Mind over milieu

Experts are marking eco-depression in young people more than ever before making pulling back from digital access, addiction, and overload, an urgent need to check eco-anxiety, writes Vandana Kohli
Last Updated : 03 June 2023, 19:15 IST

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On a shoot, several years ago, I witnessed an aircraft pilot undergo training for extreme heat. Sealed in a heat chamber — a tiny glass and metal capsule — he was exposed to temperatures as high as 50 degrees Celsius and above, for as long as he could withstand it. He was beaded in sweat. Soaked, he sat still, not a muscle moving.

Our Planet is warming. That milieu is here and to confront this reality, our eco-anxiety gets spiked. Eco-anxiety is on the rise with the thought that we might be hurtling towards doom. Young minds, naturally eager to look to their future with hope, are depressed at the prospect of inevitable climate change and its effects. Experts are marking eco-depression in young people more than ever before.

How would heat affect us immediately in body and mind? Studies show that it alters our physical and cognitive abilities. An increase in temperature forces the blood to flow to the skin, to cool it. With blood distributed peripherally, central blood volume declines and cerebral circulation reduces. Our cardiovascular functions are strained and our brain is under stress. We experience discomfort, physically and mentally. When hot, we are bothered, and more.

In the heat of the moment

Leonard Berkowitz, an expert in aggression studies, cited three fundamental causes that most often drive us to anger — hunger, fatigue and heat. When people are experiencing decidedly unpleasant and hot weather, he said, they are much more inclined to be aggressive and indeed more angry. Ask a lady, in the throes of a hot flush!

Heat can push us over the edge of civility. Watch how road-rage spikes in the summer. Deadly fights arise over parking in our crowded, frenzied, heat and dust-ridden, urban lives. Our mental poise is shattered. Our bodies react strangely, causing adverse reproductive outcomes. In men, sperm counts can plummet while in women, pre-term deliveries can occur. The social, cultural and economic effects of displacement, are too many to list. Women and children are left most vulnerable. Violence, abuse and crime increase manifold.

How may we cope? Could we prepare ourselves, in accessible ways, to reduce our anxiety? What part may we play towards likely solutions in a small measure?

One step within reach is to identify triggers to our own anxiety. A top trigger is information overload. We already know that while it is good to have the world and all its news at our fingertips, an overload of information can be counterproductive. However significant the event is, to be doused in negative news from all corners of the world can squash us to inaction. We lie deadbeat, crushed under the weight of all that is going wrong every moment across the world. In effect, it distracts and detracts from our own reality.

Silencing the mental chatter

With us hooked to our phones, we are consumed with images of an event, far away and forget to participate in our own time and space. Ironically, it is here, and now, that we can change to affect change. Pulling back from digital access, addiction and overload is an urgent need to check eco-anxiety. Is it possible? Is it even plausible that young minds, especially teenagers, averaging eight hours and 40 minutes of screen time a day, can consider chucking their phones to calm their nerves?

Jo Ellison, a journalist with the Financial Times, recently wrote that her teenage daughter had deleted TikTok from her phone. She said ‘it was a waste of life’. Ellison further mentions the Luddite Group, a bunch of teenagers in Brooklyn who’ve switched from smartphones to simpler flip phones. They meet once a week in a park to paint, read and talk politics. They are talking to their parents, she informs us, and are learning to observe. The real world, they imply, is turning out to be more interesting than imagined. That’s key in quelling anxiety. The ability to observe. Watching things for what and how they are, stalls unnecessary brain chatter. We give ourselves the chance to quieten down. The act of observing roots us firmly in the here and now. By default, we are brought back, from our mental meanderings to the present moment. These teens are doing just that.

Finding calm in the chaos

Additionally, meeting with others as a group, in real space and time prompts a reality check. Interacting with people acts as a mirror to know things closer to the truth. Am I truly as articulate/awkward/easy/good/bad/open as I believe I am? Am I listening? And growing? Or am I stuck in a wheel of anxiety from all I think the world expects of me, or I expect from the world? These stubborn loops of the mind, get a break when interacting with friends and family, or colleagues and people you like and trust, or are curious to get to know. Interaction prods us to apply ourselves in the present. Provided we get off our phones, at such times. Which is tricky, but an absolute must. We haven’t really begun talking about the costs of digital. What we think is a cloud, is not. It is massive hardware fundamentally consuming enormous amounts of fuel energy for it to run on. Every second we buzz it with our flighty, flippant messages, we bring ourselves a step closer to the edge of disaster.

Ours is no longer a world of abundance. Digital is a tool, meant to be used for work, with discretion. And so we can decide, if we wish to pull back a little — to send one consolidated birthday/congratulatory message, on behalf of the entire WA group to the recipient, (instead of individual messages one way, then responded to, then acknowledged); to play less video games; to swipe less. It will prod us towards the stance we need in the face of change or probable threat. It will grant us quiet moments, for us to calm our insides. To be aware and still.

This is what saw the pilot through the intense heat-training exercise — a focused, practised, stillness of mind. Unruffled by an extreme environment.

(The author is a writer, filmmaker and entrepreneur.)

Published 03 June 2023, 19:12 IST

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