The topic of world and eco-anxiety seems to make the rounds in my practice every few months, and last week was one of those times. Between longterm clients, new clients, and course members, the theme was flooding the room. I’d like to break it down for you using the principles of my work to see if I can offer some ease.
I’ll start by saying that there’s no doubt that we live in anxiety-provoking times. Between school shootings, racism, global warming, and the host of other upsetting topics that are blasted across media headlines daily, it might seem like a tall order to conceive of the possibility that we can be aware of these realities and maintain a sense of inner calm. Yet that is exactly what is being asked of us, for if we’re going to weather this storm and arrive on calmer shores, we must do so with our core selves intact. A battered self does little good toward the well-being of the planet.
The anxious mind can attach onto almost any topic, but it tends to choose the ones where we’re most vulnerable. In my two decades of working with anxiety, both personally and professionally, I’ve noticed five main themes where it constellates: relationships, health, parenting, money, and sexuality. In recent years, I would add a sixth theme: the planet.
We then project our unhealed pain, unlived lives, and unfinished transitions onto these screens. When the perseverations elevate to the realm of obsession and we’re caught on the hamster wheel of intrusive thoughts, we know we’ve entered the realm of mental addiction, which means we’re stuck in a thought-web as a way to avoid pain. The intrusive thought is both the symptom and the arrow pointing to the wells of unhealed pain that need attention.
The key, as always, is to listen to the message that anxiety offers, which means learning to recognize when we’re flying into a current story as a way to avoid our own inner pain. We could siphon off hours every day signing petitions, writing letters, and making phone calls, but if we’re doing this as a way to fend off our own anxiety, it won’t work. In fact, it will likely make it worse. For any time we use outer actions in a misguided attempt to find a foothold amidst the groundlessness of life, we end up feeding the fire of anxiety.
Instead, the pathway to heal and find more peace in the storm is to turn inward and unpack the obsession using the four-realms approach that I teach, which means asking what is needed in each realm as related to this intrusive thought theme. Below are some examples, including what it looks like to decipher an intrusive thought through the lens of metaphor. And let me be abundantly clear that by examining this intrusive thought through the lens of metaphor by no means am I suggesting turning a blind eye to the suffering of the world. We act and give and help as much as we can while recognizing that we all have limits and we can’t save the entire world. We start with ourselves so that we can give from a place of fullness and love instead of emptiness and fear.
The Physical Realm
As always when working with the four realms, we start with the ground of our being: our body. Some helpful questions to ask are: Do I notice that I over-focus and obsess on the pain of the world when I’m sleep deprived, hormonal, on a sugar or caffeine high, or the morning after drinking alcohol? Anxiety ramps up when we’re off-kilter physically. When you can track these connections, you can make different choices.
There’s often a metaphor longing to be revealed in this realm as well. The body of the earth is suffering. When we’re obsessing on this fact the breakthrough question is, “How is my own body suffering? How am I plundering my fields and violating my boundaries? In what ways might I be denying my inner feminine and serving the patriarchal mindset? Am I over-working and under-sleeping? Am I overriding my need for downtime in favor of productivity?” The patriarchal mindset in which we’re all participating is a primary reason why we’re in the mess we’re in. We can point the finger and blame everyone “out there” or we can courageously and humbly turn inward as we explore how we are perpetuating a system based on domination and denial of the feminine principle through the ways we treat our own body.
The Cognitive Realm
As people on the sensitive-anxious spectrum, we simply aren’t wired to take in every pain from every sector of the world (I’m not sure anyone is no matter how they’re wired). We can handle the news of the elderly neighbor down the road who broke her hip because we can do something about that. We can handle the news of the current debate in our local cities because it’s within our sphere of experience. But we cannot handle every animal that is on the brink of extinction, and certainly not every image of every animal on the brink of extinction in every corner of the world. It’s simply too much.
Just like you wouldn’t plop your child down in front of the news during breakfast and dinner, so it’s not kind to do that to your inner child. You and you alone are the guardian of your mental space, and, as such, I encourage you to step in as a loving inner parent and take a break from the news, mindless scrolling, and click-and-bait emails with alarming headlines.
It’s also essential in the cognitive realm to recognize that we’re fed a slice of the news in mainstream media, one based on a shock and fear. We’re not told the whole story. We’re flooded with stories and images of doom-and-gloom, so-called evidence-based reporting that insists that there’s no hope. But there is another story that isn’t being told in the mainstream. When we’re working with anxiety, one of the steps is learning to replace the fear-based stories with the truth. In this case, it’s replacing a story of despair with one of hope. Again, this isn’t to minimize the mess we’re in, but we are much more likely to be of service from an enlivening place of hope than a paralyzing place of despair. Along these lines, this podcast has been life-changing for many of my clients who struggle with eco-anxiety.
