What is environmental stress, and how can it affect you?

What is environmental stress, and how can it affect you?

On World Health Day, April 7th the World Health Organisation focussed global attention on urgent actions needed to keep humans and the planet healthy.  They don’t mince their words: “The climate crisis is also a health crisis”. 


Climate change affects your health

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) “air pollution kills 13 people every minute causing diseases like lung cancer, heart disease and strokes” and affects the lives of many more people every day. 

Climate issues cause stress and that’s not just the climate anxiety that many of us are experiencing (a topic for another blog). Climate-related issues like air pollution have a direct impact on your body and health. We see such issues as environmental stress. 

We always talk about health in all three dimensions: physical, mental and social. To align with the theme for World Health Day, we’re focusing on the social and in particular the environmental aspect of your health in today’s blog. First though, here is the video released by the World Health Organisation to support the promotion of World Health Day, spotlighting the impact of climate change on health, in case you want to know more. 


What is social health – environmental and social stress?

The social aspect of your health is about three things: 

  • Your health-care: Knowing how to access and navigate health-care, read labels on medications, be assertive about your medical needs. It’s also about the level of health-care available to you.
  • You in the world: Your experience in the world, so that’s in terms of the quality of your relationships, both professional and personal, and factors like your ethnicity, education levels, finances and such like.
  • Your environment: The physical environment you’re in, for example certain occupations are more vulnerable to certain diseases, and that applies to certain parts of the country as well.

Stress is a response to a situation where something is not ok, either there’s a threat or something is lacking.  Think of it as the body’s overdraft facility.  So when one or more of the factors above are not ok, or there’s a threat, your body goes into a state of stress. If the factor causing the stress doesn’t ease and the stress becomes chronic or even allostatic (the body is now stuck in the stress state) your health suffers.  

Note: We also talk about social fitness and social atrophy which you may be interested in, check out our blog series to learn what is social atrophy, how to reverse it, and more.   


Change starts with awareness 

When you don’t know what you don’t know, you don’t know.  This may sound idiotic but it’s absolutely true.  You can not change anything until you realise that something needs changing. Yaani came into consultations because they were struggling with pain, fatigue, stress and anxiety. They didn’t have a diagnosis of anything but their symptoms were now so severe that their ability to work was being affected. 

As we started to work through the information that the symptoms were giving us, it became clear that one of the main body systems affected was Yaani’s respiration, or breathing.  Breathing is vital to life, vital to your health and when breathing is limited or restricted it can cascade into other systems in the body with detrimental effect. 

Yaani got the hang of the ABC First Aid for Feelings technique (Awareness – Breath and Body – Choice) pretty quickly and developed the skills to make more helpful choices and improve their self-talk. After making good progress with aspects like anxiety and some reduction in pain, fatigue and stress, they got stuck.  

Getting curious and doing some sherlocking, we realised two things: 1) environmental factors  were preventing further recovery  and 2) some of Yaani’s behaviour patterns were not unsustainable.


How the environment is making you ill

When we got curious about the physical environment that Yaani was living and working in we discovered a significant clue. Yaani lived in the borough of Westminster in London, which is one of the most polluted areas in the city. The impact of this environmental stress, that is the air pollution, on their breathing and their body was significant. With the help of a great doctor, Yaani was fast-tracked to the asthma clinic and given medication to support their breathing.  


What’s within your control – or circle of influence 

Directly affecting change to the air pollution levels in London was outside of Yaani’s control so they started looking at what was within their circle of influence.  They realised three types of changes that would improve their health:

  • Quick ways to reduce exposure to air pollution – they got a dehumidifier and air purifier for the flat and started wearing a mask when outside (this was before Covid).  This was about mitigating the risks and issues in the current situation.
  • Advocate for yourself  and others – they wrote a letter to their Member of Parliament as well as to the local authority asking for information on what plans were in place to address this issue. They included a description of the impact on their own health and their concerns.  Self-advocacy is a skill that’s important to all aspects of your health.
  • Turn issues into opportunities  – they realised that they had a choice about where they lived.  They didn’t have to live in Westminster, or even in London for that matter. Yaani negotiated with their manager that they could work from home with the aim to move out of London. Within a year, Yaani had moved to Dorset where they had family and friends and where the air quality is generally rated as good.  Now this is what we call an ISOP.  An ISOP is short-hand for ISsue-OPportunity, which is the kind of opportunity which only comes into being because there is an issue. 
"If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change." - Ghandi

“If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” – Ghandi

How sustainability helps health and the planet 

Yaani had never really paid much attention to living a sustainable lifestyle.  This applied to how they used their money, boom and bust working patterns, and even excessive food waste.  They’d been wanting to be more proactive in terms of the environment. It was sobering when they realised that their everyday behaviour wasn’t sustainable. Applying the principles of sustainability to both health and planet was a light bulb moment for Yaani. Feeling inspired by Gandhi’s quote about changing ourselves first, they decided to take that action and change. 

Mindful and sustainable consumption 

Yaani decided to make the word ‘sustainability’ their keyword for all choices.  When faced with a choice about this or that, they’d ask themselves: which one is the more sustainable?  They realised that by bringing in a sustainability mindset to all choices, they’d be supporting themselves and the planet.  Inspired by the Buddhist idea of the four nutriments, they devised four mindful consumption categories for themselves:

  • Food and drink consumption: where possible, they prioritised buying food and drink from sustainable sources. They also addressed the food waste by cooking more sustainable portions and not eating to excess.  
  • Conversations and cultural content consumption: they looked at their conversations and got curious about how sustainable conversations with friends, family and colleagues were. Were they nourishing or depleting? They also looked at content like music, films and news.  Was what they were consuming sustainable?  
  • Thought consumption: they were already becoming more mindful and skilful in their thinking using the ABC technique of First Aid for Feelings. Thinking is as much something you consume as anything else. With the new found focus of ‘sustainability’, Yaani’s self-talk improved significantly. They realised that relentlessly giving yourself a hard time is not sustainable. 
  • Intention and volition to regulate consumption: with growing self-awareness they got curious about what was motivating them. What were their intentions and volition or will? Was it sustainable? This yielded the biggest change, which was in terms of their relationship with money and how they used money. This was a big surprise to Yaani and fundamentally changed their financial situation for the better. 

When we last tuned-in Yaani was symptom free, feeling robust and resilient. They made the observation that before we started working together they were on the road to ‘death by consumption’. This was a deliberate play on the word consumption for both the lung disease as well as how they did their consumption in the four categories. 


Do you know your levels of environmental stress?

Our invitation to you is to get curious, get your sherlock on and have a look at how your environment may be affecting your health.  Here are some questions to ask yourself to assess the level of environmental stress on your health:

  • Do you know the environmental factors in your area that may be affecting your health? 
  • How sustainable are your behavioural patterns and your way of life? 
  • What’s within your circle of influence to change to improve your health? 
  • How can you make your health more sustainable? Can that help make the planet’s health more sustainable too?

As always, remember it’s more helpful to be curious than critical.

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Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.

All the best, Thor

Thor and Denny the dog

Thor and Denny the dog