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Breathe, Exhale: Acknowledging Eco-Anxiety

Updated: Mar 7

Sailboat cruising along the Hudson Bay at sunset with Jersey City in the background (Courtesy: Max Sano)

Eco-anxiety is truly a unique mental health phenomenon in that it is not something that previous generations have had to fully grapple with until the current moment. Simply put, it is the feeling of anxiety due to environmental disasters or the existential nature of climate change.

I remember feeling it for the first time living in lower Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. We lost power in our building for a week, and areas that I used to walk with my then nine-year old brother were completely submerged by storm floods and debris.

I just was grateful to have a home to come back to and family to stay with outside of the state in its aftermath. Many New Yorkers have still not fully recovered from the catastrophe, and– at least for me –it figuratively and literally hit home the threat of climate change in my day-to-day lived experience.

My name is Max Sano, and I grew up in New York City but spent my college years in southeastern Pennsylvania in Lancaster County, one of the biggest agricultural communities in the country. As I transitioned from urban to suburban-rural environments during the foundational years of my academic development, I began to become overwhelmed by the multi-faceted nature of addressing the climate crisis.

Occupy Wall Street movement in Zuccotti Park, Lower Manhattan (Courtesy: Creative Commons)

During my childhood I did not realize the connection between wealth inequality (a.k.a unregulated capitalism and accumulation of private capital and equity) and the destruction of life. That being said, I grew up in Lower Manhattan during the police raids on Occupy Wall Street in Zuccotti Park. I heard the screams of protestors that lost their homes, their jobs, their livelihoods as a result of corporate greed. The same driving force behind the Anthropocene, or the era of humans as geological change agents degrading the Earth for millennia to come.

Learning how climate change and climate action will impact immigration, economics, politics, religion, culture, institutions, e v e r y t h i n g was, in a word, nauseating.

Isaias Hernandez, independent environmental educator and founder of @QueerBrownVegan, describes climate doomism as “[an] often used…scare tactic to disempower collectivized communities on their journey for environmental liberation.” The financial and political elite want us to cower in fear of all the uncertainty rather than bind together as a grassroots collective to brainstorm and organize creative solutions.

When this alarmist approach to climate action failed to sway my unsympathetic peers, I would switch tacks to try and frame the solution in positive terms. I hoped that approaching climate change with only positivity would convince people to learn more, but it only came off as disingenuous.

How could I make light of a situation as important as the climate crisis? "I agree," I would hear someone out as I grit my teeth. "But this is the first time you’ve shown me you want to talk about it."

Upon reflection, these interactions come off as toxic positivity. Toxic positivity refers to approaching every situation with a positive outlook, even if it is not appropriate to your current emotional status. Also, I felt like I kept approaching the discussion hot-headed and upset, rather than open to listening to who I was speaking to about these issues. Clearly a change was needed: I just did not know where to start.

Over time I’ve learned to find coping mechanisms that help me feel a little bit more grounded amidst the climate crisis. This is by absolutely NO means an exhaustive list (seriously, if you have any other healthy coping mechanism don’t be a stranger), but these are definitely some good ways to take that first step in my opinion.

Gardening and food as calming vessels for change

Going into the summer of 2021, I knew I wanted to spend as much time outside as possible after months of remote learning with months ahead to expect in the coming months. The answer was simple: gardening!

I was very interested in better understanding the interconnected relationship of living beings, so I would cultivate this kinship alongside Darij, another Environmental Studies major at my college. We had very minimal experience besides helping our parents garden back home during our childhoods.

Community gardening in Lancaster, PA in the fall of 2021 (Courtesy: The Greenzine)

We managed to bring in six to ten other students over the course of five months, stewarding over several hundred square feet of land. We grew most of the vegetables from seedlings that we purchased at nearby Lowe’s, but the majority of the herbs, and all of the corn and sunflowers you see above, were grown from seed. We bought our equipment from a local seed store utilized by farmers in Lancaster County called Rhorer’s Seeds.

We built raised beds to separate the crops from one another and utilized cover crops like green beans and winter rye to minimize water and maximize energy usage. Darij and I knew that it wasn’t the ideal way to run a regenerative garden, but we continued on and tried to do our best with poorly managed land and ecologically depleted soil with clay embedded in it. The list of vegetables and herbs we grew included watermelon, cucumbers, summer squash, green bell peppers, cayenne peppers, jalapeno peppers, cherry tomatoes, big boy tomatoes, sunflowers, corn, mint, rosemary, and chamomile.

The end result? Young adults, students, and environmental activists learned, through trial-and-error, practice and access to green space, the beginnings of how to be ecologically responsible land stewards. Looking back on the experience, I only wish I had more time to contribute to regenerative agriculture in the heart of farming country in southeastern Pennsylvania!

Learn and love what you’re fighting for

When the main focus of climate action is the fearsome implications of human inaction, it is easy to vilify one another and view each other as threats to our own individual well-being.

As a climate activist, I worry all the time about coming off as “too much” or focusing too much on how my friends recycle their plastic bottles rather than on systems change. Before spiraling into self-doubt, I try to remind myself of all the plant friends I have made along my journey as an ecological steward as well as the human friends across this world as a storyteller.

Hiking at Ricketts Glen State Park in Pennsylvania (Courtesy: Max Sano)

Researchers have proven time over time that there are numerous reasons to care for our non-human friends. First things first: without plants, there would be no breathable atmosphere for the rest of the biosphere, including us! Plants also are a force of good in everyday life, from medicine to food.

Not to mention that plants can contribute to people’s mental health. The human psyche prospers from the nutrients it draws from flowers and other forms of wildlife. Plants reduce stress and help those suffering from chronic health issues maintain a more positive outlook on life.

Finally, the presence of ornamental plants raises an individual’s capacity for compassion and enhances relationships with others.

Even though some may argue that these plants seem boring and useless since they are unable to move, they are vital to the health of not only you and me, but also all life on this planet.

Breathing never hurts!

When I was presented the second dan degree black belt in the spring of 2017 (Courtesy: Tracy Sano)

One of my go-to anxiety relief tools is just plain old exercise. As I transitioned back into my home city after graduating from college, I began instructing mixed martial arts at my childhood studio again in May and June. Teaching others was a cathartic outlet for addressing all types of fear, self-doubt and trauma. Lean into what drives you, what makes you happy!

Find a place that is familiar to you. Perhaps it's somewhere indoors, like your bedroom, or preferably outside at a park, on a roof, right outside your house or building. If you can surround yourself with some element of green, try to do so.

If not, please close your eyes where you are, and inhale for a few seconds. Sit with the energy and life you breathed in. Now let it go. Repeat this cycle a few times and you will definitely feel a little more in touch with the space around you.

Eco-anxiety is felt differently by everyone it affects, and for me it is something I continuously have to address alongside my environmental advocacy and research.



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