Greening Our Minds to Save the Planet

Shaping psychology to address eco-anxiety, eco-grief, and extinction illness.

Posted Nov 04, 2019

Public domain photo by veeterzy via Good Free Photos
Source: Public domain photo by veeterzy via Good Free Photos

Every day, therapists and counselors around the world are confronted with clients suffering not just from anxiety, but eco-anxiety, suffering not only major depression, but eco-grief and extinction illness—symptoms and issues that fall outside psychology’s conventional purview. [1,2] Are these conditions so different from the past? Yes.

The challenges psychotherapists face today are very different. For instance, how do you address a client’s profound anxiety generated by watching the vast Amazon forest being destroyed? How do you categorize the paralytic grief of a client who witnesses mass suffering and slaughter of turkeys, chickens, pigs, and cows in conveyor belt warehouses? And what do you say to a child who has suicidal ideation because she doesn’t want to live in an apocalyptic world where every trace of nature has been erased and filled with lethal skyscapes and robotic humans? Or a teen watching how elephants are not only going physically extinct, but—subjected to artificial perpetuation in zoos and relentless killing in the wild—are becoming psychologically extinct. [3] Elephant in body, but not in mind.

These are the kinds of issues and questions therapists increasingly face. Problems and solutions come from a very different existential and social paradigm than what conventional psychology has drawn from in the past. Jungian analyst Jerome Bernstein discovered this years ago in an encounter with one of his clients. [4]

“Hanna” had been coming to session for years. On one occasion, she tearfully shared how, on the way over, she had driven behind a truck carrying two cows to slaughter. She was overcome with grief about their treatment and suffering. Well aware of Hanna’s history of sexual abuse, Bernstein began to relate Hanna’s emotional response to the cows with her childhood experience of abuse. “I pursued the standard approach of suggesting that she was projecting onto the cows, i.e., how she saw her life circumstance in the plight of these cows. She went along with me for a time. But then she protested in frustration: ‘But it’s the cows!’ I pointed out to her that her response was an identification with animals she experienced as abused. She acknowledged the truth of my interpretations. She began to talk about all the animals in the world that exist only as domesticated beings and their sadness. And again she burst out: 'But it’s the cows!'”

CC0 Public Domain via pxhere(dot)com/en/photo/458723
Source: CC0 Public Domain via pxhere(dot)com/en/photo/458723

This was a life-changing moment for Bernstein. Hanna’s desperate insistence for the analyst to hear and understand what she was really saying jarred him. Bernstein realized that what she was talking about resonated with his ongoing work with Navajo and Hopi healers.

“These men were teaching me a new way of looking at life. I realized that there were people whose involvement with nature was completely different from the utilitarian, often adversarial if sometimes sentimental, attitude toward nature that had characterized the western mind for thousands of years. For the Navajo, religion and healing are the same. The psychic connection with nature is the source of—and at the same time is inseparable from—spiritual and physical health. Illness is a ‘disconnection’ from one’s psychic roots.”

From then on, Jerome brought what he came to call a “borderland” approach to his practice and life with the understanding, “Everything animate and inanimate has within it a spirit dimension and communicates in that dimension to those who can listen.” Borderland individuals such as Hanna, “personally experience, and must live out, the split from nature on which the western ego, as we know it, has been built. They feel (not feel about) the extinction of species; they feel (not feel about) the plight of animals that are no longer permitted to live by their own instincts, and which survive only in domesticated states to be used as pets or food.”

Today, as healers of the human heart and mind, psychotherapists are called to understand their clients and symptoms in a much broader way. Eco-anxiety is not a condition peculiar to a specific time, place, and individual. It is tied to and rooted in the primal trauma of humanity’s split from nature. This means that our clients are not only those who come to session. Our clientele includes nature and all beings. Helping human clients heal includes the reciprocal healing of nature, what ecotherapist Linda Buzzell calls “Ecotherapy Level II.”[5]. In turn, to effectively support and address the needs of their clients, psychotherapists are called to cultivate minds and hearts that reflect a paradigm based in nature, to green their own minds and practices.[6] As we enter this brave new world, psychology and other healing arts emerge as forerunners and leaders that can guide us toward a green and healing future for humans, animal kin, and the entire planet.

References

[2] Metzger, D. (2019). Extinction Illness: Grave Affliction and Possibility. Tikkun, 3 January 2019; Retrieved 2 November 2019.

[3] Bradshaw, G.A. (2019). On psychological extinction.

[4] Bernstein, J. S. (2006). Living in the borderland: The evolution of consciousness and the challenge of healing trauma. Routledge.

[5] Buzzell, L. (2016). The many ecotherapies. In Ecotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice. Palgrave Macmillan. Retrieved 1 November, 2019.

[6] The Kerulos Center for Nonviolence. 2019. Greening your practice: Bringing Nature into mental health services.