New Words for What We Feel

The virus from hell . . . the Earth speaking back to sloppy human greed . . . the suffering of animals in fire, flood, and hurricanes . . . the golden age of dystopian novels and film . . . welcome to our big world of worry now. Around the edges of crisis after crisis, new terms have been coming to the fore that fascinate me—evocative words, sometimes poetic, often cumbersome–though ultimately their effect is downright chilling.  They center on human emotions as we face dire planetary events.

None of these words are easy to love:  they call for a new view of the anxiety, grief and despair generated when one feels overwhelmed by current world crises, from climate change to coronavirus. Listen to these up and coming words with me, because later I’d like to ask you something.

Ecocide may be the most familiar of the bunch. Environmental destruction, but with a sinister twist: add the qualifier, “willfully done.” Some lament that ecocide isn’t formally designated an international crime. Think genocide, infanticide, suicide…this use of the prefix “eco”–often attached to denote something “green” and feel-goodly–makes me shudder.

The following pair, I promise, is not all dark. Informally scientists call our times the Anthropocene (Greek for “recent age of man”) epoch. Britannica explains it as the geologic interval when humans made a significant impact across the earth’s surface, oceans, atmosphere and chemical cycles—from 1950 to ongoing. Its more hopeful descendant waiting to be born is the Symbiocene epoch when, you guessed it, humans and nature reconcile, and we’re not worrying our heads off about the future of life itself.

Glenn Albrecht is a philosopher generating a batch of vocabulary so strange to the ear it makes my head spin:

. . . positive psychoterratic states such as topophilia and biophilia and . . . new concepts of soliphilia, sumbiophilia, endemophilia and eutierria. 

Wait—what? More from him in a moment.

This one is easy to relate to: pre-traumatic stress, commonly known among soldiers about to be deployed into combat. It is now used to characterize the anxiety of activists working on the front lines–to reverse climate change, for example. People without symptoms might know the feeling, as we hunker at home and worry for the COVID 19 pandemic to come knocking on our door.

Solastalgia (kin to nostalgia) is another Albrecht creation: the distress caused by environmental change that you yourself have personally lived through. Drought, hurricane, open-cut coal mining, devastating wildfires . . . he says it’s the feeling of being homesick while still at home and the landscape you love changes, often for the worse.

And there’s terrafurie: a form of anger explicitly directed at those who maintain the social and political status quo and do nothing to stop the Earth from being destroyed by humans. I know this one all too well!

How do these new words strike you? Do they add to your allostatic load? That’s the wear and tear on your nervous and endocrine systems from chronic stress. Do you think these feeling-states will ever become bonafide mental-health diagnoses? Should they? Or are they the word play of philosophers, leading us into creative thinking about Earth and emotions? But to what end?

How should the mental-health establishment respond to these feelings we have–with therapy and drugs, never speaking of the tangible dangers unfolding planet-wide, their focus only on “coping?”

Now from new words to simple words anyone can understand–on a bumper sticker. I bought it months ago because the stark yet comforting message grabbed me: We Are All in This Together. Superimposed on Earth floating in black space, I hoped it was the perfect line to reach anyone, no matter their views. So when I saw an article on mental health and coronavirus with the same title as my bumper sticker, I had to dive in.

Lucy Johnstone is a British critic of the way we do mental-health matters in the Western world. She challenges us to re-examine concerns about a pandemic-related, mental health crisis that experts warn will come. Yes, folks are anxious, sleepless, feeling trapped and depressed. But be careful, she says, of how this is likely to play out.

COVID-19 is extracting widespread terror and feelings of helplessness because the disease causes an entirely rational response to a major threat to our whole way of life . . . as a species. Doesn’t sound like mental illness to me. Sounds like my bumper sticker: we are all in this together. Says Ms. Johnstone:

(T)he more we label our understandable human reactions as mental health problems or disorders, the greater the temptation to focus on individual “treatments” instead—whether psychiatric or psychological/therapeutic. I have seen both groups eagerly priming themselves to receive all the new customers created by the crisis… [Johnstone, as a Psy.D, speaks as an insider.]

