Eco-anxiety: tips during Mental Health Awareness Week

15 – 21 May 2023 is Mental Health Awareness week, and the theme this year is anxiety. We decided to write about eco-anxiety, something that many of us feel every day

Sadly, as many of us are aware, humans are causing extensive damage to our planet. We know that greenhouse gases are causing the Earth to warm, so far by a mean increase of 1.15C. And plastic waste levels continue to rise, taking centuries to degrade. Many of us feel very anxious about this. It’s easy to feel that, whatever we do or try to do individually, things will continue to get worse and that this is out of our, or anyone else’s control.

Last year, through the Open University, we both took part in Carbon Literacy training. Run by The Carbon Literacy Project, the aim of this training is to make people more aware of what’s happening and why, and using this knowledge to help us talk about it with others. The OU are offering all students and staff the opportunity to receive this training. See herefor more information, and hereto find out what people are saying about it.

For Mental Health Awareness Week, we decided to write a little bit about what we learned, and some positive things that are happening in the world around environmental issues, to show that it’s not all doom and gloom. The aim isn’t to pretend that everything is ok, but to empower you to do what you can, to influence who you can, and to provide some encouragement that we are not alone in wanting to get things done to solve the climate crisis.

Circles of control, influence and concern

Stephen Covey developed this method to help people understand and manage the things that they care about and perhaps feel anxious about. We all have things we can control directly, things that we can’t directly control but that we can influence, and things that concern us but that we cannot control or influence. If we break down things that we feel worried about into these categories then we can begin to focus on things that we’re in control of, influence where we can, and try to let go of the things we have no influence or control over. In terms of eco-anxiety, it can help us to focus on where we can make a difference, and to feel less overwhelmed by things we can’t control. This can hopefully reduce anxiety while also increasing our effectiveness.

With this in mind, we have broken down some environmental considerations into each circle.

1) Circle of CONTROL

Things you can do:

Recognise Greenwash, and know you have power!

Greenwash is where a company pretends they care about the environment to persuade us to buy their products. An example is an airline boasting about ‘low emissions’, when in fact there is no such thing as a low emissions airline. It’s important to realise that because we spend money we have power! They know we care about the environment, and that’s why they make such claims. So while what a company does and doesn’t do may seem more suited to the ‘Influence’ circle, we’ve placed it in the ‘Control’ circle because you directly control what you do and don’t buy; it’s your decision.

It's important though to recognise that some companies are trying to do positive things. So our tip is to be sceptical, but not too sceptical! You could figure out what’s important to you, and use companies that align with your values. There are certifications and labels to help you with this, such as those shown below. Again, we recommend investigating a little about what labels actually mean and the standards (if any!) a company has to reach to be able to use them.

the image shows the signs for: recycling, sustainable palm oil, soil association and certified B corporation.

Greenwash in advertising
Where you see an advert that just doesn’t seem right, you can complain to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). It’s quick and easy and can be highly effective, and we have direct experience in this. A complaint was made about a Ryanair ad in 2019 and in 2020 this complaint (along with those from many others) was upheld, resulting in the airline’s ads about low emissions being banned.

Food waste and diet
Did you know that 25-30% of global food produced is wasted? If food waste was a country, it would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gasses after China and the USA. But there are things that we can do about this, such as:

  • Make a weekly meal plan and stick to it. Think about what you have in your cupboards or freezer at home and use the things in them.
  • Do a shopping list for what you need for your meals, don’t be tempted by items on offer. The exception to the rule is to check out the reduced section in the supermarket for any good bargains that you can freeze and use later!
  • If you have some vegetables that won’t get used before they go off, freeze them. So many things can be frozen, sometimes they need blanching first to lock in the quality, but this doesn’t take long.
  • Check out food waste apps such as Olio and TooGoodToGo. Olio connects neighbours with each other and with local businesses so surplus food can be shared, not thrown away. TooGoodToGo is an app that local businesses use to sell soon to be expired food, at a much cheaper price. Costa, Subway, Pizza Hut and M&S Food are all companies that are part of this.
  • Meat and dairy products have higher carbon emissions due to the way that livestock are reared. If you can, try and aim for two or three meat free meals a week, and you might find some favourite recipes are just as good with meat alternatives. I maintain that Quorn chicken nuggets are better than real chicken nuggets! Lentils and pulses are a great substitute for meat and provide you with a good source of protein and fibre.
  • Have fun trying out different milk alternatives and see if there are any that you prefer. With the amount of meat and dairy alternatives there are now, there’s never been a better time to reduce your meat and dairy intake.

There are ways to be more environmentally friendly in what you buy, you have the power to choose! Here are some ideas for you to think about, and see if any of these plastic-free, more environmentally friendly options would suit you:

  • Swap out kitchen roll with flannels to wipe up spills. Chuck them in the washing machine when you’re done and reuse again and again.
  • Make do and mend! If your favourite top has a hole in it, sew it up. If your jeans get a rip, get some fun backing fabric and make it a statement. We have moved to a society where we think everything is disposable, we chuck it away when it breaks, but that doesn’t have to be the case!
  • If you do need some new clothes, look at charity shops, Vinted, DePop, eBay or Facebook Marketplace. It doesn’t need to be brand new to be new to you. You might be surprised at what bargains you can find!
  • If you’d like some more tips on how to reduce plastic then check out this article.

2) Circle of INFLUENCE

Within the OU and the Students Association there’s lots going on to minimise impacts on the environment. These may not be things that you can control directly, but they are things that as an OU student you may be able to influence by voicing your views where possible.

  • Fossil fuel divestment – The OU are committed to full divestment from fossil fuel businesses by 2023, as part of their net zero plan.
  • Go Green is a programme helping to reduce the OU’s impact on the environment by engaging and empowering staff to act on energy, waste, water and travel through behavioural change.
  • The Students Association has set up the Environmental and Sustainability Working Group. It is made up of Student Leadership Team members, student volunteers and Association staff, and was set up to recognise environmental and sustainability-related issues, discuss what the Association and University can improve on, create events and campaigns and much more. The group has developed an action plan to guide short, medium and long-term actions. To find out more about the group, what it is doing and what the plans are for the future, check out the dedicated page on the Association’s website and this article.

3) Circle of CONCERN

This circle is for things that you can neither control nor influence, and so it’s a good place for things you shouldn’t spend energy worrying about. But we thought we’d put in some positive things happening that other people are doing. Not all things we can’t control are bad!

This article was written by Charlotte Stone and Tom Mitchell, who both work at the Students Association.

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