Anxiety from climate change isn't going away. Here's how you can manage it

Oct 23, 2021
Originally published on October 28, 2021 12:08 pm

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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, you may still be feeling the stress of the crisis. Maybe you don't have AC and had to move in with a friend 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.

Phoenix Smith is an ecotherapist who works with anxiety related to climate change. They say that climate change emotions can feel like grieving.

"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. - Phoenix Smith, ecotherapist

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. - Britt Wray, author of Gen Dread

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."


The audio portion of this episode was produced by Clare Marie Schneider, with engineering support from Leo Del Aguila.

We'd love to hear from you. If you have a good life hack, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org. Your tip could appear in an upcoming episode.

If you love Life Kit and want more, subscribe to our newsletter.


Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

JULIA SIMON, HOST:

This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Julia Simon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Recently, I was driving north through California, a drive I've probably made close to 100 times. And the hills that used to be green were dry. There was no doubt in my mind what was coming. Not long after my drive, those hills caught fire. Those hills, who knows when they'll be green again? And those fires won't be the last. There are words for these feelings that hit me, eco-anxiety, climate anxiety, climate grief.

PHOENIX SMITH: Being in touch with the reality of this is it, it's not a game (laughter).

SIMON: That's Phoenix Smith. They also live in California, in Oakland. And last September, they and millions of people woke up to an orange sky.

SMITH: My phone was just blowing up. My friends and people were calling me afraid. Like, how do I deal with this, Phoenix?

SIMON: As wildfire smoke made the Bay Area look like Mars, for many of Phoenix's friends, the feelings came on hard.

SMITH: And so the cycle of grief, where it can be denial at first and then you may have some fear, and then anger, and then sadness. I would say, the people that I connected with that day all went through that in a very quick time. They went through the whole cycle.

SIMON: This is the part of the story where I list all the climate crises out there - heat waves, hurricanes, floods. And this is the moment when you hear all that and maybe you start feeling that clenching in your chest. Or like me, you start biting your lip way too hard, until it's sore.

SMITH: There's the fogginess, the brain fogginess, the muscle tension. When you're in the fight or flight mode, you're grinding your teeth. You're holding your body tight.

SIMON: Tens of thousands of Americans are already experiencing the climate crisis. They've lost their homes, their loved ones, their pets. And many more will be harmed. But we got to be straight and say these tools today are less for someone who has already been profoundly harmed. Today, we're talking about feelings that come up when things are changing around you. Maybe you don't have A/C and had to move in with a friend in the last heat wave. Or maybe you were driving through the last rainstorm and got really scared that you were going to get swept away in your car. There are lots of reasons you may have climate anxiety. A 2020 study found a majority of Americans are worried about harm from extreme climate events. It's not a game. In this LIFE KIT episode, we break it down - five takeaways that will help you recognize these feelings. Sit with them and use them. We'll give you tools to build up resilience to deal with these feelings through the coming decades because climate change is here. And we're going to feel it no matter what.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: For Phoenix Smith, the feeling started coming up in 2005.

SMITH: That's when, for me, I started to have a real, visceral response because I had community members and family that were impacted by Hurricane Katrina.

SIMON: Phoenix works in public health. And they're also an eco-therapist, someone who specifically works with issues like climate anxiety. Although, back during Katrina, that wasn't so much a part of the discourse.

SMITH: No one was using the phrase climate anxiety in 2005. There was no media outcry around, oh, climate anxiety is coming.

SIMON: That's changed now, in no small part because more privileged white people are now experiencing climate change and are thrown by it, wanting to hold onto their predictable lives and being unable to in the face of this crisis.

BRITT WRAY: This is the first time they're feeling the mirage of security falling out beneath their feet. It's the first time that they're realizing the world is far more tragic and fragile than they previously thought it was.

SIMON: That's Britt Wray. She's author of Gen Dread, a newsletter about climate anxiety. She says eco-anxiety is fear of environmental doom, and climate anxiety is a subset of that. All the ways climate change affects the way we think and feel...

WRAY: Our emotions, you know, our cognition, the thoughts that we have, the ways we think about the future and plan for it, as well as our functioning, it can really start to affect our mental health and our ability to be our best selves in the world.

SIMON: Britt says climate change can really have an impact on our mental health. But we should say, anxiety around your environment suddenly changing against your will is not new.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Some form of climate anxiety trauma has been happening for 400 years, 500 years.

SIMON: Again, here's Phoenix.

SMITH: I mean, when European colonizers came to this country and they noticed how the landscape was, they disregarded it and totally changed it. So imagine if you were an indigenous person living here, you're a lonely person, a Miwok person you're living here. And all of a sudden - and, you know, colonizers come. That's climate anxiety, right? Your whole world is changing.

