Managing eco-anxiety: the beach clean

A mindful beach clean may just be one of the very best things we can do to boost our mental health when we’re experiencing eco-anxiety…

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So how could beach cleaning help you to manage your fears about the environmental crisis?

Well, years of clearing tiny pieces of plastic and brightly coloured “fishermen’s kisses” from my local beach have shown me its many benefits…

For starters, a beach clean is a relatively accessible activity that is both calming and productive. One that soothes our mental state, and helps us to process emotions.

Being by the sea, or near water , brings additional mental and physical health benefits.

And as we beach clean, we’re making a positive difference not just to ourselves, but to the world around us. All of these combine to give us greater resilience, supporting us to better manage our fears about the environmental crisis.

But if you don’t live by the coast, you don’t have to miss out – because many of the same benefits can be found by participating in any litter pick in a natural environment.

WE TUNE INTO OUR SENSES

On the beach, we’re surrounded by the soothing sights and sounds of nature. The wind, the sea, the crunch of sand, stone, seaweed (and sadly often, plastic), beneath our feet. We taste the salt on the air, feel the spray on our skin. Our minds soften in awe at the vastness of the horizon, the beauty, at all we feel in the presence of nature. Every single one of our senses is engaged – we are present, fully experiencing our life. Which moves us smoothly into…

MINDFULNESS

IMG_4164Consciously experiencing the present moment, becoming aware of all that we are feeling and thinking, without judgement, is a powerful tool for reducing stress and calming our minds.

This is especially true in a natural environment – even more so, when that environment includes water – as highlighted in Wallace J Nichols’ book Blue Mind.

But mindfulness isn’t all about peace and calm – it’s about being witness to the whole gamut of emotions, thoughts and feelings, light and dark. As we beach clean, we may experience challenging emotions and thoughts. In fact, the very act of observing and clearing rubbish forces us to engage directly with the negative impact of humanity on the natural world, which can itself bring up difficult feelings.

We might feel judgement and anger “what kind of person would just leave that there?”, hopelessness, “how can I ever make a difference when the problem is so vast?” and fear “what will become of the wildlife, the natural world, us?” All of these are valid feelings. And here, on the beach, surrounded by the beauty of the natural world – in an environment that encourages us towards a more mindful and peaceful state – we are more able to face these emotions as they arise. We can gently reduce our anxiety, make clearer choices, and build greater resilience.

PHYSICAL ACTIVITY IN NATURE

IMG_1435Being active in nature has many physical benefits.

In continuous movement, we energise ourselves, and release stiffness and tension. We breathe cleaner air – and more of it. We balance on uneven ground, with a different kind of spatial awareness.

The art of “picking up” is itself an art of many bends and stretches – I’m always aware of my well-stretched hamstrings after a morning of beach cleaning!

There is also a huge mental health benefit in movement in general – it’s a chance to move emotions through our body instead of allowing these to get stuck.

FOCUS

Scouring the beach for tiny pieces of plastic funnels our attention into one single focus. In a world designed to distract us, that’s a rare treat for our overstimulated minds.

Here, there are no phones, no manipulative marketing messages directing our attention, no push-pull of other needs. Just us, clearing rubbish from the beach, piece by piece. By doing so, we’re also strengthening our internal capacity for change – when we focus, we can progress and make a difference.

FLOW

As we make our way across the beach, we fall into a gentle mindful rhythm of seeking and collecting.

handful of beach rubbish

This action is both soothing and stimulating. Like the movement of water itself, it is familiar, repetitive – and yet diverse enough to keep us fully engaged.

We find a stumpy piece of orange rope, then a plastic wrapper half covered by sand, and a long strand of fishing line entangled in seaweed. Here, a piece of yellow lego. There, a sharp-edged can,  burnished silver.

Each find leads us to the next. And though small, each find increases our impact, building a growing sense of our own agency.

Performing these simple actions, we might move from being actively present into a state of flow – one in which we lose track of time, become absorbed in our activities, and as a result – feel more positive emotions.

WE SEE PROGRESS

While I’m not a big fan of cleaning at home (I’m more likely to drag everyone to the beach than spend an afternoon hoovering and sorting), there’s also a bit of a ‘Marie Kondo’ thrill to be found in clearing a small area of beach.

Whether we have been clearing one square foot of sand alone, or an entire beach with friends – we can see a difference.

may you be curious squareCURIOSITY

Traversing the beach as a ‘seeker’ of things, we may also be encouraging our mind to move from a fixed and more judgemental state into a more fluid and open state: curiosity. 

With this curious mindset, we’re more open to thinking and behaving in a new or different way – and for me, that has made me more able to explore how to access greater compassion for myself and others.

In and around the sea is where I have been most easily able to shift my mental state.

SELF COMPASSION

Kristin Neff describes the three main elements of self compassion as mindfulness, common humanity and self-kindness.  I’ve talked about the mindfulness benefits of a beach clean above, and below I’ll talk more about how it connects us to common humanity. So what about self-kindness?

Well, we can use the open mental state that we cultivate during a beach clean described above – to practice speaking kindly to ourselves as we clear the beach. 

289dc257-5a79-413c-a74e-2e9d44e55fb8My own journey towards self kindness is intrinsically linked to time in and around the sea.

It’s here that I cleared space in my head – quietened the inner critic, and began to speak to myself as I would a dear friend, or to my children – with encouragement and appreciation, forgiveness and generosity.

This shift was one of the key inspirations for creating Sea Soul Blessings – tools to deepen that practice when I returned home.

CONNECTION TO OTHERS

The joy of a beach clean spans the generations – it’s an activity appreciated by adults, and  by our children – many of whom are growing increasingly concerned about the impact of the climate crisis. (Though it’s probably not so great for babies who just want to eat sand, I remember that stage being quite a challenge…)

Common humanity is our awareness that we are not alone in our struggles. And as we beach clean, we often have a visual reminder of that. We see others around us, also beach cleaning, understanding how we feel, facing their own struggle and taking action. Together, we evidence another way to others – and before you know it, more people start to clear the beach.

loveday beach clean squareEmpowering group activities like these are a way to connect to our wider community, rippling out awareness and building relationships. They provide us with visible evidence of our power to make a difference – which inspires us to do more.

Connecting to others, and making change, we are empowered and encouraged. All of which helps to solve the very problem that we’re becoming so anxious about. Win win!

I so hope this inspires you to spend some time beach cleaning. For more info on existing beach cleans, check out organisations like Beach Guardian, and find or host your own local beach clean via Surfers Against Sewage .

A beach clean is a powerful reminder of all that we love and want to protect, that also strengthens our capacity to do just that. Let’s join together in making a positive difference as we soak up all the wonderful benefits of spending time in nature.

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