Coping With Climate Anxiety

Elena Bilheimer, EcoNews Intern

“Grief in Western culture is seen as a private experience, rather than the communal one it is meant to be. We need each other to grieve, we need to honor and process these emotions in community, we need to understand these feelings as messengers that can be transformative, if we let them”. -Laura Johnson. Image: Freepik.com

In August of 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) finalized the first part of its Sixth Assessment Report on climate change for policy makers. The report itself is long, but its main takeaways are clear, concise, and largely unfavorable for the wellbeing of the earth. It warns that unless there are immediate and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will not be possible. Although not a surprise for many, the report confirms that climate change is without a doubt a result of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, some changes, including rising sea levels, have the potential to occur or worsen for hundreds to thousands of years regardless of whether swift climate action is taken. The report confirms that with each additional increment in warming, the prospect of a healthy future diminishes.

Receiving negative information about the climate crisis in the midst of a pandemic is incredibly difficult, especially considering that many people believe that the actual science on climate change is quite different (and worse) than what is being reported by the IPCC. Because the IPCC waits for almost full certainty to verify what many communities are already certain of, the information can lag behind what is happening on the ground. With all that is going on, finding methods to feel and process emotions around the climate crisis has never been more necessary in order to stay engaged in fighting for a more just world.
To deal with all the negative feelings that arise when processing this kind of information, it is important to understand what climate anxiety can look like and how it shows up in different people. Sarah Ray, head of the Environmental Studies Department at Humboldt State University (HSU) and author of A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety, pointed out that how people experience climate change is variable and, thus, their emotional reactions are as well. Experiencing the emotional distress of displacement due to rising sea levels may be different from the distress caused by worrying that one’s home might burn down, even though the larger cause is the same. While grouping these differing emotional reactions under the umbrella term “climate anxiety” can be useful in some instances — for example claiming moral injury in an attempt to get governments to take action — it can sometimes lead to a disregard of people’s individual reactions. These emotions can be complex, and can be different depending on one’s identity, location, and level of privilege. For many marginalized communities, imminent existential threats have existed for as long as colonization and other systemic injustices. Recognizing the role that identity and privilege play within the context of climate emotions is still a relatively new concept for the mainstream environmental movement, but is a necessary component of addressing one’s own reaction to climate change.

Another reason climate anxiety can be difficult to manage is because there is an element of cognitive dissonance that can become more pronounced when people are expected to continue to show up for their daily responsibilities in the midst of global climate catastrophe. Young people in particular are expected to do well in school or work to lay the groundwork for their future, despite not being certain they will have one. This cognitive dissonance can lead to feelings of apathy or despair, which are not conducive for creating the radical change needed in the world. Ray mentioned that stories of doom and gloom can leave people feeling powerless and can actually create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Brittany Kleinschnitz, leader of the Northcoast Environmental Center’s Thrive Eco-Grief Circle, asserted that this doom and gloom narrative actually triggers the sympathetic nervous system, causing a negative response. “This ‘freeze’ response makes it really difficult to get anything done,” said Kleinschnitz. “Even something as simple as writing a letter to a representative or making a phone call can feel like a monumental task, or can just feel like a waste of time or a drop in the bucket.”

 

“What we need is a lot of human capital, a lot of creativity, and a lot of energy, and people who are really resourced to do this work for the long haul. We need them to be resilient, and to not give up on it”. -Sarah Ray. Image: Freepik.com

Challenging personal myths of powerlessness takes work, and finding people and organizations that are creating positive change is necessary. Klara Hernandez, a student in the Environmental Studies department and Co-Director of HSU’s Campus Center for Appropriate Technology, found that “Dipping my feet in the organizing world made me realize that there are a number of organizations and activists doing incredible work in beautiful and creative ways”. Ray affirmed that a big part of building personal resilience is centering joy and finding things that feel good, so that people can find their niche in the larger movement. Making more space to talk about climate anxiety and eco grief is also paramount, so that people don’t feel alone or isolated in their feelings. “We must recognize that emotional work is just as important as hard skills or on-the-ground work,” said Kleinschnitz.

