Our planet is in crisis. Or, perhaps more specifically, life on earth as we know it is in danger. Whether you have the patience to trawl through the IPCC’s reports or all you have done is watch David Attenborough’s recent Netflix documentary, A Life on Our Planet, the message is clear: if we don’t act drastically now to steer humanity off its present course, then the earth will likely become uninhabitable for us within the next hundred years. Yes; things are that serious.
When I think about this, I can feel my chest tightening, my stomach clenching, and my heart rate increasing. It can be hard to know what to do first – sure, I recycle, and I try to keep my carbon footprint to a minimum. But what about that trip I took last year? What about those other people who don’t seem to care at all about the future of humanity? So many feelings arise: guilt, anger, impotence, paralysis, helplessness.
And yet, sometimes, I feel numbness or even pure optimism. A few days ago, I learned that it’s possible to make furniture and bricks out of mycelium, which is actually far stronger than those made with synthetic materials. I learned about areas of the desert that have been regenerated into lush, green oases simply by stopping humans from entering them and grazing their livestock there – Judith D Schwartz’s book The Reindeer Chronicles provides an excellent global tour of hope-inspiring projects taking place around the world. Meanwhile, the forums of climate preppers that I sometimes find myself scrolling through cynically call this “hopium” – comforting ourselves with the delusional that everything will be OK.
In short, the ongoing stress of COVID on our social systems, sense of stability and predictability, the increasing lack of certainty, and the isolation and listlessness brought on by lockdown were already bad enough. Sure, I know plenty of people who claim that they have enjoyed being able to stay home, focus on projects and “get out of” social engagements that they didn’t really ever enjoy, but the statistics do not reflect this level of privilege for everyone. After a major crisis, it isn’t uncommon for up to 10% of a population to meet the criteria for major depressive disorder and even more for PTSD. In mid-July, 53% of adults in the US stated that their mental health had been negatively impacted due to COVID.
And then, to top it all off, you add in climate change; a 2018 survey showed that 70% of people in the US say that they are worried about climate change, or that they feel helpless (51%). Overall, whether you’re feeling a little guilty for taking a or you’re having full-on nightmares about climate collapse, thinking about the future of our planet can cause a lot of unpleasant reactions. And now — there’s a word to capture what you’re feeling: eco-anxiety.
A survey in January 2020 found that 2/3 of young people in the UK are experiencing eco-anxiety, which is defined by the Climate Psychology Alliance as “heightened emotional, mental or somatic distress in response to dangerous changes in the climate system.” Mental health professionals agree on the severity of the problem — over 1,000 clinical psychologists have signed an open letter highlighting the impact of the crisis on people’s wellbeing and predicting “acute trauma on a global scale in response to extreme weather events, forced migration and conflict.”
The American Psychological Association, Climate for Health and EcoAmerica published a report on mental health and the climate in 2017, in which they label eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom” which might manifest as anxiety, depression, PTSD, feelings of helplessness and aggression (to name a few). The report goes on to suggest the longer-term impacts of climate change on our overall collective mental health.
But eco-anxiety is only a part of the story: Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo has extensively studied the idea of “ecological grief”, which she describes as “The grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change.” Ashlee’s research has taken her to the people of Nunatsiavut, Labrador, who are in the process of pre-emptively grieving the ice that is such a core part of their identities.
And if that doesn’t quite capture your feelings, Ecopsychologists Linda Buzzell and Craig Chalquist have put together a list of “eco emotions”, in which they list – to name a few – eco-dissociation (the way that we “forget” that we are an interconnected part of nature and instead see ourselves as superior or separate from it), eco-rage (for example, anger at those we see as responsible for climate change) and eco-guilt (seeing humanity as a dangerous, destructive parasite on earth and feeling a sense of personal responsibility).
The problems with the term ‘Eco-Anxiety’
Britt Wray, Ph.D., has been exploring the intersection between the climate crisis and mental health for a few years. I recently invited her to speak as part of my ongoing webinar series entitled WTF is Going On? Finding Meaning in Our Chaotic World, in which I try to help people make a little sense out of the times we find ourselves in. Britt emphasises that there can be problems with focusing on terms such as ‘eco-anxiety’; although it is helpful to know that you are not alone in your worrying about the future, labeling it as a form of anxiety risks pathologizing a perfectly natural response to an existential threat.
Emphasising that we should feel proud to feel eco-anxiety, as it means that we are connected to our planet, concerned about the future of humanity and other beings, and aware of what is happening, Britt points out that some people may end up feeling worse after speaking to a therapist about their environmental emotions. All too often, we might be told that we are “catastrophising” or projecting another issue onto the planet. I, myself, was told that my fear over “mother Earth” might reflect my concerns about my own mother.
