There’s a lot of focus on eco-anxiety specifically in young people and the toll it is having on them. It should be a wake-up call to fix the source of the problem, but it runs into a number of false narratives:
1. It affects only young people
2. It only affects them because they do not have the skills to deal with it
3. They just need to stop thinking about it
4. It is an inappropriate response that needs curing
5. It only affects “middle class liberals”
We find ourselves at an intersection of the myths surrounding mental health, the climate crisis and the way we see (or don’t see) people we may regard as “others.” All too often we have dismissed the voices and concerns of young people. All too often we overlook the suffering of people now and not at some point in the future in places like the Pacific Islands, the Philippines, Madagascar and many, many more.
I want to be clear that I am saying we should recognise what we are doing to our young people around the world. We need to acknowledge and accept responsibility for a catastrophic failure to act like the grown-ups. It is this, more than anything, that has left so many facing losses from the loss of home and family to the loss of the comforting idea that there were adults who knew better and could do better – who had learned skill and mastery and who had wisdom. There are adults with great wisdom, but their voices are so frequently drowned out. However, we also need to lose this story that adults know best and young people’s views have little value. My point is that our young people are right to be raising the alarm, they are right to be calling us out. They are awakened to the world, while the rest of us have been sleeping in a seductive and toxic dream. They are not alone though.
Climate grief and anxiety are affecting scientists of all ages too because, like our youth, they understand a lot about the mess we are in. Other older people are experiencing it – I am minded of the indigenous peoples, living in connection with nature, who have been sounding the alarm for so long. The people who are affected most severely are the people for whom the effects of global warming are already costing homes, businesses and lives – the people experiencing direct grief and anxiety due to immediate crises, mostly in the Global South. The reports of climate grief and anxiety are largely focused on young people who are either concerned about the future or about the effects on other people and wildlife globally or, often, both, but we should also be recognising the grief, anguish and fear that so many young people (and older adults) are experiencing from current devastation. It must also be said that the people who are most affected are generally the least responsible. The richest 1% globally generate the same emissions as the poorest 50%.
It is an appropriate response- we evolved anxious brains for a reason. It is easy to understand the grief and anxiety that is caused by losing a home or a loved one. The trouble is that this is not just a short, sharp crisis. This is a prolonged set of crises with battles on many fronts. So we need to focus on strategies to help each of us as much as possible.
Here are some things that I am finding helpful:
Recognising hurt as a sign of caring
It has really helped me to recognise that the grief and anxiety I feel are signs that I care. They show me what matters to me and also how much I am prepared to sacrifice in order to protect them. In this way I can feel compassion for myself and also start to recognise some of my core values. They also move me to act and I see how others are moved to act to by their care and concern.
There is not a great deal in life that we have control over. Mindfulness and Acceptance and Commitment Training (ACT) have helped me to focus my attention on where I do have agency – in the here and now. By keeping my attention on what gives my life meaning, I can act purposefully and in a direction I feel makes a positive difference, regardless of the eventual outcome. This particularly helps because I may not see the fruits of my labours – unfortunately many of the actions we take now may take decades before any impact is seen – for example, it can take 20 years for a tree planted today to reach maturity and become a net carbon sink. That does not mean that we should not plant the tree – what an act of hope and love it is to do something for people you may never meet! Now you may be thinking “what’s the point?” Someone very dear to me says “we are going to hell in a handcart.” From that perspective, how do you bring meaning to your life?
I am going to take this particular handcart on a bit of a detour here. There are lots of thoughts that may be really unhelpful and I believe this “hell in a handcart” thought is one because it can stop us from being useful or living as full and healthy a life as we can. It makes us powerless and stops us from acting. It is said that climate doomism is as dangerous as climate denial. Luckily ACT has some strategies for a thought like this. The idea is to loosen its grip on us – something called cognitive defusion. You can try singing the expression or saying it in a silly cartoon voice over and over and over until it really becomes just daft-sounding words. I must admit I felt slightly mad doing this at first, but it does help. If you really can’t bring yourself to be silly, there is an alternative. Thoughts are not facts. We may think “I am no good at drawing” but this doesn’t make it true. However, saying it in this way makes it quite potent and it seems true. Instead we can try to catch the thought and instead say to ourselves “I notice I am having the thought that I am no good at drawing.” Now it is just a thought, not a declaration of (apparent) fact.
