Published April 17, 2008
Sarah Edwards worries about the gasoline she burns, the paper towels she throws out, the litter on the beach, water pollution. She worries so much, it literally makes her sick.
"Fear, grief, anger, confusion and depression," Edwards says, pointing to the negativity that has manifested itself in real-life symptoms such as neck and shoulder pain, fibromyalgia and fatigue.
"I had so much pathos. It's so sad," says Edwards, who moved from California's crowded Santa Monica to a secluded cabin in Los Padres National Forest to help her cope.
Now, she says: "We only drive to the grocery store every three weeks. We have our own source of water. We compost and no longer heat every room on the first floor."
Edwards suffers from eco-anxiety, the growing angst experienced by those who can't handle the thought that they — or anyone — are in some way contributing to global warming, species extinction and dwindling natural resources.
She recently launched a blog called "Eco-Anxiety" because she believes environmental dangers should be taken seriously. "This is severely disturbing," she says.
Experts say discussions about the environment — a growing favorite topic in the media — often focus on worst-case scenarios and ever-dwindling resources. So it's no surprise that all that bad news is taking a toll on some psyches.
But not all psyches. John Berlau, author of "Eco-Freaks: Environmentalism Is Hazardous to Your Health," said eco-anxious people need to get a life and get the facts about the environment before freaking out.
"It may put their mind partially at ease knowing that not all experts subscribe to these apocalyptic views," he said.
Things have gotten so bad, a new kind of therapy has sprouted up to keep people from going nuts over the environment.
It’s called "eco-therapy" or "eco-psychology." The time on the couch isn’t spent delving into a patient's childhood to find the source of misery. Instead, it looks at how much time a person spends in nature, the person's carbon footprint and what the individual is doing to save the planet.
And the prescribed treatment may be as simple as a dose of recycling or — you guessed it — hugging a tree.
Sound like a joke? Ecopsychology, popularized in the early 1990s by social critic Theodore Roszak, is being taught in colleges and universities across the country, including at Harvard Medical School.
Linda Buzzell, founder of the International Association for Eco-Therapy, said the field is so new that there are few statistics to indicate how many practitioners are using the techniques, but the Web site for the International Community for Ecopsychology lists more than 100 eco-therapists in the United States.
Buzzell told FOXNews.com in an e-mail that due to increased awareness about the environment with films such as Al Gore’s "An Inconvenient Truth," more people are attuned to "our challenging environmental situation." She said it is "making more and more therapists and clients aware that there is no such thing as human mental or physical health separate from the health of the planet."
The American Psychological Association has no official position on the merits of what it calls an emerging field.
But some health care professionals say eco-therapy is more of the latest in a line of money-making gimmicks targeted at the environmentally conscious, an industry estimated by the green group Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability Association at $228 million a year, and growing.
Melissa Pickett, an eco-therapist in Santa Fe, N.M., who says she treats dozens of patients a month, said sometimes she has to tell extreme greenies to chill out for their own good. "The global warming craze will cause your clients to go into extremism fueled by fear," she says.
And with eco-therapy around, that extremism can get expensive. Eco-therapy can cost as much as traditional psychotherapy, upwards of $100 an hour. There's a lot of green in being green.
But Pickett said eco-therapy helps those grappling with feelings of helplessness and hopelessness about the environment.
"People break down and cry. They develop obsessive-compulsive behavior. They have nightmares," Pickett said. "And these are normally high-functioning people."
She pushes her eco-disturbed patients to take shorter showers, turn off lights and computers, consume less, buy less and learn as much as they can about global warming.
Berlau wouldn’t say whether the eco-therapy would be a bad practice or not, but he cautions eco-anxiety could signal larger psychological problems that won't be solved merely by hugging a tree.
"People can have anxieties about all sorts of things. If someone genuinely has a phobia about the environment, then seeking treatment may be helpful to them. My only advice would be to seek treatment from a regular psychiatrist or psychologist rather than someone who claims to specialize in eco-therapy."
Berlau agrees that busy Americans often are isolated from nature but said sometimes all they may need is a good old-fashioned hike in the woods. "I would say, just go camping and turn your SUV into the outdoor vehicle it was intended to be."