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Getting to the roots of ecological anxiety with David Segal


Ecological anxiety is a new diagnostic label describing a complex of physical and emotional symptoms related to existential dread and despair around the state of the environment. Extreme weather events like wild fires, floods and hurricanes in combination with politicians slow walking meaningful change is causing many, especially young people, to give up on a hopeful vision for the future.

In this episode of Awake In Relationship I speak with returning guest David Segal, therapist and co founder of Human Nature Counselling, a not for profit society with a mission to provide accessible nature based therapy for youth and adults. This conversation explores some of the unique challenges we face as humans living through the Climate crisis and identifies common physical and emotional symptoms of ecological anxiety and grief. We also discuss proactive ways for processing the collective trauma of the climate crisis and finding the will to take action in community and our innate connection to the natural world.

Show Notes

If you enjoyed this episode with David Segal on the topic of eco anxiety and grief you might also enjoy episode 016 The work the reconnects with Trina Woods


Episode transcripts

intro 0:09
You’re listening to Awake In Relationship, a podcast about intimacy, community and culture in a time of great change with Silas Rose.

Silas Rose 0:40
Hello friends, my name is Silas Rose and welcome to another episode of Awake in Relationship. And the Turner supporting COP28, the UN conference on climate change is just wrapping up. While we’re still waiting on the final report from over 10 days of intense negotiations among the member states participating, it now seems that the needle really hasn’t moved very far on the climate crisis file. It’s really easy right now to feel somewhat cynical, or disheartened, especially when petro states hold so much power at the table. sHaggling about whether we should be phasing out fossil fuels really seems like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. But hey, I’m just a lonely podcaster with very few levers to pull in this regard. The problem is when it comes to the climate crisis or other big existential threats, it’s really starting to feel like the adults have left the room. The absence of meaningful change or competent and trustworthy leadership is innately anxiety producing. Which brings me to the main point of this episode. The legacy news do more than adequate job of covering the various extreme weather events we’ve had lately. What doesn’t get alot of air time is our emotional response in these events. According to a recent Lancet study, over half of North American youth experienced some form of persistent depression, sadness, or anxiety related to climate change. With any emotions, there’s a tendency to personalize ecological anxiety, as if we were the only ones experiencing it. So I feel it’s really important to talk about it. In this episode of AIR,I speak with returning guest, David Segal, who’s a family therapist, and also co founder of Human Nature Counselling, a not for profit, with a mission to make nature based therapy more accessible to youth, and adults. In this conversation, we’re talking about some of the unique challenges we face as humans, living in the Anthropocene and adapting to a rapidly changing climate. We also discuss how to recognize some of the physical and mental symptoms of ecological anxiety, and some daily practices drawn from nature based therapy, fror regulating our nervous system and staying connected in uncertain times.

David Segal, welcome back to making relationship.

David Segal 3:40
So glad to be here with you Silas.

Silas Rose 3:45
So we’re doing something a little bit different this time. I usually do my recordings on Zoom, but since we’re in the same town, we’re doing it live at our co workspace. You were actually one of my first recordings back in, I think it was October of 2020. At that time, you were just launching or about to launch your nonprofit society. So maybe for new listeners, could you just give somebody an update?

David Segal 4:23
So Katie Rose, co founder and myself, had been working in the community in the mental health for the last decade or so. And we saw this need for barrier free mental health supports. COVID took such a toll on everyone’s mental health, as well as obviously physical health and just all the change and uncertainty that came with that time. And we’re still seeing that reverberating in our communities, in terms of how it’s showing up in people’s nervous systems. And we really wanted to be able to offer a service that was different, that really looked at the embeddedness of human beings within our ecological world and removed the financial restraints from accessing quality mental health support. So in 2019 was when we became a not for profit society, and we became a charity in February 2023.

intro 5:27
Wow, congratulations. Thank you. It’s a lot of work.

David Segal 5:32
Yes, a lot of work. And we served last year over 700 people. And you know, that number just keeps growing. We have an incredible team of 22 staff clinicians who are deeply passionate about bringing about a life affirming world where people can thrive in a planet that thriving

Silas Rose 5:53
This conversation is really quite timely. You know, here in BC, we just went through the biggest wildfire season on record. There’s obviously a lot of change happening on right now. Are you feeling the heat David?

