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You probably have eco anxiety. You just don’t know it | terrestrial

caption: Ashley Ahearn, host of terrestrial, a new national podcast produced out of KUOW in Seattle.
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1 of 3 Ashley Ahearn, host of terrestrial, a new national podcast produced out of KUOW in Seattle.

When I first heard the term eco-anxiety — a chronic fear of environmental doom — I brushed it off. It seemed like something for people who sit on yoga mats and worry about how the world is going to end because we’re not recycling enough.

But it turns out there’s more to the relationship between our brains and the environment.

As the effects of climate change get worse, psychologists are finding that it’s making people more stressed and therefore more likely to develop anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress, depression and problems with substance abuse.

In the U.S., psychologists saw those kinds of reactions immediately after Hurricane Katrina and superstorm Sandy. And in Australia, they saw it during the Millennium drought that went on for more than a decade.

In this episode, I spoke with Jenny O’Connell, a clinical social worker who treats farmers in a rural community two hours outside of Melbourne.

“It’s been farmers killing their stock, and it’s been farmers in denial not knowing what to do,” she told me. “Some of those people have either succeeded or attempted to take their lives.”

And of course, the psychological burden is many, many times worse for people who are directly affected.

A recent study from the American Psychological Association found evidence that low-income communities and people of color suffer most from eco-anxiety. Take Hurricane Katrina. Among a sample of people affected, suicide or suicidal ideation more than doubled. And according to the study, 49 percent developed an anxiety or mood disorder such as depression.

But even for those of us who see these events unfold on social media, our brains perceive a very real threat — unlike anything our species has dealt with before. And given how the human brain is wired, we just aren’t built to handle it.

In this episode, we’ll also follow Seattle filmmaker Chris Jordan’s journey to an island in the South Pacific to confront the effects of plastic pollution on the Laysan Albatross.

Here's the devastating thing about these albatrosses: The plastic pollution we put into the ocean winds up in their bodies. When Jordan learned about the birds, he felt a pull to visit. He ended up traveling to Midway Atoll eight times.

“I would open up a bird and take out a handful of bottle caps, and I would just dissolve into tears of grief," he said.

When he returned from his first trip to Midway, he sank into a year of depression. "I felt like I was too small to make a difference,” he said.

But Jordan returned to Midway, because he knew he needed the full story of these birds. And something surprising happened. He was able to face his grief, allowing it to roll through him, which resulted in a feeling he describes as ecstasy.

“Grief is the love we feel for something we're losing or that is suffering,” Jordan told me. “It brings us so deeply into the present moment and it connects us with our love for whatever that thing is.”

He still worries, of course, about where we’re headed and what we’re doing to the planet.

"For me, it's important to not kind of pacify myself or convince myself that I'm doing enough,” he said. “I want to feel my anxiety."

Because addressing that anxiety is the first step to moving beyond it and getting to work.

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