For nearly a quarter of a century, Cataraqui Conservation’s Senior Conservation Educator, Stana Luxford Oddie, has imparted her love and knowledge of the natural world to thousands of residents of all ages within the Cataraqui Region and beyond. She particularly loves the role she has played in the lives of countless young people instilling in them more than just knowledge of the wonder and fragility of the ecosystem but firing up their youthful passion to see nature loved, conserved and enhanced for generations to come.
With the finely honed observational skills that come only from many years of up-close interactions, Luxford Oddie began to take notice of a worrying trend for people of all ages, especially young people, expressing more and more concern and trepidation around topics such as climate change, species extinction and the general state of our planet.
Reaching out to several sources, Luxford Oddie pulled together information on what some in the psychiatric community have termed ‘eco-anxiety’ for a recent presentation to the Limestone District School Board’s Environmental Sustainability Committee, for which she is the current community co-chairperson.
What follows is an interview with the long-time educator and conservation advocate about the reasons for her interest in the subject, and what can be done to help those struggling with strong negative feelings, especially children and youth, over climate related issues.
Q – You have said that you started noticing an increase in anxiety over climate related issues a few years ago. How were you tipped off that this was becoming a problem, especially amongst young people?
S – When people would come out for a field trip, or before guiding a forest therapy walk, or some other programming, I was noticing an undertone of concern for the state of the earth. I would notice in their conversations or questions, just the odd comment of worry that would come up, and it was happening more and more.
Then during the pandemic more people were at home, more people were online for longer periods of time and there was so much content in the news and in social media about things going sideways when it came to the earth and climate change. If I had to pinpoint one key demographic where it was most common, I would say younger people, children and youth, who are asking ‘okay, what’s going on here?’
So that’s what inspired me to take a closer look to do some more research on it. I am not an expert in psychology, I am just really curious and concerned because of the line of work that I am in, and also just being a human being on this planet who wants us all to move forward in a good way.
Q – How would you define eco-anxiety and what are some of its manifestations?
S – Eco-anxiety can be defined as the deep fear of environmental doom and human catastrophe. From the reading I have done, eco-anxiety brings the same sort of symptoms as any form of anxiety, which might include panic attacks, insomnia and depression. Every person has different triggers or strong emotional responses for their anxiety, but generally when it comes to eco-anxiety people are worried about how all this negative climate news is going to impact on daily life and fearing for our survival as a species as well as other species on this planet. Seeing all the doom and gloom on the news and on social media is overwhelming them.
I think there is a huge disconnect in our culture between human beings and the other beings around us. Where you have a disconnect that’s when those strong and potentially anxious feelings can crop up. And it’s true for so many people: it’s hard to do good work or live your best life if you’re in a challenging state. So, if you’re experiencing anxiety, it’s really hard to be grounded and centred and try to move forward. That’s why I have been exploring this topic and trying to understand it a bit better.
What I really noticed through my research was the importance of having space for people to connect and talk about their fears and concerns. To have conversations facilitated by someone who can provide a supportive, open atmosphere where all voices are heard. And then asking the question, ‘okay, how can we move forward?’
Q – In developing the various education programs offered by Cataraqui Conservation, as well as your trailblazing work in developing the Forest Therapy Program, you continually emphasize the importance of connection, grounding and centering oneself in nature. Talk a little more about that and how it can help people struggling with eco-anxiety.
S – Starting off, we want to move from that anxious state, or it being the sympathetic nervous system, and move from a state of stress to relaxation. Taking time to unplug, go out in nature, out on the land and perhaps take time to slow down and sit with a tree can shift people into a rest and relaxed state in their parasympathetic nervous system. Nature has a way of calibrating us to the present moment. When you are present, you’re calm and grounded, which means that you can now think straight and are more likely able to make positive choices going forward.
For some people, that’s really challenging and that’s why I encourage people to go on a forest therapy walk where you have a guide to support you in slowing down to tune into what is around you with your various senses. Taking a walk in nature, maybe at one of our conservation areas, with friends and family, and also being in that place with people who you feel comfortable talking to about these concerns and fears can be nourishing and supportive.
Q – What do you say to people who are trying to do the right thing for the environment, but are still battling this eco-anxiety?
S - When you are relaxed you can be more creative and come up with different ideas. One thing that I have also come across in my research is that sometimes people feel so overwhelmed because of the complex systems we have designed as humanity. They’re saying, ‘okay, even if I am a vegan, it’s still impacting on this part of the earth.’ Everything is interconnected, so I think it’s really important to do small steps and be kind to ourselves and celebrate the little steps we do take.
It's why I circle back again to going out on the land and keeping up those sorts of practices because there are a lot of people who are really into activism and making a lot of changes in the community and in their own lives, but they’re also burning themselves out. So the question is, how do you make progress from a place of wellness?
Q – One of the things that you have done personally, which seems really simple but profound, is changing the way you refer to the things around us in the natural world. Talk a little more about this and how it’s help you.
S – It’s still about circling back to the sense of relationship with the planet, the idea that it’s a living being as well, so I shifted my language. I don’t refer to the trees and rocks and water around us as resources or things. I have learned from the Indigenous elders in our community to call them relatives, and I most often refer to them as friends or beings as well.
For me, it is about cultivating a mindset and a paradigm shift. There is some serious stuff happening such as climate change. Our humanness and our complex systems have forgotten that relational piece with the planet and the other beings on it. And that’s why rain forests are getting chopped down and that there is global warming and species are going extinct and all these crazy things are happening. But the root of it is that our way of being and interacting with the earth is predicated on thinking that we are at the top of the pyramid. I love the concept that we’re all on this planet, this big orb in outer space and we’re all connected on it, with every being, and every being, every part of it has a role to play and deserves our attention and respect.
Q – As it relates to school kids, what are some things you could recommend that teachers and the students themselves could put into place easily right now?
S – I feel that It’s important to stop and value nature outside the four walls of the school - more than just recess, but intentional time outdoors connecting to the earth is integral and the curriculum can be enhanced as part of the school day for all ages, including staff, to take time to go outside and be quiet for a bit and just notice the beings around you, the sky, the grasses, trees right in your own schoolyard and neighbourhood. Like any relationship, the best ones take time and space. I would recommend building into the day some time for an outdoor sit spot. There is scientific evidence that supports taking a break outdoors can increase attention, creativity, relieve stress and enhance mood. And in our society that is important.
Then the second recommendation is to have spaces, clubs or groups where teachers and students can share their concerns and then come up with manageable projects to support building relationships, connection, and respectful and caring steps for the earth, starting at home, school and community.
Luxford Oddie completes our interview with this quote:
“Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street to a sacred bond.” -- Robyn Wall Kimmerer
To learn more about the practice of sit spots, see our Nature Time with Pine sit spot challenge article at https://cataraquiconservation.ca/blogs/2022-news/nature-time-with-pine-sit-spot-challenge.