Laura Johnson, a lecturer at HSU in the departments of Geography and Environmental Studies, has taught a class at HSU entitled Emotions in the Anthropocene, which aims to provide students with important skills for dealing with climate anxiety. She believes in the importance of including the body in this work, which is why she also teaches a regular Yoga for Ecological Grief series through HSU OLLI. “Emotions live in the body,” said Johnson, “So in order to acknowledge and honor them, to feel them and begin moving them through, we have to first connect to and re-inhabit our bodies; until we’re in our bodies we can’t truly feel and connect to the earth and each other.”

Ryan Van Lenning, an Ecotherapist in Humboldt, also described the importance of learning to sit with the feelings of grief that can arise when thinking about the changing climate. He explained, “It is not so much about dealing with or coping with these emotions, but really feeling them. Together. It is not something to get over, but rather it is the earth’s feedback mechanism in and through us, an invitation to feel, which is an invitation back into right relationship. At root, our grief is the other side of love”.


Tangible Tools for Climate Anxiety

Sarah Ray, HSU Environmental Studies Department Head:

  • I use a couple of mantras and strategies to get my attention to move away from the stuff I have no control over. One of them is “what else is true?”, which helps me direct myself to the beautiful and positive things that are flourishing, and the generative spaces in my life that I can then go and pay attention to.
  • I lift the second mantra from adrienne maree brown’s work, which states “feed what you want to grow”. If we’re despairing about something, it’s because we’re despairing that something is lost or that it’s going to be lost in the future. We’re afraid of experiencing loss, so we need to ask ourselves what we can do to attend to that thing or to nourish that thing’s growth, rather than just standing back and feeling awful about it being under threat.

Brittany Kleinschnitz, Thrive Eco Grief Circle Facilitator:

  • Get into your body! My favorite exercises are ones in which we engage our senses. Climate grief and anxiety is in part a trauma response. Trauma separates us from our bodies (that disassociation I mentioned) – and so the most important thing we can do is find ways to return to ourselves.
  • Go out and be with the land. Not on the land, with the land. Not just taking a hike – as I learned from Humboldt local and ecotherapist Ryan Van Lenning, “Give a hike”. Really get present with your gratitude for the land where you live.
  • Come to Thrive (the Northcoast Environmental Center’s Eco-Grief circle). And/or be in community.

Klara Hernandez, HSU Environmental Studies Student:

  • In my opinion, a tangible tool for dealing with eco anxiety and climate grief is believing in myself and others, that we will beat this.
  • When I participate in activism it helps me believe in it more, as I have noticed that I start to get sad and depressed when I am not doing any kind of activism because I have realized that it’s easier to believe that nothing is being done to make the world a better place.
  • Another tool I use is being okay with the work I’ve done, that I’ve done what I could and that is worth everything to me.
  • My third tool is to take a break, and have fun doing what I love. Personally, what makes me happy is traveling and seeing new places.

Laura Johnson, HSU Geography & Env. Studies Lecturer :

  • Find community, find support, find the practices that you naturally gravitate toward, let your activism stem from what you love, from what lights you up and brings you joy.
    Personally, I gravitate toward yoga as my fortifying practice – yoga is inherently a relational, somatic, and embodied practice.
  • Other amazing resources include the Good Grief Network and The Work that Reconnects.

Ryan Van Lenning, EcoTherapist:

  • I could list things that work for me….sunset and moon therapy, offering a poem to wild berries, letting go with leaves, sitting with a tree, but I’d rather just say go to the river and talk to it. Then listen, open all your ears and lend your tears to the watershed.
  • Find people to do this and feel this with, to name it and talk about it with others. It’s an insidious impulse of modernity that we should hide it, to grieve alone. No. You’re not alone; we’re in this together.