We are excited to introduce this guest post by Dr. Charach, providing timely insight into the swirl of emotions many of us feel as we strive to gain a sense of place in the midst of our climate crisis.
Many people struggle with anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges. Culturally we are often focused on “reducing stigma” of “mental illness” and this conversation is largely disconnected from how our world causes unpleasant emotions. Psychiatry’s current paradigm of mental illness is well-intentioned and often misses the mark. The real focus on reducing stigma needs to be on reducing the stigma of our emotions rather than their resulting “symptoms”. We need to connect our emotions to the things in our world that are demanding our attention. When we do this, we recognize that it is not a coincidence that mental illness is rising while the climate crisis unfolds. “Eco-anxiety” occurs when we miss out on what our underlying emotions tell us. Never before have Vonnegut‘s words been more true: “a sane person to an insane society must appear insane”.
The most important lesson I have learned from those I have worked with in my practice is to listen to what our emotions tell us. Our emotions always have some truth to them even if we cannot see it at first. Below is an image that summarizes my understanding of how emotions work:
The states of mind on the surface are the most obvious and are the emotions that we describe as mental health problems. If we are paralyzed by our worries, we call it “anxiety”. If we flip into a rage when we stub our toe, “anger” is the problem. All of the states of mind written on the tip of the iceberg are actually secondary responses to primary emotions that are beneath the surface. Emotions that we stigmatize and, therefore, subconsciously disconnect from.
Most people call the emotions below the surface “negative”. When we are young, our father comforts us with “don’t cry, you’re ok”. As we get older, our mother says “Oh, don’t feel guilty, you are doing the best that you can”. These are meant as supportive statements, yet they tell us that our emotions are wrong.
Our emotions are an interpretation of stimuli and are wired similar to our other sensory functions. Vision uses light as its stimulus, while emotions use “pleasant or unpleasant” and “aroused or calm” internal sensations as input. Emotions compile this information from our internal environment and use memories from the past to anticipate what this means about our external environment. This gives us important information and motivates us to action. When we learn to mistrust this function, we become disconnected from it. We have a sense that something is wrong but can’t identify what.
Imagine for a moment that, since I was three, my parents told me that red is a “negative” colour. When I pointed to a tomato, I was told “oh, that’s not really red, don’t look there”. I could try to do this. I could walk around and every time I saw a firetruck or a cardinal I would turn away. I would find this very difficult. Even if I was successful at always ignoring red, I would often make wrong decisions. If I was hit by a car because I ignored a red light, I would blame the other person.
And so the same goes for emotions. “Loneliness” as an emotion tells me to connect with more people. If I notice that I feel “depressed” when the underlying emotion is “loneliness”, I need to connect with the loneliness. If I only listen to the depression, I will isolate myself from others. This will exacerbate the loneliness rather than address it.
If we avoid feeling “negative” emotions, then our bodies feel greatly distressed because they are ignoring clear input. When we successfully disconnect ourselves, we make decisions on partial information. This leads us to make decisions that are not in our best interest while also ignoring the world around us. If we instead recognize these emotions as “unpleasant” rather than “negative”, our perspective on the world changes.
If you experience “eco-anxiety” or depression based upon the numerous “depressing” things in our world, I urge you to connect with your emotions more carefully. You likely have been pushing away very unpleasant emotions, as most of us have. For a solution to our climate crisis, we must connect with our unpleasant emotions. Let them teach us and motivate us. Learning to listen is tricky. In my future posts, I will discuss ways to listen to these emotions that can keep us from feeling overwhelmed. I will also discuss my understanding of how each of these unpleasant emotions can be effectively interpreted.
This process will involve feeling pain. Rather than disconnect from that pain, we should instead experience it with others. Through connecting with ourselves and our community at large, we can address the root causes of our climate crisis. In so doing, we will feel our unpleasant emotions less frequently. They will still come at times to remind us about the work that remains to be done, because there is so much to do. If we continue to listen to our emotions, together, we can build a way of living that is in harmony with nature.
Together, let’s change our cultural myths about emotions. Let’s allow them to genuinely motivate us to be part of a change that is much bigger than ourselves.
Nate Charach is a psychiatrist who works at a community hospital and has also completed his permacultural design certificate. His emotions urge him to combine these skills to create thriving communities that are in harmony with nature. With his clients, he attempts to work in partnership to find common meaning and value from their challenges.