David Segal 6:08
I don’t think there’s any way to not feel the heat unless you are doing a lot of numbing. I think Joanna Macy calls it psychic numbing. And I think there’s also a time and place for that, given just how intense things are. So yeah, most certainly, you know, I really liked the work of Thomas Homer Dixon who talks about tectonic stressors. And there’s just so many right now, whether it’s global conflict, climate change, environmental degradation, the rising gap between rich and poor. There’s just so many on so many levels, I think that systems are being strained. And we’re at these breaking points where, because of positive feedback loops, things can just kind of accelerate at a pace that surprises everyone. So yeah, I think we’re all in it together. And that’s also where I think hope lies, because human beings are truly incredible at adapting. And when we can work together, amazing things can happen, in my opinion.

Silas Rose 7:10
I really feel like the youth are kind of the canaries in the coal mine in this situation, Apparently. I think it’s like 44% of teens, presumably, in America, and I’m sure it’s not that different here in Canada. Experience a persistent sense of doom and sadness around the state of the world. Is this something that you’re recognizing more more of in your practice?

David Segal 7:41
Just reflecting on all the different people that come knocking on our door for support, and I would say that how it’s presenting to us isn’t in that language, how it’s presenting to us is a meaninglessness, a feeling of lack of worth self worth the amount of times that people or young people are talking about their life having no no meaning, and that they themselves don’t feel worthy is heartbreaking. And I think about how, how is it that people come to see themselves as lovable and capable, it’s in the eyes, the caring eyes of their loved ones, the adults surrounding them. And if the adults are stressed, and if the adults are being pulled in, in a million different directions, then they’re not able to keep reflecting back that, that, that joy and that delight when they see their loved ones. So yeah, most certainly young people are struggling, and they end up showing up in anxiety, and hopelessness. And when I think we can create space for them to talk about what’s going on. This is fear this while we’re talking about ecological anxiety, so this anticipation of this terrible outcome, which in their minds is I can’t see a future with the way things are going. So it’s quite complex, but it’s it’s definitely there.

Silas Rose 9:06
And of course, its not limited to young people. Something I’m all kind of experiencing on some level. I think the term eco anxiety, it’s not really a kind of an official diagnosis, per se. But it’s being used a lot more by health professionals. What are some of the kind of common symptoms, physical, mental, emotional, people might be experiencing?

David Segal 9:34
Yeah, when I think about ecological anxiety, I like to think of it as any type of anxiety which is a response, a physiological response that the body’s having, too. And the brain is essentially forecasting some uncertain future that seems intolerable in terms of the outcomes that may happen and kind of it feels out of control and so on. It can also it can be a motivator. Anxiety can be a motivator to make change, it’s a response, right? So our body’s saying, hey, wait a minute, this thing might happen, I’m not sure how it’s gonna unfold, I want to prepare myself I want to get insurance safe. But then on the other hand, it can also be debilitating because it can, the brain doesn’t tell time in the same way that our amygdala, the part of our brain, that kind of processes fear doesn’t tell time in the same way as our frontal cortex. So it’s as if these horrible things are happening in the moment, even though we might be sitting in you know, in this case, in this beautiful co working space. But if we’re really feeling into the pain and destruction that could come from runaway climate change, our nervous system doesn’t know the difference. And so the symptoms would be very similar to any type of anxiety, it would be racing heart rate, vary, the challenge to sleep challenges with sleep, concentration becoming more difficult, and just the sense of of unease kind of a tightness. And it’s kind of like there’s no safe place to be.

Silas Rose 11:16
So you have been giving some talks recently, which is one of the reasons why I want to bring you back on attachment theory, as a way of understanding or working with uncertainty. What what is that connection?