The Emotional Realm
This is where it gets juicy and highly uncomfortable, as most people are trained to turn away from their pain (an umbrella word I use to describe all uncomfortable feelings). To start with, we must allow ourselves to grieve the real pain of the world, sometimes on a daily basis. One of the messages of anxiety is that its presence indicates that we’re in an emotional bottleneck: we’ve spent our entire lives pushing down feelings that we were told were “too much” until they have no choice but to pop out the top in the form of anxiety.
When we’re sensitive, we feel the pain all around us on a daily basis, and the only sane response is to grieve. We must be mindful that the grieving doesn’t become intrusive, which is done through keeping your inner parent at the head of your table, but to cry once a day is a healthy response that releases the pressure valve on the heart.
Our tears are prayers. Our tears are medicine that water the parched ground of our soil. Our tears nourish the animals and the plants that need to feel the broken-open heartbreak of our grief. Our wailing are the songs that need to be sung. We are being invited to open fully, for as we grieve for the world we also open the channels that heal several layers of our pent-up personal grief. In some way, they are one and the same.
There are often metaphors in this realm as well. Over-focusing on the pain of mother Earth can be a stand-in for pain around a mother-wound, and the question to ask here is, “Is my pain about Mother Earth a placeholder for ungrieved pain about my own mother?” Just like wounds about self-worth manifest as projections onto your partner’s “enough-ness” when you’re suffering from relationship anxiety, so your personal pain about your mother can be projected onto the screen of the world.
Many people suffer from a mother wound – the result of being raised by a mother who didn’t know how to attend to your needs – and instead of grieving this pain, which can feel like it’s going to swallow you up, you focus on the pain of Mother Earth. Again, both are real and both need attention, but when we can unravel to the root pain inside of an intrusive thought, we can explode the thought and free up energy to be of true service.
Another metaphor is the heartache at seeing the helplessness of the animals who are suffering as a result of human doing. This is the one that rips most of my clients up inside (and I’m right there with you), and yet, again, when it escalates to the point of intrusive we have to zoom out and ask how the projection is reflected on the inner realm.
The question I encourage my clients to ask themselves is: “How does my most vulnerable and helpless part feel abandoned and left out in the cold? Am I showing up for myself as a loving inner parent? What very young part of me needs to be rescued and held close to my heart as I reparent myself? How am I starving for love and attention?” Once again, this isn’t to deny or psychologize away the genuine raw pain of animal suffering; we must let it enter us fully and break our hearts open. But we must do so responsibly so that we’re not drowning in the pain and then so defeated that we become useless to anyone.
The Spiritual Realm
Lastly, we come to the fourth realm of self: the realm of soul and spirit. I don’t know of any other way to allow the chatter to settle and root into the center point amidst the anxious storms – whether it’s about relationships, health, money, or the state of the world – then to cultivate and commit to a daily spiritual practice. By “spiritual” I mean any practice that connects you both to something bigger than yourself and the anchor-point in your deepest being, which is the place of soul. This could be a gratitude practice, a nature practice, a yoga practice (not only the asana but the philosophy as well), a meditation practice, a dreamwork practice, a poetry practice, or a prayer practice (to name a few). The key, as always, is to find the way or ways that work for you, and committing daily. When we can tap into this wellspring of consciousness that infuses our universe, we settle several layers of anxiety and arrive at a sense of okay-ness that the stories on both the personal and global realms are unfolding exactly as they should.
In fact, this is how I ended my discussion with Tami Simon on her Insights at the Edge podcast a few weeks ago. If you’d like to listen, you do so here. She asked me (at 1:05), “What I’d love to know is – Your trust as a person, your groundedness in some type of unshakable faith, to whatever degree that you have it, what would you say it’s rooted in? What’s it’s source?” I paused and closed my eyes before responding, then said,
“The source of my trust is in an unshakable belief in hope and in our trajectory of moving towards wholeness. It’s what guides everything in my life, seeing the wholeness and seeing the goodness in not only every human being but in every being and in our planet and in the universe. I have this unshakable faith in goodness and in our longing for wholeness, in our longing for healing, individually and as a planet. As much as we can look around and feel like everything is falling apart, I see some through-line that we are also growing in the right direction even if it doesn’t always feel that way. It guides how I work with myself, how I see my children – seeing where they struggle but always holding them in their essence, in the awareness and in the clear-seeing of their wholeness, their holiness, their beauty. I see it in my clients – it’s very much the mindset from which I work. And I see it in our planet.”
Note: I welcome your comments, insights, and thoughts that are directly related to each week’s post. If you’re struggling with relationship anxiety and are a member of the Break Free From Relationship Anxiety course, please bring your questions there. If you’re struggling with relationship anxiety and are longing to break free from its stronghold, I strongly encourage you to join the course.