“It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.
Constant news updates are inescapable. Wildfires overtaking Californian communities, hurricanes causing mass evacuations and dozens of deaths, massive power outages in Southwestern states during record-breaking winters, or record-breaking heatwaves leading to misery. Some have lost their lives, their homes, and their livelihoods while all the rest of us can do is watch. In times like this, connecting with others is essential.
One woman I spoke with in researching this article, let’s call her Jane, works for an agency focused on climate activism and was overcome by grief and anxiety during the summer of 2020, right after the Coronavirus pandemic began. Trapped in her house with a two-year-old daughter, under extreme heat and smoke from nearby wildfires, Jane was overwhelmed with fear for herself and her family. As much as I wanted to reassure her, honestly, I can’t blame her. Honestly, the more I learn about our world’s changing climate and see what little action is taken to address it, the more anxious I feel too.
With just our collective experience of the Pandemic, we can empathize with Jane’s feelings of isolation and grief. Maybe it gives us a visceral understanding of what we all might one day face if environmental disaster and degradation continue. Governmental and societal inaction can leave us either enraged or paralyzed with a unique dread. Young people in particular have inherited the burden of living in a degraded climate but lack the political power to enact change. We can all feel that way when it comes to our climate anxiety, but our children are particularly susceptible to emotional distress and feelings of betrayal.
A new age with new problems
“Nothing happens to any man that he is not formed by nature to bear.”
— Marcus Aurelius
Climate anxiety is the widespread emotional impact of the increasing damages of climate change. From natural disasters to ominous scientific reports, new media enables millions of people instant access to environmental issues. This unforgiving knowledge riddles some individuals with constant fear over the state of our planet, dampening hope for the future.
As with almost all of our emotions and psychology, there is a reason for this. Concern toward the state of the environment can be considered an adaptive (and healthy) response to climate change. However, even taking the whole bottle of aspirin is bad for you, and climate concerns can become pathological. It can even begin to impair one’s cognition, emotional state, and daily functioning.
Susan Clayton Ph.D., a researcher into the psychological effects of climate change, developed a Climate Change Anxiety Scale (CCAS) to quantify these impairments and try to bring this phenomenon closer to recognition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). The scale is ranked from one (never) to five (almost always) with statements like: “thinking about climate change makes it difficult for me to sleep” and “I have problems balancing my concerns about sustainability with the needs of my family.”
While this might sound grim, it has actually done some people some good by better identifying the problem. The formulation of this psychological scale has opened the door for countless empirical studies and research regarding the psychological impact of climate change, and now that the problem has been identified there are many helping to solve it. The field of research around this is growing.
The concept called eco-grief is a reaction to the range of losses associated with climate change. Eco-grief is a play on the term “reef grief,” or the sadness experienced in response to the degradation of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Degraded landscapes, the endangerment of species, diminishing ecological diversity, and even the anticipation of future problems can all provoke psychological grief. Although anyone can be affected by it, studies have shown that eco-grief is particularly devastating in populations that retain close relationships with the natural environment, such as farmers and indigenous populations. Not only are their livelihoods tied to the environment, but they also have higher amounts of place attachment. Studies have shown that whether or not a natural setting is destroyed by man (i.e., terrorist attacks, oil wells) or through a natural disaster, the amounts of distress are the same. How sad someone gets depends on how much they depend on the land and how emotionally attached they are.
To counter anxieties and grief, most individuals rely on psychological defenses, filtering how much news they get or deciding not to believe it. Unfortunately, apathy and ambivalence are the main cause of environmental inaction.
In a recent TED Talk, Reneé Lertzman described the psychological response of a double-bind, in which an individual feels like they have no choice in their actions and turn to apathy and inaction. This response runs throughout the public and in political figures, and many regard this as people’s lack of compassion for our environment. In reality, many feel paralyzed in the face of climate change and are forced to turn to apathy to continue functioning. Similarly, many people, even climate activists, feel ambivalence as we are constantly forced into bad decisions based on conflicting interests. For instance, despite all the research I have done surrounding carbon emissions from flights, I still fly home to see my family out of emotional drive and convenience. It is hard to commit to such major lifestyle changes required for climate change action when overcome by chronic ambivalence and indecisiveness.