David Segal 11:33
One of my teachers Dr. Sue Johnson has done incredible work, in terms of bringing attachment theory to kind of a more public audience. And essentially, she says we are social bonding mammals, our best way to navigate uncertainties is close connections. That’s how we’re wired. That’s how we’re designed. And it’s because of the fact that when newborns come into this world, they’re so vulnerable. And they need the attentiveness of adults around them in terms of their survival. And so that attachment system that forms between the parents, or the adults surrounding the caregiver surrounding the child, goes throughout the life from cradle to grave, it doesn’t go away, you know, transfers to anyone that we bond with any place that we bond with, that same attachment systems going so what that means is when the places that we are connected to bonded to the people that we are connected to bond to are in distress, we feel distress. And when we she says suffering is inevitable, but suffering alone, that’s what’s intolerable. And so when our nervous system can feel that we’ve got people around us, and she John Bowlby was one of the founders of attachment theory, he spoke about the stronger wiser one. So this is being that has us that has our back that we can count on that we can fall into their arms and be caught. That when we can collectively create that for ourselves, in the center of a building a community that we can all fall back into our nervous system can relax.

Silas Rose 13:10
Part of the anxiety and this for me really is that it feels like the adults have left the room, literally, We are grown adults living in this world, in a society, but our politicians are really, in some sense kind of slow walking any kind of meaningful change around the climate crisis. So there is this kind of parallel between, you know, early childhood development, our experiences in early childhood and what we’re going through now.

David Segal 13:43
Yeah, in terms of not having the confidence that those the people that are that have been elected in this case candidate to to govern, our people aren’t seeing that they are stepping into the role of stronger wiser one. Yeah. So that would create that sense of urgency that the problem is not being addressed. And and I think there’s these larger societal, structural challenges in terms of how human beings are navigating the painful emotions that come with really looking at what’s going on. And I think that one of the best, or one of the ways that people cope with distressing emotions is avoidance, and short term fixes. And we see that as being kind of what perpetuates a lot of addictions is, is there’s something intolerable and people are doing the best they can and they, they try to get away from that discomfort. And so the question that comes up to me is how can we collectively start looking at what the problems are really facing them, feeling them and it can be very overwhelming to feel, the fear, the ecological anxiety, the grief that comes with all the destruction? Just recently, I was talking to a friend and she was talking about our wilderness spaces as being In a ghetto for wildlife now, human beings do our development has, has relegated the, the rest of the biome to to a ghetto, which kind of hit me quite hard in terms of thinking about that the other millions of beings are living in kind of substandard conditions for their ability to thrive, and

Silas Rose 15:27
Every generation, has some version of the apocalypse kind of imprints in, you know, in their psyche. I’m older than you, I’m Gen X, and your are probably on the cusp, but you probably remember the Cold War and fear around nuclear annihilation. That was really kind of transmitted through both the news and also popular media, like movies like the Day After Tomorrow, and even the Terminator, which, you know, definitely kind of shaped my worldview. How do you think the current mainstream media is covering the climate crisis?

David Segal 16:16
I don’t think I’m the best person to answer around an analysis of the media. However, I do know that our consumption of media, it needs to be really looked at carefully in terms of how it impacts us, because the media is just so it’s so accessible now. And it’s so filled with images that evoke such visceral responses, and that I do think it’s important to be informed. However, I think that in terms of caring for ourselves, and our ability to navigate these challenging times, that ensuring we we tried to carefully in terms of our consumption of media, and also recognizing that there isn’t like the media is telling a certain story. And so what are the stories that aren’t being told? You know, are there stories of resilience of hope? Are there stories of just some of the other narratives that are being lost in terms of all the different things that are happening in this moment?

Silas Rose 17:16
I’m appreciating your your hesitancy around commenting on the legacy media, because that in itself is kind of controversial. And especially after COVIS there’s a lot of mistrust. In legacy media. And a lot of people are kind of going to alternative platforms. And that’s both wonderful, but also kind of scary, because there’s really no vetting the information that’s that’s shared there, there is no fact checking. What I’ve really noticed, as a result there, there’s this kind of return of what may be called climate denialism. Joanna Macy, the eminent Buddhist author, and deep ecology thinker has written a number of wonderful books, particularly around the work that reconnects. She really focuses on the importance of touching into the grief that you mentioned, as sort of the first step in the process of getting to acceptance and then to action. Can you talk a bit about that process?

