Climate change anxiety is real. Here's how you can manage those feelings
Updated April 22, 2022 at 12:32 PM ET
Tens of thousands of Americans are already experiencing the climate crisis. They've lost their homes, their pets and their loved ones.
But even if you haven't yet experienced profound harm from our changing climate, you may still be feeling the stress of the crisis. Maybe you don't have AC and had to move into a shelter during the last heatwave. Maybe you check the air quality every day because of wildfire smoke. Or maybe you were driving through the last big rainstorm and were worried you would get swept away with your car.
"It can be denial at first, and then you may have some fear and anger and then sadness," they say.
These feelings also manifest physically.
"When you're in the fight-or-flight mode, you're grinding your teeth," Smith says. "You're holding your body tight."
This is climate anxiety — all the ways the climate crisis affects how we think and feel.
These feelings aren't going away, but here are five ways to recognize them, sit with them and use them. We'll give you tools to build up resilience and deal with these feelings through the coming decades.
Let yourself feel the feelings — all of them
Smith lives in California, and they've witnessed the state's decades-long drought, made worse by climate change. "It's not like, 'Oh, when things get back to normal.' There's no 'normal' to get back to," says Smith.
We are all going to be uncomfortable. So I'm not going to tell you. 'Do this! do that!' No, we all are going to have to learn and find tools to learn to sit with the discomfort.
Smith says when you really sit with that degree of loss, you may feel fear or despair. Those feelings are a normal response to this crisis, they say, and you can't just inject optimism and brush aside your negative feelings.
"We are all going to be uncomfortable," Smith says. "So I'm not going to tell you. 'Do this! do that!' No, we all are going to have to learn and find tools to learn to sit with the discomfort."
So first just let yourself feel all the feelings. They are complex and intense, but only by recognizing them can you begin to address them.
Find a way to reset and calm your central nervous system
Britt Wray is the author of Gen Dread, a newsletter about staying sane and finding purpose in the climate crisis. She says climate change opens up a world of uncertainty, and our brains don't like that.
"What often happens with climate emotions is that they can push us out of what's called our window of tolerance," Wray says.
The window of tolerance is the "nice zone."
Wray says this is the place where "life feels like smooth sailing. We can be our best selves. We can judge the future and make decisions in the present."
Mindfulness practices, as well as meditation, can be very effective for just grounding oneself in the present moment, bringing you back to baseline when you might otherwise be spiraling.
But the uncertainty of the climate crisis throws us out of that window, and we can find ourselves unmoored. So Wray says it helps to find tools to engage with the present.
"Mindfulness practices, as well as meditation, can be very effective for just grounding oneself in the present moment, bringing you back to baseline when you might otherwise be spiraling," Wray says.
Breathing exercises also help get your nervous system in order, says Smith. So does getting outside — even if it's just going out on your porch — or going to the park or on a hike.
Smith says being in nature "has the impact of calming your central nervous system so you can find a way to kind of reset."
Find someone to talk to, and we don't just mean a therapist
Maybe you can reset on your own, but you may need to talk to someone.
If you can find a therapist, look out for something called climate-aware therapy. Wray says these therapists won't tell you that feeling despair about the climate crisis means you're engaging in catastrophic thinking.
"Instead, they validate it as a normal, reasonable, and totally understandable stress response to what is an unfolding existential threat."
But if you are part of the majority of Americans who don't have access to professional therapists, reach out to your friends, family or neighbors. You may find that these feelings are much more common in your circle than you previously realized.
It's important to recognize, though, that for some of the people in your life, it may be too tough for them to talk about the climate crisis.
"What will often happen is that you provoke their anxiety by talking about it truthfully, face on," says Wray. If their response is to dismiss you, "that definitely leaves people feeling more alienated and isolated."
That's why Wray suggests going online to find communities of other folks experiencing climate emotions. She suggests online climate cafes.
"[These are] places that you can just hop onto virtually and for an evening, talk openly, vulnerably and say, 'You know, I'm feeling this way. I'm dealing with a lot of despair. I don't really know what to do. How about you?'"
She says engaging with these online communities can be a way to build solidarity and to think of creative ideas to tackle these climate feelings together.
Channel your feelings to connect with others
One of the feelings that may come up with the climate crisis is numbness.
"Eco anxiety can often lead people towards paralysis," says Wray. "The sense that the hopelessness is so immense that they start concluding that there's nothing to be done."
You don't have to disavow these more hopeless emotions, but Wray says you can tap into other more energizing feelings too. "Other forms of emotion that can be really motivating, like anger at the injustice, rage at the fact that we're in the situation."
There have been major institutional failures that have caused climate change. If that makes you furious, Wray says you can use that rage as a starting point to taking action.
"It's something that a lot of leaders in the climate space rely on as an activating emotion," she says.
Smith says connecting with others may look like getting involved in politics related to climate change legislation or activism around environmental justice.
Maybe that means helping people in your community who are dealing with high food prices or unaffordable housing. She suggests signing up for a mutual aid network to do things like deliver groceries to those in need.
Building connections can also involve thinking about the past. In her ecotherapy workshops, Smith says she started asking people about family practices related to nature. People would remember things like their grandmother growing a certain plant or a family camping trip.
Remembering and recreating family traditions, especially around nature, can be a healing way to deal with fear around the climate crisis, Smith says.
"Creating family rituals, remembering your ancestors and bringing that in is a very healing and generative way to deal with the fear around all the changes [that] are happening," she says.
You may end up thinking about mortality, and that's not necessarily a bad thing
"It's really hard to talk about the climate crisis without it becoming a conversation about death," Wray says with a chuckle.
"I live in a canyon, in a mountain. There's drought everywhere," she says. "I'm very aware that there could be fires at any time."
Wray says she probably won't live in this canyon forever, but she appreciates being there now and embracing the quality of the moment.
"The beauty of those mountain lions and bobcats on the street, there's little migrating newts and all these cool things. But who knows how long that's going to be around for? I'm not particularly sure," says Wray.
She says she's adopted that mortality-aware perspective for all of life, and she thinks there's something healthy in that.
Smith says that thinking about climate change brings up questions, like "Is this the life that you want to live, and this is the life you want to pass on to your children?"
These are big questions, she admits. But they're the most important ones, Smith says, and the answers are worth pursuing.
"You're not going to find it in a training or in a sound bite or on the interweb," Smith says, "That's within you."
This story originally published October 23, 2021.
The audio portion of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider, with engineering support from Leo Del Aguila.
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