It might sound unusual to call Mother Nature my therapist. However, she plays an integral role in helping me sustain my mental health.
Ours is a symbiotic relationship. I found meaning and purpose in life through taking care of the planet we share after horrific trauma left me with severe complex PTSD (CPTSD). Here’s why prioritizing sustainability improved my mental health.
My Journey Into Existential Psychology
My story, unfortunately, isn’t an unusual one in American society today. I became sick with mysterious symptoms that derailed my career. Medical debt coupled with ongoing care needs caused me to lose everything — including, quite nearly, my life. Only a last-minute surge of outrage kept me from becoming yet another death of despair.
However, I had to find meaning in life if I hoped to escape hopeless depression over my circumstances. I’ve always cared for environmental causes such as supporting the biodiversity of our oceans and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental activism became my reason to live, along with advocating for health care reform.
Existential psychology heals by helping people find meaning and purpose in their existence. It gives them something greater than themselves to keep them going through the darkest of times.
Helping the planet became a way to heal me. It may sound odd, but I felt an even stronger kinship with the earth after becoming sick. Like me, Mother Nature desperately needed help. She was being ignored, raped and exploited by those who cared nothing for her, only how they could profit from her.
Every piece of litter I picked up on a hike became a way to comfort myself, too. I’d mentally talk to the planet, saying things like, “I’m so sorry people are so careless to you. You deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, not a garbage dump to be mistreated. Here, let me help you.”
I was also speaking to my soul. In my darkest hour, I had no support system — I had to become my own. I talked to nature the way I wished someone would talk to me: I nurtured her the way I longed for someone to care for me.
The improvements in my mental health didn’t happen overnight — I’m still working through the healing process and probably will be for years. Everyone’s journey of trauma healing takes a different timeframe, and unfortunately, the complex nature of what I experienced means I still have a lot of therapeutic heavy lifting to do. However, I’m getting better every day, and that encourages me to keep going.
5 Things You Can Do to Improve Your Mental Health — and Your Carbon Footprint
You don’t have to have a psychologist to begin reaping the benefits of prioritizing sustainability to improve your mental health if you share a similar trauma history and concern for the planet. I, of all people, understand the struggle to obtain healthcare. However, the following five practices should help you feel better.
1. Let Your Desired Identity Drive Your Decisions
Who are you? At my worst, I saw myself as nothing more than a broken human being with nothing of value to offer society. I thought it was better if I wasn’t around.
Note: if you have thoughts of self-harm, please reach out to the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255 or text “start” to 741741.
However, prioritizing sustainability helped me see myself differently. I envisioned myself as an environmental activist. With that as my identity, I made choices that aligned with that value, like stopping to pick up a discarded water bottle on the trail. Each little act of goodness I performed strengthened my self-esteem. Acting in alignment with your desired identity will help you feel better.
2. Seek Out Small Ways to Boost Your Ego
You don’t have to go on a mission to stop whaling vessels to make a positive environmental impact. Keeping a recycling bag in your car instead of discarding pop bottles in roadside trash bins is an excellent way to reduce your carbon footprint and cut down on plastic that chokes marine life.
3. Connect With a Like-Minded Group of People
Loneliness contributes to mental illness, but your symptoms can also create a vicious cycle. For example, depression often causes people to shun social activities that they later beat themselves up for not attending. In my case, the reality of my physical impairments made it challenging to meet others who shared similar interests. However, befriending equally passionate environmentalists on social media helped me feel less alone.
4. Volunteer for Causes You Feel Passionate About
If the pandemic taught folks anything, it’s that you can’t replace in-person contact. How can you find your tribe if you’re sick and isolated? I did it through volunteering. Fortunately, my condition results in me having good and bad days — I take advantage of the good ones to participate in trail cleanups while meeting new friends.
5. Use Your Mission to Keep Your Mental Health on Track
This final tip goes back to existential psychology. Let’s face it, folks, the planet is in crisis. We can’t afford to lose a single eco-warrior. When your darkest days hit, remind yourself that you play an integral role in the most vital mission there could ever be — saving our life-giving home.
Prioritizing Sustainability Improved My Mental Health — Can It Help You, Too?
In my darkest hour, prioritizing sustainability improved my mental health. Perhaps finding your “why” in environmental activism can help you on your road to recovery, too.
Kara Reynolds is the Editor-in-Chief and founder of Momish Magazine. Bio mom of two kiddos & stepmom of two kiddos – normalizing blended families is her ish. She enjoys peeing alone, pancakes, and pinot noir.
Image courtesy of Monica Turlui.