By Meg Lazaros
Special to the Eagle
My experience embracing a low-waste lifestyle started two and a half years ago while returning to New York City after a short trip to San Francisco.
I was annoyed at the waste I had accumulated on the cross-country flight. There were the two plastic cups I received for water, a small snack assortment wrapped in a plastic container, featuring individually wrapped crackers, almonds and chocolate, a plastic fork and a plastic knife knife all wrapped in—you guessed it—plastic.
When I got home I decided to Google “How much waste does the average American make in a year?”
And from there, my friends, I went down a very scary wormhole. I read about plastic pollution, the ocean in crisis, landfills seeping out chemicals, global warming predictions, the high rate of species die-off.
I could feel my palms getting sweaty. I felt my heart race. My face was clammy. I felt dizzy.
It seemed like the air had just been sucked out of the room. I was indeed having a panic attack.
Days later, I couldn’t shake the feeling — and to be quite honest, to some degree, it has stayed with me ever since.
There’s a term for what I — and many others— feel. It’s called eco-anxiety and the American Psychological Association describes it as worry, depression or anxiety that is triggered by awareness of the environmental woes we face.
And hot damn, those of us who feel it can tell you it is real. Like real, real. Like sit-on-the-couch-and-wallow-about-the-impending-doom real.
The International Psychoanalytical Association has recently recognized climate change as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”
Psychologists are starting to understand how close the relationship is between climate change and mental health and there is increasing evidence that suggests the number of people who experience anxiety and worry about the potential impacts of climate change are on the rise.
For some, eco-anxiety can be debilitating. Learning the magnitude of the environmental issues we are up against can bring on serious feelings of dread and despair.
And why not? The forecast is bleak. A recent report issued by scientists working for the United Nations suggests that the world could experience catastrophic environmental issues like large-scale droughts, food shortages and flooding of entire coastal cities by as soon as 2040.
With the federal government hell-bent on rolling back environmental regulations — at least 76 have been ditched so far, according to the New York Times — the situation can feel downright hopeless.
But there are ways to combat these feelings besides having a good cry or screaming at the top of your lungs — which for the record can feel quite satisfying in the moment.
Here are a few things that I have found helpful:
Find Your Vision
Take five minutes every morning to really imagine the world you want to live in, and try to be as detailed as possible. I like to imagine how it feels to live in this world, what it smells like, what it looks like.
Visualizing my dreams for a healthier planet gives me something concrete to strive for. It helps me better understand the barriers that stand between me and the world I envision and it seriously gets me motivated to make that a reality.
It’s Not All or Nothing
Sometimes we can get overwhelmed by the idea of trying to take on the world. There are so many issues and so many ways to get involved. That scary complexity can make helping feel hard to navigate and it may make us want to hide under the covers and never come out. But remember, you don’t have to take on the world all at once.
Instead, pinpoint one environmental issue that brings you anxiety and develop a challenge around lowering impact in that specific area.
For example, deforestation is extremely triggering for me, so I challenged myself to go vegan for 30 days — cattle ranching is responsible for much of the deforestation of the Amazon. Though this challenge felt small, it had a big impact. Not eating animal products for one month saves more than 900 square feet of forest, according to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
I felt damn good about my small big accomplishment. And, as an unexpected result—I lost 5 pounds and wound up trying lots of new veggies I never knew I liked.
Use Your Megaphone
Instead of just sitting with your feelings, turn your social media accounts into platforms to talk to others about these issues and to build a support network. Through hashtags and online communities, I’ve found countless friends that I have deeply connected with. We share our fears, our failures, and we support one another. Many of these friends have also helped me learn me new ways to lower my carbon footprint.
‘In Real Life’ Action
When you’re feeling depressed about the state of the world, getting together with friends might be the last thing you want to do. You may even be tempted to isolate yourself, lay in bed and listen to “The End,” by The Doors on repeat. Or is that just me?
On weekends, instead of letting my worries take over, I like to get my friends involved in community efforts. Enter the #wastewatchers.
I text friends to meet me in a new spot somewhere in the city. Sometimes it’s a park, a street corner, a field or a vacant lot. I supply a few reusable bags and construction gloves for the group and we spend 45 minutes walking around the area and picking up any trash we see floating around—I like to pay extra attention to sewer drains. To reward ourselves for our hard work, we grab breakfast at a nearby restaurant.
Getting friends involved feels satisfying and focusing on community issues can help you feel more in control of your environmental surroundings. Try gathering some friends or family at a community garden or playground and have some fun while doing something impactful for you local area.
Enjoy That Thing You Love
Go outside and experience nature. Take it from me: sitting in front of your computer googling “end of the world scenarios” is not going to help much.
Instead, try spending some time in a park or wooded area. It turns out that nature —the thing we are worrying about— can serve as a chill pill. Research has shown that “forest bathing,” the act of taking in the forest through one’s senses, can lower blood pressure, improve mood and sleep, and decrease stress levels.
I don’t always have the time to go hiking in the forest, but even a quick trip to a nearby park does the trick. I’m keen on going early on Sunday mornings to meditate before the kiddie birthday parties star.
It’s important to remember, that there are bound to be bad days when the fear and anxiety take over. But those pass as long as we stay active and focused. For me, the thing that has helped the most is finding ways to transform my anxiety into action.
Though there are days I’d rather wallow in my despair, I know that is ultimately self-serving. Getting stuck in my fears like that only pulls me deeper into a state of inaction — the exact opposite of what the world needs most right now.
Instead, when I feel those emotions arise, I try to remember that I have the power to improve the situation. That I have a purpose and a passion.
But at the same time, I can only do so much — and that’s ok. Not one person working alone will save us. Only by combining our individual actions, can we start an environmental revolution.
Meg Lazaros is a creative director and brand strategist focused on supporting environmentally conscious brands and organizations. She is a Bronx native living in Greenpoint and championing waste reduction in Queens and across NYC. A version of this column appears on mindbodygreen.com.