It ain’t over til it’s over
Have you ever watched the Olympics or any race and wondered why athletes didn’t just give up when the results looked like a foregone conclusion? If you watch enough races, you will see that sometimes things happen and they don’t pan out as expected – people win against apparently insurmountable odds because they kept going . For athletes who were never in with a realistic chance of a medal, it is often about representing their country, doing themselves proud and gaining valuable experience and training. There is purpose and meaning in the race, not just the result. With the climate and biodiversity crises, we do not know for sure how this is going to play out. We do know the things we need to stop doing, but we do not know with 100% certainty how people will behave or how nature will respond. This gives me hope. We also know that everything we do towards mitigating climate change is worthwhile because, even if we pass a 1.5 degree increase in global average temperature, every tenth of a degree we can keep the change down will give as many people (and species) as possible the best chance of a livable world.
It’s a team effort
Perhaps the key thing that keeps me hopeful is the growing number of people coming together to tackle these crises. It helps a lot to know that I do not have to do it all – just whatever I can contribute. I also find great comfort in talking with others who feel the same grief and anxiety. We can support one another and make sure that people feel seen and heard and certainly not dismissed as naïve or broken. If you do not already feel a part of a group of people who understand what you are going through, I encourage you to seek them out. I have found a number of communities, including the Pachamama Alliance through gatherings such as their Game Changer Intensive and the Knackered Mums Eco Club. Another wonderful resource is the Active Hope book and online free training.
I also do not have to do it 24/7 – we can work as tag teams. It is important to take breaks and maybe even have fun sometimes. It is not frivolous or something to feel guilty about – we need to recharge and restore. I find time connecting with nature is the best medicine – enjoying and savouring what is here now.
One of the biggest things we need a break from is doom-scrolling and endless news cycles. I realised this after 9/11. There came a point where watching the news was not helping me to be a useful global citizen – it was making me ill. I felt guilty that I could switch off where the people directly involved were living with such appalling loss and grief. The mistake here is that compassion and empathy do not require that we experience the same level of loss and grief. They require that we hold space for those in pain, we acknowledge and recognise that pain as part of our common human experience and we do whatever we can to make things a little easier, a little kinder for them. I could not be useful when I allowed myself to become ill from repeatedly watching those images.
Much of my anxiety stems from an idea that I will not be able to cope. This is another one of those thoughts that could do with turning into a silly song. Of course I do not know how the future will be or what I will feel like, but I do know that at every challenge I have grown and learned something precious, which brings me to my next tip:
Looking for the blue sky between the clouds
There is a gift in every challenge. When I think about the wonderful people I have met through these crises, I feel so blessed. We have expressed sadness, frustration, anger and at the same time connected in a way that feels deep and meaningful – it often feels like my cup has been refilled by these community connections even though the conversation topic may be really painful. I have also learned things about myself and my values and that I am capable of more than I think. I have learned about life and the human experience and I have found mindfulness and ACT and a spiritual connection – all of which help me. This brings us back to finding meaning.
Very much in line with living a life of meaning are our values. The Active Hope training uses questions which I find a really great way to reflect. I find asking myself the question “Given that I am experiencing this, how do I want to show up?” So given that insect numbers are in catastrophic decline, how do I want to respond? Given that we are in a pandemic, who do I want to be as a person going through that experience? I may not be able to change everything, I may not feel like I have much influence, but here I have choices. I also remember the butterflies in chaos theory, the ripples that create waves.
Finally, I find taking time to notice the things that are good and “right” really helpful. I take time to enjoy nature and our beautiful planet. Of course it is tinged with sad thoughts about what is different from the past or what we may lose or frustrated thoughts about the aircraft noise or light pollution, but I make sure that I appreciate the beauty too. I am so grateful for all the people who are willing to experience this time as fully as they are able and to act to help one another and our planet. I deeply appreciate all the wisdom and the teachers, the scientists and changemakers and activists and all the people wading through endless policy documents, legal texts and so on to make a difference in the world. Thank you!
As a final note, while climate anxiety is an appropriate response to the situation we find ourselves in, it can become more problematic if it is impairing your ability to function. In this case, it is worth seeking professional help.
Across a broad spectrum, we are collectively experiencing a loss of enjoyment in day to day activities and a sense of the urgency of this crisis to the point that it is hard to focus on routine activities and carrying on life as “normal.” This ought to be ringing alarm bells and encouraging authorities to act to treat the causes as well as the symptoms. The costs of not doing so, both economically and socially, are far too high.