Britt also points to the work of Barnwell and colleagues who point out the limitations of the term “climate anxiety”. They argue that given the overlapping, complex factors connected to climate injustice in several countries, especially in the Global South, the term risks ignoring the ongoing impacts of racism, colonialism, and injustice. Climate change disproportionately affects historically oppressed communities: whether the indigenous people of the Amazon who are regularly murdered for trying to protect their land from illegal logging and other destructive activities, to the low-income communities of color in the US who suffer disproportionately more air pollution than the rest of the country, the issue is about far more than climate change.
It can seem a little rich for privileged white Westerns to cry about their environmental grief when we have barely begun to see the impacts of climate change, while our brothers and sisters across the globe are already suffering the results of droughts, floods, extreme heat and crop failures; but remaining paralyzed between despair and guilt is not going to help us or anybody else. It can also seem self-indulgent to talk about self-care when the sense of urgency to save humanity from destruction is rising in our veins; however, unless we are willing to work through and process our own feelings, we are likely to do more harm than good.
The importance of self-care
There is a tendency to prescribe activism as the cure to eco-anxiety – feeling bad? Then become part of the solution! However, jumping straight into the action can also be problematic. I have spent years volunteering in the NGO sector and joining activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion, and all too often I have seen what happens when people try to channel their unprocessed grief and panic into action. Communication is poor, conflict is rife, and “fixing” a problem becomes about the individual being able to validate themselves rather than coming from a genuine curiosity about how to best resolve things. Climate-aware psychotherapist Caroline Hickman refers to internal activism as being just as important as external activism.
The fact is that if we don’t take care of ourselves first, we are not going to be much good to anyone else – whether that’s getting involved in climate justice, working on ways to reduce the worst effects of climate collapse, or helping our loved ones (or humanity as a whole) prepare to adapt for the changes that are coming. It’s a difficult balancing act, though: if we all get lost for too long down the rabbit hole of meditation, shadow work and personal transformation, we might forever delay taking tangible action to benefit future generations.
The trick is to acknowledge that eco-anxiety, climate grief and all of those other emotions are perfectly rational responses to the unfolding situation – and yet, we have to find a way to balance them, to function in the world, because there is still hope and we can still make a difference. We are not looking at a choice of two outcomes – either utopia or total apocalypse – but rather, perhaps, a multifaceted spectrum. Every little change, every garden planted, every carbon-sequestering technology invented and every dollar invested in renewables will affect where on that spectrum we end up. So where do we start?
I may be biased as a coach who focuses a lot on EI (Emotional Intelligence), but understanding the way your flight-fight mechanism works, locating different feelings in your body and recognising your triggers and patterns are vitally important to help you navigate the situation we find ourselves in. For example, do particular images set your heart racing? Do you find yourself engaging in “fight” behaviours such as attacking strangers in online comment sections, or “flight”-based reactions such as binging on Netflix for hours to avoid unpleasant feelings? It is important to look after your physical wellbeing to the best of your ability; good sleep, nutrition and exercise help us to manage our emotions more effectively.
Processing eco-anxiety and environmental grief
Of course, yoga and meditation can be helpful, but when we’re facing an existential crisis in the form of climate collapse, they may not be enough. Existential coaching or therapy invites us to ask difficult questions, such as who am I? What meaning does death give my life? How do I feel about my own death? These are uncomfortable questions, especially in a culture that is so allergic to unpleasant feelings and prefers to push people to “always think positively”. However, it may be precisely this aversion to experiencing grief, pain and fear that causes us so many problems. How often do you react to a negative feeling inside yourself as a sign that something is deeply wrong and needs to be fixed as soon as possible, rather than seeing it as a sensation that will pass, or a key piece of information that your body is trying to tell you?
More and more spaces have been popping up recently to allow people to process their grief, such as the Good Grief Network’s 10-Step Programme for Personal Resilience and Empowerment in a Chaotic Climate. One resource that I find particularly powerful is Joanna Macy’s Work That Reconnects, which I have been training in as a facilitator throughout the year. Originally called Despair and Empowerment Work, the Work helps people process their feelings surrounding climate collapse through a process called the spiral, which starts with gratitude before moving into “honouring our pain for the world”. It is this section, where participants are given permission to cry and feel and rage, that the real transformation can happen. However, it doesn’t stop there; the next section, seeing with new eyes, allows us to step back from our personal stories and tap into the wisdom of our ancestors, non-human beings, and future generations – exercises that often bring fresh insight, perspective and, perhaps, hope and encouragement – before ending with going forth, where we are encouraged to look carefully at our next steps.
Personally, the wisdom that I tapped into during a workshop nudged me into my current situation, where I am nurturing my garden, harvesting weeds and learning about their healing properties, growing vegetables and creating spaces (online for now, of course) where people can process and share their feelings around climate collapse, COVID and everything else that is difficult about existing in this world. I definitely cannot claim to have mastered my despair or anxiety over the future of the planet, but allowing myself to delve into the grief has certainly allowed me to hold the space for others as they start on their own journey out of climate denial.