PODCAST: What On Earth? Episode 6: Taking Care of Yourself and the Planet

Earth Day Special!

By Molly Lowney and Jennifer Ng | April 22, 2021 2:21pm
by Jennifer Ng / The Beacon

Jennifer Ng  0:00  

Hey there, welcome to our Earth Day special. 

Molly Lowney  0:03  

While April 22 is Earth Day, a day specifically dedicated to celebrating our planet and raising awareness about environmental issues. Everyday should be Earth Day, right, Jen? We should always be thinking about our planet. 

Jennifer Ng  0:16  

Definitely Molly. Climate change is one of the biggest issues right now. And both personal habits and systemic change are really important aspects of a well rounded solution. We need to be voting and eating less meat and traveling less thanks pandemic consuming less, or at least being more aware of what we are consuming and where it comes from. 

Molly Lowney  0:35  

We also need to be having tough conversations. People are going to push back on how much action we take, and what that looks like and who was involved and who makes the calls. Fighting for the environment means fighting for everyone. In order to have effective environmental policies, there needs to be justice and inclusion. 

Jennifer Ng  0:54  

Molly, I don't know about you. But sometimes even just thinking about this stuff, all of the work that's left to do, how far we need to go to get back on track makes my head and my heart hurt. 

Molly Lowney  1:05  

And that kind of gets into what we talk about with our guest, the emotional work that goes into being a champion for the environment. 

Jennifer Ng  1:12  

Yeah, something that I wasn't aware of when I decided to major in environmental science was the emotional work. As a science major, I was expecting the numbers and data and analysis, but I definitely wasn't as prepared for the effect processing that information would have on my mental health, like the anxiety because of how uncertain The future is. 

Molly Lowney  1:32  

I completely agree. Emotional work is not talked about enough in the world of environmental studies. We're forced to confront some pretty grim realities. And it can be really paralyzing to think about our future. 

Jennifer Ng  1:44  

And it's not just environmental studies, students who have to deal with this. Everything is so tightly tied to climate now. It's an issue that's on almost everyone's minds. So it's something we're all collectively having to deal with. 

Molly Lowney  1:56  

And right now, it's not even just about processing climate change, from the pandemic, to the Black Lives Matter protests, ice storms, mass shootings, and more environmental issues on top of that, it's a lot to process. And yet, we're here still expected to go about our lives with school and work and managing responsibilities. 

Jennifer Ng  2:17  

Yeah. And so if you're feeling like this, have been feeling like this, don't worry, because you are definitely not alone. 

Molly Lowney  2:24  

We are all feeling frustrated, angry, sad and isolated. Right now it can be exhausting to think about the future, whether you're thinking about climate change, or what you're going to do after graduation, or how you're going to get through the last few weeks of classes. 

Jennifer Ng  2:39  

All of those emotions you're feeling are valid, the grief, fear and anger, but maybe also the hope. 

Molly Lowney  2:45  

So today, we're going to talk about emotions, the emotional work in the environmental world, and what we're all feeling due to the pandemic, as well as advice on how to process and deal with your mental health.

Jennifer Ng  3:04  

You're listening to what on earth a podcast from The Beacon. I'm Jennifer. 

Molly Lowney  3:08  

And I'm Molly, and this is a podcast where we look at climate change and environmental issues through the lens of current events. 

Jennifer Ng  3:16  

So we're here with Dr. Saturn from UP's psychology department. Would you like to introduce yourself a bit? 

Sarina Saturn  3:23  

Sure. My name is Sarina Saturn, my pronouns are she her hers. I'm in the department of psychological sciences as an associate professor. I'm also a part of Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and helped co chair the search to get ethnic studies off the ground, too. 

Molly Lowney  3:41  

That's great. So I guess we'll just kind of jump into it. So first, we wanted to start off with talking about emotions when it comes to environmental issues like climate change. When people hear about the environment in the news, a lot of the time it's not good news. And looking at the past year, we started off with major fires in Australia, we ended the year with fires in California. So we were wondering if you could talk a little bit about emotions within the context of living through and even studying the environmental crisis. 

Sarina Saturn  4:18  

Oh, such an important issue. Yeah, the past year has been so exhausting and depleting for people all around the world. And there have been so many emotions, and a lot of what we've been experiencing is grief, and this kind of sense of helplessness. We have lost so much and it almost seems like it's almost too much to bear because it's just one thing after another and it can be very isolating as well, right? Because it's a little harder to gather and to grieve together and to organize together as well. 