Fostering hope and resilience
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
— Winston Churchill
The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests that resiliency is the key to popular adaptation to our changing climate. Emotional resilience allows individuals to channel their anxieties into positive behavioral engagement; fostering a sense of hope and empowerment among our community as we combat the effects of climate change. Resilience is especially crucial as countless studies have revealed the disproportionate damages of climate change upon marginalized populations.
Communities with fewer resources have access to fewer health supports and resources to adapt to a changing climate. Additionally, the high cost of mental health services is preventing lower-income individuals from seeking treatment, especially as full therapy coverage for therapy is rare with health insurance. In an attempt to reduce the inequality of accessible treatment, several organizations, psychologists, and environmentalists have developed free resources to help build resilience and reduce climate-related mental health struggles.
Project Inside Out is a free educational website pioneered by Renée Lertzman designed to help climate activists become a “guiding force” within environmental change. By taking Lertzman’s Changemaker Quiz, the website will identify your “primary modes of action” when facing environmental problems. Project Inside Out encourages people to become a guide, rather than the more ineffective modes of action: righter, educator, or cheerleader. A series of resources helps people take action through guiding, focusing specifically on attuning, revealing, equipping, convening, and sustaining.
Lertzman also addresses the role of psychological defenses in climate activism, introducing the Three As: “anxiety about the scale and nature of the issues, ambivalence about how to respond and making different choices about how we live, and aspirations to live in alignment with our deepest values and to be part of the solution.” By becoming a guide to others and centering our decisions on aspirations, we can encourage positive change.
Climate Emotions Conversations is a program led by Margaret Klein Solamon which guides virtual conversations across the US to help identify personal emotional responses and encourage open communication about climate change. I had the opportunity to attend a Climate Emotions Conversation, and I found it refreshing to step outside of research and have a real conversation regarding climate change. Hearing personal experiences has incredible power; talking to a Coloradan man in his sixties about the grief of his home landscape helped put these issues in perspective. Additionally, it allows participants to share and reflect on the base emotions surrounding the climate emergency– rather than immediately focusing on solutions.
The Good Grief Network bases its model on the 112-step approach originally designed for Alcoholics Anonymous, helping individuals process their anxieties surrounding eco-disasters and commit to meaningful action. The program has a ten-week commitment, with one meeting per week, facilitating small groups to meet around the country through zoom. To help process climate-change-related anxiety and grief, they have participants work through 10 steps of emotional work that include acceptance, uncertainty, gratitude, appreciating beauty, self-forgiveness, and creating meaning. By addressing one step each week in a safe space, the Good Grief Network can greatly help with climate anxiety and eco-grief.
Climate & Mind provides an extensive range of resources on the relationship between human behavior and climate change. providing individuals and professionals with information and help. Outside of general education and evidence, this website offers two primary sources to aid those struggling with mental health problems: community engagement and therapy. To help individuals find climate support groups, Climate & Mind dedicates an entire page of pre-existing groups and helps you to start your own. Additionally, though therapy over climate anxiety is a growing field, the site provides a map of “climate-aware therapists” across North America. By engaging in personal therapy with a professional certified in environmental issues, both climate-related concerns and mental health struggles can be effectively treated.
Among all these resources is the factor of connection. Through open conversation, support networks, and positive environmental action, the threat of climate change does not have to be debilitating. For Jane, the connection was the missing component in her life. For over a year now, she has been leading a virtual support group with women of all ages. By meeting each month and discussing books on environmentalism they’ve read, she had an unconditional space to share her life stressors. Community and relationship increase resiliency and fosters positive behavioral change to combat climate change. That is the one benefit of climate anxieties’ widespread impacts: no one has to face this alone.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
— Hellen Keller
Amelia Larsen recently graduated from Westmont College with a degree in Psychology. Bringing her background in psychology, research, and data analysis to the task, she has been delving into climate anxiety and trauma research and hopes to help integrate environmentalism and clinical psychology in a way that can help people. With the COVID-19 pandemic modeling the disastrous effects that unexpected climate and lifestyle change can invoke upon mental health, she is committed to helping create psychological resources regarding the climate crisis.
Amelia is from the Chicago suburbs, bringing experience with environmental issues such as tornadoes, flooding, lake and air pollution, and overpopulation to her work. Outside of her studies, Amelia has also worked as a Home Health Aide for the elderly. She enjoys going on mountain drives, cuddling with her cat, and spending quality time with her friends.