Instead of uniting us in solidarity, diagnostic labels isolate and silence us, and give us the message that we are not coping as we should be able to…

(D)iagnostic labels and the “mental health” discourse actually prevent us from dealing with the wider reasons for our distress, by disconnecting our responses from the threats.

Yes, but what about necessary compassion and the need to address our burdensome feelings? Dr. Johnstone says to focus on the problem of the pandemic through communities of action, support, networking, friendships and mutual care.

We are going to have to face the fact that this outbreak was not only predicted, it is the direct result of thoughtless industrial spread and consumer greed on animal habitats, driving them closer to us, exposing us to their microbes unfriendly. Yes, the pandemic is our fault, collectively—not that of the furtive Chinese or the filthy bat. A chief official at the United Nations spells it out here.

Now–how can we, together, fix the problem and heal? Dr. Johnstone:

Only a few weeks ago, someone who was too scared to leave the house in case they contracted a fatal disease, and spent most of the day washing their hands and wiping down doorknobs, would have been regarded as having a severe case of “OCD.” Now it is the description of a responsible citizen…Never was it more obvious that distress makes sense in context. Abnormal situations lead to unusual or extreme responses. If we are fearful, then so we should be.

Healthcare staff may be deeply shaken by the suffering they saw, but we don’t have to call it an outbreak of “PTSD.” People who have lost their jobs are likely to feel desperate, but we don’t have to describe this as “clinical depression” and prescribe drugs for it. The economic recession that will follow the pandemic may lead to as many suicides as austerity measures did, but we don’t have to say that “mental illness” caused these deaths.

I wonder what Lucy Johnstone would think about the new cache of created words and phrases to describe ways in which we’re falling apart over massive environmental change. She’s opened my eyes to the bottom line: no matter how compassionate or evocative, we don’t need new labels in the DSM (the diagnostic bible of the mental-health profession)—because no matter how new and fancy the terms, the end result is the same (drugs and therapy, stigma and the cloister of private experience).

Nonetheless I’m drawn to the efforts of ecologists and philosophers to challenge the old labels with new words that connect us in the hardest of times. Citing trauma-expert Judith Herman’s prescription of solidarity, truth-telling, and social action for healing “collective trauma,” Dr. Johnstone leaves us with this reminder:

“We need a new narrative of shared distress to replace the failed one of individual disorders.”

***

Amen to that. Side note, important note: run a search on all the press that Vitamin C and Vitamin D are getting as helpful fighters against the coronavirus. Those waiting for their new clients in the coming “mental health crisis” won’t mention the role that both these anti-viral nutrients have in addressing anxiety and depression, either. C plus D equals a win-win, and don’t overlook Vitamin A or powerful herbal antibiotics either. But that’s the subject of another post to come.

See you next time with “How’s Your Brain? Depends on Who’s Asking.”

9 thoughts on “New Words for What We Feel”

  1. Thanks for this Sue. I’m glad it made sense to you. The rise of ‘mental health’ as a synonym for ‘what we feel’ is, I believe, very dangerous, although often well-meaning. Our language is so important, and not everyone understands why. New ways of thinking and acting depend on critical evaluation of the words we are encouraged to use. Best wishes.

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    • Lucy, I’m so grateful for your response. I find myself struggling to find a new way to say “mental health” a lot, but it ends up being a shorthand we can all understand as a place to start, I guess. Just curious what you thought of the actual words I discussed, some created by philosophers and activists, and what do you think could be the impact on or use of these terms to the “mental health” field?