Sarina Saturn  4:53  

And yes, the past year has been very taxing emotions as something that I've been studying my whole career and the old notion is that they are interfering with cool collected thought and for reasoning. But we now know that emotions are functional, they've basically evolved to serve us to show others when we're mad when we are wanting to build social connections, when we're sad as well. But what I feel like the past year has really been is kind of traumatic, and that's when the emotions just get haywire and overwhelming. And that can lead to a sense of learned helplessness, a sense of grieving, a sense of depression. And so it's been a very, very challenging time for people all over the world.

Molly Lowney  5:41  

Some terms that have come up, I know, in some of my environmental studies classes are the ideas of like eco anxiety and climate grief. It's a unique term. And I feel like it's emerging, in a sense, into like, the environmental space that we're talking about it. So could you maybe elaborate on those terms and kind of talk about like, what emotions are tied to it? And maybe why people are feeling that way? 

Sarina Saturn  6:05  

Absolutely. I just want to honor both of you for being student activists, because I remember, back when I was a young adult, that it wasn't the term of eco anxiety, but we're definitely feeling it when we're understanding about climate change, and the impact it's having on the livelihoods and survival and the well being of people all around the world. 

Sarina Saturn  6:27  

You know, broadly defined, eco anxiety can be defined as this chronic fear of ecological environmental disaster. People around the world are just becoming more anxious right about all of this impact. I pulled up the American sociality, psychological association kind of definition, where it's a chronic fear of environmental Doom, a source of stress caused by watching the slow and seemingly irreparable impacts of climate change, unfold and worrying about the future oneself and not just for our future, but our children's future and our grandchildren's future, and just the subsequent generations. And really, this loss, this helplessness and frustration, do this inability that we feel like we just really can't make a difference. 

Sarina Saturn  7:12  

And I think things have changed a bit in the past few years, where there's just so much in social media. And so it can be this barrage, and especially with the Trump administration kind of rolling back like hundreds of rules related to air pollution and emissions, drilling and extraction, infrastructure planning, animals, water pollution, substance, you know, toxic substances safety, it was just never ending. And I, I felt that, that you eco anxiety too, this never ending barrage of bad news. And that can just lead to so much like helplessness and despair and just so much worry. 

Sarina Saturn  7:50  

You know, sometimes anxiety is used as a term for pathology. And so it is kind of tricky. And I'm a neuroscientist by training. So some of these, you know, terms from the diagnostics can be a gray area, right? Because, you know, there's no pathology if you are worrying about legitimate things that are happening to the world around us. And so I think eco anxiety is a cool term. But I guess I just don't want it to be kind of a pathological term, because we should all be very, very worried about the state of our of our world. 

Jennifer Ng  8:24  

The fact that we are all worried about the environment is the reason we should be talking about our emotions, way more than we do. The emotional toll of working and like working in the environmental field and constantly thinking about these issues, coming face to face with them. I guess, Molly and I kind of know what that emotional work looks like, from I guess your perspective, I guess, what do people mean, when they talk about emotional work? And why that's important? 

Sarina Saturn  8:51  

That is such a great issue. Thank you for that question. Because it does take work. And sometimes it can lead to a huge impairment on one's well being. And that's kind of where we do see, you know, the term anxiety used when it's keeping you up at night, when it is having a huge impact on your mental health. When you feel like you can't do anything, and it's just leading to just like, learned helplessness and deep depression. And so one of the best things is to do what you all are doing is that activism, right. And I think you're right, like, you know, like the best things to do, but I think it's helpful for people just to think how they can be proactive. 

Sarina Saturn  9:32  

And not only does it help make a difference, because sometimes it feels like I sign another petition, is that really gonna do anything, but it also helps one psychologically, because when we're just kind of lying in bed at night, just worried about, you know, climate change, and all of these things happening, it can really help us go to sleep if we actually do something. And so you know, there's so many great things you can do. 

Sarina Saturn  9:58  

I have a lot of hope now that Michael Regan is going to be the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, and to have somebody that has this long career and environmental regulation, air quality, clean energy, so I'm feeling a lot more hope these days. And I'm clinging on to that. Because as we know, a new administration isn't necessarily going to change things. And COVID-19 did have some positive impacts on the environment, but they're not going to be long lasting. So it's kind of this balance of being worried just enough to not be complacent. But to not be overworried and to cling on to the hope. 

