In Despair Over the Polar Bear

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Paramount Classics / AP

In this image released by Paramount Classics, young polar bear Nanu is shown with her family in Arctic Tale.

Pamela Larsen, 41, a mother of two young girls in Mt. Hood, Ore., gets a stomachache every time she looks up at the volcano nearby: the glaciers at its peak have definitely been receding over the years. As the mountainside gets browner and browner — evidence of climate change — the knot in Larsen's gut tightens.

Psychologists now have a name for Larsen's condition: eco-anxiety, the overwhelming and sometimes debilitating concern for the worsening state of the environment. As signs of global warming accumulate, therapists say they're seeing more and more patients with eco-anxious symptoms. Sufferers feel depression, hopelessness and insomnia, and go through sudden, uncontrollable bouts of sobbing. They're overwrought about where the polar bears will live if they lose their habitat. They fret about the Earth running out of fossil fuels and about the slow disappearance of the oceans' coral reefs. Sometimes, the worry is closer to home, about the loss of songbirds in the backyard or the fate of the squirrels after a neighborhood park was bulldozed for condominiums.

"People like to think the environment is something out there, not connected to them," says Lorin Lindner, a Los Angeles psychologist who specializes in the emerging field of ecopsychology. "But we are not divorced from this biosphere. The more you learn, you realize that squirrels are part of a greater environment, that we are all connected. When you get one strand of this awareness, you start worrying."

In Santa Fe, N.M., therapist Melissa Pickett says she hears a lot about polar bears and whales. "People tell me how an article about the polar bears losing their habitat was really upsetting to them," she says. Treatment includes placing a photograph of a polar bear into the patient's hands and encouraging him or her to have a conversation with the bear as a way to ease the patient's despair. Pickett might also suggest that patients do their own research into the polar bears' situation. The hope is that patients will begin to better understand their feelings. As they do so, they might decide to take action by, say, giving money to a save-the-polar-bear fund.

Taking action is encouraged in Lindner's practice as well. To help her eco-anxiety patients, Lindner recommends tasks that are directly related to the cause of their fears. For patients who worry about the decrease in the ozone layer, for example, Lindner might suggest they give a presentation to students at a local school on the importance of wearing sunscreen. Or she proposes that they start a drive at the school to send sunscreen to children in Australia, where the shifting ozone poses a particularly grave threat.

"The antidote to despair is action," Lindner says. "People need to feel like there is something they can do to make a difference."

The tenets of ecopsychology — which integrates nature into psychotherapy, based on the idea that a connection to nature benefits and inspires the human mind — have been knocking around mental-health circles since the early 1990s. But recent and increasing fears of global warming have given the discipline new momentum. At Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired liberal arts college in Boulder, Colo., Jed Swift has been leading a master's program in ecopsychology for the past four years. In the past three months alone, he has received 100 inquiries into the two-year program, which currently has 14 students. The emphasis of the program is on training students who want to be involved in changing human behavior toward the environment.

"As global environmental conditions worsen, many people are recognizing that there are serious problems with the way we relate to the environment," says Swift. "People are drawn to a field like this as a way to help us connect with the environment. They realize there is a potential healing relationship between humans and the natural world."

In Santa Fe, Pickett urges her patients to start a garden, take a walk, go for a bike ride or meditate. If you can't go to nature, bring nature to you, she says. Pick up a rock and carry it around in your pocket as a reminder of your connection with the earth. It's all about remembering the joy we had when we played in the sandbox as toddlers or went on snipe hunts at summer camp.

"Of all the things I've done in my own self-growth, coming back into connection with the natural world has been singularly the most helpful for me," says Pickett, who worked in the banking industry for 16 years before becoming a counselor in 2000. "It's not too late. If I had a message, it would be of hope and of what we can do."