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  2. I am reminded of the words of Starhawk: “Where there is word, there is power.” Yesterday, as part of my Earth Day observations, I watched a newly-released documentary produced by Michael Moore entitled ‘Planet of the Humans’. Anyone can now view this on YouTube at this link: https://youtu.be/Zk11vI-7czE or simply go to YouTube and type in the title. Point is, after watching this frankly shocking and eye-opening expose on the ‘renewable green energy movement’ the word ‘Eco-cide’ literally lept off the page. I cannot think of a better term to use that just MIGHT wake up humanity to the true depths of our current crisis – and pondered if, indeed, we are witnessing the end of our species time on Gaea. The Covid19 pandemic has clearly demonstrated that Nature Herself will deal with humans if we cannot manage to control our desires and insatiable materialistic appetites.

    This goes back to an earlier comment: That our very way of life itself is an addiction, hence a form of mental illness. Denial of death, self-importance, obsession with acquisition, power and control over the environment and fellow creatures all points to the new terms in your article, Sue. I’m not sure exactly how the mental health community can utilize such terms effectively as tools to diagnose or treat irrational conditions such as you describe.

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  3. I am not a mental health expert by any means. And I surely feel health credentialed persons may help some people. I am leary of labels, it seems there is always a drug to follow. This blog post does highlight stressors that are beginning to plague our society. I wonder if it affects those already out of touch with nature and/ their bodies, even more than those who already commune with nature and/or are more self body and mind aware? Judith Herman sounds intriguing but her “social action for healing collective trauma” leaves me wondering what that means. I do not need to be spoon fed but like the ending side note about Vitamin C and D, both leave me wondering what the ultimate message of this blog is. I do love cutting edge researchers like Westwind and that will keep me coming back for more, especially a new blogging entrance by such a seasoned veteran.

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  4. Raymond, if there’s an ultimate message to this post it’s that there is an alternative path to what ails us that veers from drugs and psychotherapy’s sanctioned methods one-on-one behind closed doors. In the case of widespread distress about what’s happening to the environment, we need to watch out that these feelings don’t just become another “problem” that an individual is having. That deactivates solutions to sustainable global change and makes it the individual’s fault for being so sensitive, if not “dis-ordered.” To me, the potential of coronavirus solutions used already in China and in New York’s Northwell hospital chain, namely Vitamin C, and the Vitamin D studies in Spain, are another way of looking at alternatives we all could share–each of us has a neuro-immune system, and we don’t need a doctor to try these natural methods. As for being a word nerd hooked by every new phrase–notably from outside the mental health system–that describes the interplay between Earth-crisis and our emotions, I have no excuse nor certainty of the practical use in that.

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  5. Sue, you always amaze me, a simple minded person with very little knowledge of “mental health and healing”, with your ability to write in a way, on deep topics, that grab my attention and instill a desire to know more. New words? Novel idea to me, but there you go with ease. Your blog will be interesting and informative on many levels.

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    • You’re so kind, and thank you for reading! I’m glad to hear that the new words hooked your attention, oh ye of anything but a simple mind!

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  6. Your article is thought provoking. In its entirety it made me both sad and grateful. I can see the usefulness of new words for new observations. I am extremely thankful I am not feeling the anxiety of the virus as described here. I am calm knowing I am not in control. I take all precautions to protect others from me since I’m high risk. I have had such a full, loving and adventurous life and am totally satisfied. I have no regrets. I’m peaceful and I’m not letting go of that. Yes, I have bad days.
    I also see the words to describe observations of human behavior beneficial. There is a lot wrong with the medical and mental health systems yet in order to study behavior, labels are helpful to keep the students/teachers and helpers to be on the same page. I have been diagnosed with mental illnesses. Having a label helps me move in the right direction to offset triggers &/or decompensation. I have depression yet now when I feel it coming I take action to do what I can to turn it around. I do not believe people are labels or rather many labels combined.
    I would never call what we are experiencing PTSD. We are in the mist of major trauma right now. We do need new words in order to deal with a new reality we are entering. Survivors will come through this in many different forms. We will continue to need new words to describe how human existence has changed.

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    • Mary, I’m struck by your sensible use of labels: having the word “depression” helps you to take control. And yet you get that it serves no one if we start labeling individuals worried about coronavirus or climate change or the planet…and making them feel “sick” for their thoughts. Well said, all of it!

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