Sarina Saturn  10:37  

And of course, as you know, we're all nature buffs, right. And sometimes just connecting with nature and reconnecting in nature is just a beautiful reminder of why we care so much. And so that's really great stuff. I mean, I love forest bathing myself, I even have like a mock forest in my office. Because it's just so cleansing for, you know, one's spirit and one mind. And so I think that's a great way just to help people understand that the world is still so beautiful, and wonderful and precious. And so this is why we're protecting it. 

Sarina Saturn  11:08  

Also curating your sphere of influence, like you all are doing right you there are a lot of naysayers and climate change deniers. And so a lot of what we follow on social media can really help our mood. So I even had to do this, because it was just like one piece of bad news, like, after another every five minutes, I'm like, I can't, this is not good for my mental health. So I've tried to kind of follow social media groups, that are doing a lot of environmental activism, a lot of QTBIPOC activism, because it feels more inspiring when you see people connected, who are on the same team, so to speak. And that can be really opening for your own emotional well-being. 

Sarina Saturn  11:49  

And oftentimes, when we're in emotional stress mode, we kind of kick into survival mode, and the self preservation impacts. And so when we're in that mode that hijacks our problem solving, and it allows us to kind of live in the state of emergency. And it's helpful in that it gets our heart pumping, and our muscles mobilized to do something. But if it's too stressful, then we kind of just like buckle down and like seize in fear and just have a, you know, a panic attack, and just be consumed with worry. So one of the best things you can do is just to kind of practice these tools of self care and mindfulness. And that allows for that calming, and that allows you to be more proactive and to engage your prefrontal cortex. And the kind of shut down your amygdala is like, Okay, I'm going to do something now. 

Sarina Saturn  12:40  

Because another thing that happens when we're in survival mode, is this binary, black and white thinking, like, oh, the world is just doomed, there's nothing we can do. Or, you know, it's just like, you know, everything's burning or freezing, and it can just be, it feels like Doomsday. I mean, I get in those states as well. So sometimes just a step back, okay, the world is not ending today. And there's so much we can do and just understand that that all or nothing thinking can really get in the way of like problem solving and true activism. And, you know, we're taking back the power, which is really exciting. 

Sarina Saturn  13:17  

And so now that we have great people in office, because part of me is like, okay, things are going to be at least really good for the next four years. But what's going to happen if someone comes back again, and rolls back, you know, over 100 other of these regulations, but well, let's get this momentum moving forward, at least, you know, I was glad to see like Biden's first day in office, he was doing stuff, and then I'm excited to see the new directorship in the EPA. So a lot of it is just kind of taking it back, and also giving it back. So joining communities, you know, doing those petitions, canvassing, voting with your wallet, all of these little things can seem insignificant, but those petitions matter, those protests matter. All of these campaigns and printing new policies. So finding out where you can interrupt or intervene in the system can be really good for mental health and actually, activism. And you know, not all of us are marchers, let's say, and not all of us are policy writers. So a lot of it is just to champion those who are good at things, you know, and donating to a cause voting with your wallet, but also finding like what you are good at, you know, if you're good at social media, or if you're good at communication, you know, use your skills for good and don't feel like you have to do everything. But you can also just join this community when we're all doing something. 

Jennifer Ng  14:47  

That's such good advice. All those are such great points. I really liked, as I was listening to you talk I was thinking about solidarity, and how you mentioned like right now it's really hard for people to come together, and you know, process together and grieve, I was just wondering if you had anything to say on like how important it is for people to, you know, be together as much as they can right now, and show support for one another. And why the environmental movement needs the sense of like, collective inclusion. 

Sarina Saturn  15:25  

Yeah, because oftentimes, if we're in the pits of despair, anxiety, and depression, can be so isolating, and that can really prevent us from connecting with other people out there. And yeah, some of the best things you can do is to go out there and kind of find all of these social groups, maybe online that you can join, but also take time to join communities that are about emotional care, and wellness as well. 

Sarina Saturn  15:57  

One thing that has been really powerful to me is someone who has been through a lot of loss and trauma is that we're all kind of in this together and building this common humanity, in grieving together and processing together, like it's okay to be mad. It's okay to feel helpless. But it is important to find community and to build bridges. And if you can't, and to find things that are uplifting, and if you can't find it, because a lot of us were kind of seeking and grasping, especially during COVID, make it and people will show up. And that's what's so beautiful, because it's all intersectional, environmental justice, racial justice, rights for the LGBTQ plus population, like it's rights for women, you know, it's all about the human condition and celebrating each other. And so that really helps when you do these things to build community because it helps bring down that othering, right, like it's in what group that we belong to, like, we're all a part of this human condition. And we're all suffering. And so that can also build a lot of perspective taking, and kind of understanding the other. 

