by reducing the amount of news we consume, it is still near-on impossible to remain unaffected by the terrifying events occurring around the world, with the current nuclear stand-off with North Korea one of the most frightening and difficult to filter out from our peripheral vision. It is deeply challenging as a mother, when faced with an anxious child who is finding it hard to sleep, to reassure her that all will be well when I am hard-pushed to believe this myself. In a recent article on this very subject, the writer Eve Andrews suggests that, when faced with an overwhelming sense of panic due to catastrophic events far beyond our control, finding one thing to focus on over which you do have some control, be it a piece of art or writing, through which you can channel your environmental anxieties, can contribute in a small way towards balancing out the seemingly impossible situation we find ourselves in.
The work of Buddhist eco-philosopher, deep-systems theorist and ecologist Joanna Macy has been invaluable for me in moments of environmental anxiety. ‘The Work That Reconnects’ (TWTR) is expounded in her brilliant book, Active Hope, written in collaboration with Chris Johnstone, a medical doctor and happiness coach with years of experience working in mental health within the NHS. TWTR guides you through the four stages of a spiral: Coming from Gratitude, Honouring our Pain for the World, Seeing with New Eyes, and Going Forth. It is incredibly powerful and one that I will no doubt revisit. In a recent collaboration with fellow artist Clare Whistler, we used this philosophy as a basis for our latest project, elemental, an experiential exploration of the elements through site-specific artworks, movement and meditation, which we are hoping to run again in the near future. One of the sessions was based at Ore Valley DIY Regen, a bottom-up-development (BUD) at the site of the disused Broomgrove Power station led by Heart of Hastings and local residents. At the beginning of the session we acknowledged the sadness of the earth, as the site had been unloved and neglected for so long, but encouraged participants to see its potential for new life and hope, so potently encapsulated by the wealth of wildflowers now growing there.
Having a sense of purpose in life can go a long way towards allaying deep-seated anxieties, as an occupied mind tends not to dwell on the problems of the world while it is otherwise engaged. After a long period of being out of paid employment, I have recently started looking for work again. Not for the faint-hearted, this quest is made harder by the fact that, despite being well-educated and skilled – I used to work as a teacher and led many workshops over the years as an artist – once that intrinsic confidence in one’s abilities has been lost, it is very hard to drown out the cacophonous thoughts crowding in that nothing one does will ever be good enough. Over the summer, I realised that my deep-seated lack of confidence stems from an even deeper lack of any sense of self, which I have been slowly rebuilding over the past two years with the help of my trusted therapist through hours of painstaking psychoanalytical psychotherapy. But of course it is hard to know what to do if you don’t know who you are – an ineffable chicken-and-egg situation whereby finding the thing that defines one, whilst lacking any sense of self-definition, is at times an excruciating existential state of nonsensical befuddlement. Couched within a world that can seem in itself insane and meaningless, this can lead to some pretty painful moments of anxious self-doubt and, at its most extreme, suicidal depression. This may sound like the lamentations of a middle-class housewife, which on a superficial level they are, but for the millions of people out of work due to chronic mental health conditions, it is a very real situation which we ignore at our peril.
The other day, in a state of distress, I turned to Headspace, the mindfulness app that has got me through some difficult months through guided meditation. To the dulcet tones of Andy, the Headspace founder whose extraordinary journey from sports scientist to Buddhist monk via the Moscow state circus is inspiration in itself, I gradually relaxed and was able to let go of the the state of panic and terror which had gripped me. The meditation I used was an SOS, a quick 3-minute one designed to be used when in a state of heightened anxiety. It reminded me that I was not alone and encouraged me to consider, being one amongst the seven billion people on the planet, just how many people were feeling as bad as I was, or most probably even worse. This immediately induced feelings of compassion, as I thought of those in Syria or Houston or in the wake of Hurricane Irma, who were definitively in a worse state than I was, sitting comfortably in my house with the roof firmly on and food in the fridge and a state of relative political peace on the horizon. It helped me connect to countless, nameless others, who I will never meet, but with whom I briefly linked up in my mind, thus putting a stop to one of the most powerful tricks of depression or anxiety: the belief that one is completely and utterly alone, cut off from everyone and everything, thus making the future utterly bleak and hopeless. In reality I have never been alone – I live with my daughter and husband, my parents live a few miles away, I have friends nearby who I see from time to time and my therapist is a short drive up the road. But the conviction of the mind when it is in the grip of a state of existential fear of the unknown, of death, of powerlessness, of rage against the state that we humans have willingly got ourselves into, is difficult to get out of without structured help. However, with the aid of a few deep breaths and a reassuring voice telling me that I was not alone, I really did feel less disconnected and was able to come out, cook dinner and carry on with everyday life for the rest of that day. A few months ago I would have been floored by this experience and would have taken weeks to recover, so some progress, it seems, is being made.
I have come to realise that anxiety is a state of heightened imagination. I see this in my daughter, a highly imaginative and intelligent eight-year-old, who will tell me that she fears walking past tall buildings as she imagines that they will fall on her and crush her to death. She has never watched a disaster movie and we have protected her from seeing these kind of events on the news, so this state has been created purely by an extremely active and vivid imagination. I have started to gently encourage her to turn this dynamic imaginative ability around to positive use, by using soothing memories as a trigger and letting the positive brain chemicals work their way through her subconscious that way. So I don’t see anxiety as a disability, but rather as a heightened ability which has become programmed to the wrong channel – to one of horror films and disaster movies rather than magical realism and possibilities. By resetting the channel, it can be tuned to something hopeful, rather than hopeless, purposeful, rather than purposeless, meaningful, rather than meaningless.
So connecting with others, either in person or through mindfulness, gaining a sense of perspective on one’s own situation compared with that of others who may be worse off, and lots of deep breaths to trick the mind back into a sense of relative safety seems to be the way forward for me when faced with environmental anxiety. It’s a start, and it won’t change any of the big problems we are facing as a species, but it will help me live my own life in this tiny corner of the world with a little less fear and helplessness. And perhaps by writing it down it might resonate with someone out there too.