David Segal 18:31
Yeah, so I had the privilege of working with you in a Macy back in maybe about a decade ago. And it was incredible. She was a guest here on the Korean territory, and she came up and for us, for about 15 days, we spent time looking deeply at her work, and the spiral that she moves people through in terms of how do we go from feelings of despair to empowerment, because really, there’s this curve between a relationship between despair and empowerment, and despair can really be thought of as times of fatigue, and then how do we move ourselves through that into back into places of empowerment and action. And for her, it starts with actually gratitude. It starts with gratitude because to go into the grief is too much without some good footing. It’s almost the equivalent of looking at the raging river rather than being in it, if you can have some ground to stand on. And if you can have the bank, then you can assess the river. And in terms of the grief work that she is a proponent of, and many others are as well as Francis Weller. He speaks about grief as not something to be fixed but something to be tended to. And that when our hearts can actually be given the space to feel their love, for life, their love for this earth, their love for all the beings that we share this planet with. Like that’s the other side grief. And so to create space to honor our grief and honor, our pain is actually allowing us to step into our interconnectedness, which is a powerful, powerful experience. And it’s the complete opposite of when we’re psychically numbing, cutting ourselves off feeling isolated. So brings me back to that attachment piece around our connectedness, our bond adness. That by creating space, where we can hold our grief, following some sort, following a platform of gratitude, it’ll transform us. And so that then becomes the next stage in her spiral around seeing with new eyes. What does it mean now that we know we can collectively hold this pain together? And that it changes us and transforms us? And that’s where it leads to active hope and going forth. So what’s the next step? How are we going to take this energy, this love, these feelings, and put it towards the world that we want to see?

intro 21:12
How’s that different from passive hope?

David Segal 21:15
I think Joanna is a realist. And she she’s been doing this work for a long time, it started actually in response to the fears around nucular proliferation and the Cold War, where people were just devastated, obviously, at the distraction, and the fear of further distraction. And so, hope, can be defined in numerous ways. And often people will, when they’re feeling hopeless, they drop into despair. And so in that context, hope is something you have, it’s like, I have hope, no, I’m feeling motivated, versus I don’t have hope. And now I’m falling into despair. However, what Joanne has noticed is that if hope can be seen as a verb, it’s something we do, then we were less likely to fall into that trap of either having it or not having it because we don’t know she says, we don’t know what the future has in store for us. Yes, it could get worse. But it also could get better. The same way that with a lot of these positive feedback loops, where things are kind of building compounding themselves, like the permafrost melting, which releases more global warming gases into the atmosphere, which then heats up the world, the same thing can happen in the positive way, in a virtuous way. That if we can slow down the permafrost melting, more carbons pertained there stays cooler. So there’s, she says that there’s so much possibility. And so in the face of so much at stake, why not move in the best way we can, with active hope?

Silas Rose 22:58
What’s giving you hope right now.

David Segal 23:00
I feel very fortunate to have this organization that I’m a part of. And every day, I feel inspired at the work that me and my team are doing. I’m completely inspired by the youth of today. Greta Thunberg has just one example. I was reading a book recently of her conversation with the Dalai Lama. And they were talking about the climate emergency and it was just so it was so inspiring to see the two of them talking as well. There’s so many examples of indigenous resurgence. Rueben George, he’s from the Tsleil-Waututh Nation, he just wrote a book called It Stops Here about the trans mountain pipeline ending in his territory, which is just outside of what’s known as Vancouver. And his book is beautiful, around healing. It’s around reconnecting to the land. It’s around working on intergenerational trauma and how all these pain points are connected at that, so many people are doing this beautiful work to bring about a world that’s life sustaining. So actually, there is a lot of hope for me because I don’t have to look far to see things that inspire me.

Silas Rose 24:21
Wonderful. Well, thank you for the work that you do. If people want to learn more about nature based therapy or Human Nature Counselling where should they go.?

David Segal 24:31
We’d love for you to check us out. Go to our website, humannaturecounseling.ca. We also co authored a book with Dr. Stephen Harper, Nature Based Therapy. And yeah, we’re just trying to do our small part.

Silas Rose 24:46
Awesome. Thanks again.

David Segal 24:49
Thanks Silas.



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