Sarina Saturn  17:10  

Because sometimes if you get a little bit caught into extremist thinking, it gets really, really hard to find that balance. And I've kind of found myself in that trap, where people were like, well, Biden, and Harris are not perfect, and they have all these flaws. And I was like, Yes, but it doesn't even compare to what we just went through. And so let's work with what we have in front of us to do the best that we can with that, and understanding that we might not see eye to eye on everything. But we do see eye to eye on this, there's hope for compassion. And some of my work has been about compassion for humans. But I had one student who was a lot like you two, who wanted to look at environmental compassion. And we did find that the people who care about the environment are the same people who care about their fellow human being. And so understanding that compassion is universal. And not just for people, but also for your environment, and how to cultivate that compassion is something that I've been really, really passionate about in my both research and outreach. 

Molly Lowney  18:18  

So one question that I had is that we talk a lot about coping with emotions, coping with trauma. But we don't always talk a lot about healing. So I would ask, my question is, do you have any advice for like, in the moment dealing with kind of all the emotions of this year environmental and even outside of environmental because we've gone through so much in the past year as a world. So dealing with and then healing from these mental health struggles related to the environment and other outside forces. 

Sarina Saturn  18:53  

I'm so passionate about this too. What an important point, because I love to give students coping skills because they've helped me survive thus far. And these coping skills can be everything to from building your mindfulness muscles to learning, like the power of organizing to cognitive behavioral therapies, and it in these things that lead to this place of a kind of acceptance, like there's going to be another raging fire, there's going to be another ice storm, right? And there's going to be all these natural disasters that are disproportionately impacting the people that are already hit so hard by COVID-19, by environmental racism. 

Sarina Saturn  19:34  

So one thing about coping that I've learned, we call them exercises because they do kind of require like upkeep, so to speak, because I had to go to when I was going through intense trauma and healing, I had to go to like meditation boot camp for speaker all day all night for weeks just to kind of get my center to get myself back. But that allowed me to kind of sink into these like mindfulness minutes like that. And I do notice if I'm slacking, it's a lot harder to center myself. And so a lot of this of what I encourage is just to keep up with it. 

Sarina Saturn  20:11  

Another coping strategy is really good is like, working with cognitive distortions, because it is so easy to catastrophize, especially if the world is falling apart is like freezing and burning everywhere. But just to have these kind of like, reframing strategies, so that it's not just oh, my God, the world is ending, this is terrible. But it's like, Okay, what can I do now to kind of rethink this, so I can be more proactive with my coping. And so there's a lot of skills to try. 

Sarina Saturn  20:42  

Another thing about coping I would like to convey is that what might work for you today may not work for you in two years from now. So my coping skill set has evolved over the years. And, so it's great just to try everything, like when I was going through intense trauma, I tried it all, you know, meditation, the cognitive behavioral therapy, the massage, the dancing, acupuncture, you know, just to try it all, and realize that, you know, something's really resonated with me then. And then some of those things I've stuck through all through these years. And there's also new things that I've been picking up along the way. 

Sarina Saturn  21:23  

I'm so glad you mentioned healing, because coping is very much for like the here and now and like the immediate aftermath, so to speak. But people do get stuck with their healing journeys. I myself did, especially when I was holding on to past traumas that happened many years ago, coping strategies don't do a whole lot at that point. I mean, they can really help you. But sometimes we need to revisit the past that bit more to kind of rework it and to reframe what happened. And so a lot of this does involve a lot of community processing, a lot of talk therapy, and a lot of finding, kind of like, the resilience in it all, those silver linings. I started my career studying the neuroscience of trauma and depression and anxiety and I still do, but kind of moving on to studying the neurobiology of healing has been really helpful to me in helping me kind of reshape how I think about the past, to help me kind of not fall into that past thinking for too long. And it's not this escapism to deny what's happening, because that's really harmful too where we're just like, well, la la la, everything's fine, you really have to go to those dark places. But you have to kind of build up your coping skills so that you can return and do that healing, because it does involve a lot of activation and post traumatic stress disorder. 

