Take a deep breath

Posted 12/11/19

From the hilltop of Thanksgiving we toboggan through the wintry finale of the year—Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s. It’s an exhilarating journey for some, but for others it can …

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Take a deep breath


From the hilltop of Thanksgiving we toboggan through the wintry finale of the year—Hanukkah, Christmas, New Year’s. It’s an exhilarating journey for some, but for others it can trigger seasonal depression and anxiety. After a certain age, I suppose we all experience the holidays as a mix of remembrance and expectation, blending nostalgia and regret with hopefulness and the possibility of new beginnings. How we deal with it depends on our circumstances, our life experiences and the coping strategies we have developed.

Psychologists have started looking at how anxiety about climate change is affecting our mental health. I first encountered this idea as “solastalgia,” a psychological phenomenon marked by the sense of desolation and disorientation experienced by people who have lost their homes and communities in natural disasters. Now researchers have coined the term “ecoanxiety” to describe the fear of future loss due to climate change, which can create feelings of sadness, frustration and guilt that are heightened by the awareness that the causes of climate change are mostly human-made. Young people question whether or not they should have children. People who love to travel feel guilty about the carbon footprint of flying. Am I a terrible person because I use a blow dryer? The global scope of the climate crisis, and its multigenerational time frame, make it existentially frightening and simultaneously almost impossible to grasp. Some of us shy away, burrowing into a personal safe zone; some of us open our imaginations to the possibilities and risk sinking into despair and paralysis. Instead of caring constructively about the problem, we are in danger of collapsing emotionally under its weight.

A colleague recently asked me how we can explain the enormous sacrifices society will have to make in order to make significant headway on climate change. I was aware that he works on the issue in a locale that is not particularly hospitable to his efforts, but his comment shocked me viscerally with a sense of how discouraged he must sometimes feel. I realized anew how lucky I am to be engaged in this work in a community, a county and a state that is supportive. Because of that support, I could answer honestly that I just don’t think of these coming changes as sacrifices, but as opportunities to improve quality of life. Getting off fossil fuels is going to have tremendous health benefits. Expanding public transportation is going to enhance community connectedness. Reducing waste, toxins and plastic pollution is going to protect our oceans and our drinking water. And these challenges are going to spur new innovations and insights. As we dial down our association of happiness with material possessions, we have the chance to dial up our more meaningful experiences with nature and our fellow humans.

As a matter of fact, there is a new “science” of happiness that seeks to define, analyze and measure the experience of well-being. From university courses in positive psychology to the United Nations’ annual World Happiness Report, research is illuminating what makes us truly happy, examining factors like financial security, friendship, health, volunteerism, charitable giving and how we manage change and adversity, not to mention digital communications. The most common advice about dealing with the holiday blues is to slow down, make a plan and find something you can do for others. If you are experiencing climate angst, I would add: think about local impacts and constructive things you can do in your own community, and make sure you take the time to nurture your connection to nature as a source of joy.

As I write these words, the first big snowfall of the season has settled with a magical hush. The chickadees are visiting the feeder and hopping among the snow-laden dogwood branches outside my window. At dusk our very shy pair of cardinals will arrive for their evening meal, flashing red against the snowdrifts. No vehicle has ventured up our road except the town’s plow truck, and although the trees are bending low under their burden of the ice and snow, the electricity is still on! In this moment, the warm quiet house is the greatest luxury I can imagine.  

I wish you many such moments, and strength and courage to greet the New Year.



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