Sarina Saturn  23:01  

But something that we're studying a lot now is resilience and post traumatic growth and post traumatic growth, we think of like that trauma did sink into your bones, but you're able to reprioritize and I have been so inspired in my own healing journey, but visiting people who have endlessly inspired me, we had a study where we brought mom, babies and grandmas in the lab, and I was all about the babies, but then I was like, Oh my gosh, these grandmothers have so much wisdom. And they've been through so much. And a big part of their healing journey and post traumatic growth is reprioritizing what's important to you really holding the relationships that you love dear to cultivate those relationships. And it's not about having like, you know, you know, a million people liking what you're posting, it's really about the small group of people that got your back and have your love. And also it helps you have some more meaning and, and some of the most inspiring things I've seen from studying resilience opposed to medic growth of people who have learned some really tough lessons by what they've gone through, but founded as a way to make the world a better place. And that's why students like us, inspire me, like even a podcast makes a difference. And having these really important conversations is everything. And it helps kind of re galvanize, like, what to do with your future and where can your gifts and your talents be best used out there in the world, which is, I think, a really beautiful thing because if you don't go through hardship, and if you don't have these difficult conversations, it can be really dizzying, like, What do I do? So I just really commend you for having these difficult conversations and being student activists because this is everything to make the world and better place not just for us individually and coping with these awful emotions, but how can we build community and actually have things transform.

Jennifer Ng  25:09  

That was really beautiful. I loved everything you just said. For our little bit at the end here, we just want to zoom out a little bit. And so thinking about everything that's happened this year, the pandemic, the election, the protests for black lives on top of that, like homework, and midterms. So there's a lot going on in our daily lives right now. And so I guess, if you could pinpoint a general like stepping stone, like for people who are very just like lost and overcome, right now, where is like a good starting point for processing all of this?

Sarina Saturn  25:49  

Come to Active Minds, we meet on Wednesdays at 730. And we're here for all the things and if you do want to do something dedicated to climate change, or environmental racism, we'd be all over it, because it kind of tried to meet the needs also recommend just to build community. And it's kind of a pickle, right? Like, when we are so depressed and anxious, that's usually when we're least likely to reach out and be social. But just to see how important that is to find like hearted people that can do something

Sarina Saturn  26:21  

You too could kind of do, what I try to do is make yourself a resource when people like, I have a million tests and papers due, but I want to help, what can I do, and it's like, Here are five ideas, pick one, and just know that you're doing something to make things better. And this is great for you. And you know, I'm a big fan of just processing and talking because sometimes if we try denial or escapism, the ugly head of the reality is like looming over our heads, and you can't even concentrate or work on that paper or study. And so sometimes it is important just to unplug, take a walk in nature, decide what you're going to do, or write a list of a few things that you can do to move forward. And then get back to work. 

Molly Lowney  27:06  

Our last question to wrap it up just any lingering like thoughts or points you have or advice that you have for students, but also for other professors or parents, in terms of just embracing emotional work surrounding the environment and surrounding the emotions of the past year. 

Sarina Saturn  27:28  

Yeah, because I have noticed that people like you two can experience compassion fatigue, because you're so concerned. And all of us are so concerned for each other and the well being of the planet. And so I think some of my parting words might evolve around, revolve around self care, look out for yourself. And it seems like a cliche, but you know, they do tell us to put the oxygen mask on ourselves before putting on the person next to us because it might seem self indulgent. And I noticed that students especially can be so hard on yourself. So if you exercise self care, self compassion, that really allows us opening to cut yourself some slack. But also, it frees up a lot of this emotional energy to take care of yourselves to take care of the planet. So it's not self indulgent to do self care, even it's just to unplug, take a bath or take a nature walk. That is actually really good for your emotional well being, but it'll also make you be a better student and a better activist.

Molly Lowney  28:43  

You can keep up with What on Earth on Spotify, anchorFM, Google Podcasts and upbeacon.com. If you would like to submit a topic or questions for future episodes, go to upbeacon.com and click the story idea button on the right hand side of the page. 

Jennifer Ng  28:59  

Thank you so much for listening to this episode of What on Earth. We really appreciate you. Keep asking questions.

Molly Lowney  29:06  

 And take care of yourself. Remember every day is Earth Day.

Jennifer Ng  29:14  

Special thanks to Dr. Saturn for appearing on this episode. This podcast is brought to you by The Beacon hosted and produced by Molly Loney and Jennifer Ng, and music is for freemusicarchive.org.

Jennifer Ng is the Opinions Editor and a photographer for The Beacon. She can be reached at ng21@up.edu.

Molly Lowney is a photographer for The Beacon. She can be reached at lowney21@up.edu.

Dr. Sarina Saturn is an associate professor in UP’s psychological studies department. She can be reached at saturns@up.edu.