SIMON: This isn't new. But climate change is happening. And there's no going back.

SMITH: And when you really sit with that degree of loss, it's not like, oh, when things get back to normal. There's no normal to get back to.

SIMON: So Takeaway 1, this is heavy. Let yourself feel it.

WRAY: It's not helpful when people come out and immediately say, beat back your eco-anxiety with action or, you know, 10 tips for overcoming eco-anxiety through personal environmental behaviors. That really diminishes the weight of the issue.

SIMON: I know I just said I would give you five takeaways. At LIFE KIT, we are all about tips you can use. But when it comes to climate feelings, it helps to start by accepting that you can't just inject hope and optimism and get rid of your negative feelings. Phoenix says she tells her clients it's normal to feel confusion and fear.

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 easy tools to learn to sit with the discomfort.

SIMON: So first, just let yourself feel all the feelings. They are complex. They are intense. But only by recognizing them can you begin to address them. Britt says one of the challenges of thinking about climate change comes down to the uncertainty of it.

WRAY: The human brain doesn't like uncertainty, right? We want to remove it very badly in order to make decisions. But that's not possible. We don't know exactly what the future looks like.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: So Takeaway No. 2 - in the midst of climate feelings, find a way to reset. Britt explains

WRAY: What often happens with climate emotions is that they can push us out of what's called our window of tolerance, this nice zone in which life feels like smooth sailing. We can be our best selves. We can judge the future and make decisions in the present.

SIMON: When we're out of whack, out of that window of tolerance, Britt says it helps to find tools to engage with the present.

WRAY: 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.

SIMON: Phoenix says breathing exercises also help you get your nervous system in order, also, just getting outside.

SMITH: Really creating your own practice of being outside when you can even it's on your front porch, in your balcony.

SIMON: They suggest taking a walk, whether it's going to a park or on a hike.

SMITH: Being in nature. It has the impact of calming your central nervous system, so you can find a way to kind of reset.

SIMON: Maybe you're able to reset on your own. But you may need support. So Takeaway 3, talk to someone. We don't just mean find a therapist. For many, that just isn't an option.

SMITH: It's not very helpful to tell people to talk to their therapist when the majority of Americans don't even have access to professional therapists at all.

SIMON: But climate anxiety is something so many of us are feeling. And so engaging with our friends, our family, our neighbors can help us as we process these emotions and help us validate these feelings as very common and normal. 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. Here's Britt.

WRAY: It's really a sensitive place because what will often happen is that you provoke their anxiety by talking about it truthfully, face on.

SIMON: So Britt suggests going online to find communities.

WRAY: Climate conversations, climate cafes, 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. And I don't really know what to do. How about you?

SIMON: She says this can be a way to build solidarity and to think of creative ideas to tackle these feelings together. Finally, if you are able to see a therapist, look out for something called climate-aware therapy. Britt says these therapists won't just tell you to look on the bright side. They won't tell you that feeling despair about the climate crisis means you're engaging in catastrophic thinking.

WRAY: Instead, they validate it as a normal, reasonable and totally understandable stress response to what is an unfolding existential threat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: So one of the feelings that may come up with the climate crisis is numbness.

WRAY: Eco-anxiety can often lead people towards paralysis, the sense that the hopelessness is so immense that they start concluding that there's nothing to be done. It's too late. They feel helpless. It's not clear what one individual can do in the face of this overwhelming threat scenario.

SIMON: Britt says you still don't have to push away these emotions.

WRAY: Still allow them to be there. Honor them because they're understandable. But also tap into other forms of emotion that can be really motivating, like anger at the injustice, rage at the fact that we're in this situation.

SIMON: So Takeaway 4, channel your feelings into some way to connect with others. Britt says there have been major institutional failures that have caused climate change. That may make you furious. So Britt says, use the anger.

WRAY: And it's something that a lot of leaders in the climate space rely on as an activating emotion that comes with the distress.

SIMON: Phoenix says connecting with others may look like getting involved in politics related to climate change legislation. Or, they say, it may involve activism around environmental justice.

SMITH: There's so many people that are already organized. So you don't have to start your own thing that you can get involved with. Channel the fear into action.

SIMON: Phoenix also suggests tapping into networks in your neighborhood. The climate crisis takes many forms whether it's housing anxiety or high food prices. And there are people in your community who need help. She says, last year, she signed up for a mutual aid network.

SMITH: They would text me and say, there's someone in your neighborhood that needs groceries. And I would go get them groceries and drop it off at their front step, right? So learning about - are their mutual aid networks in your communities where you can get practical help with the rent, practical help with food?

SIMON: Phoenix suggests joining a community garden.

SMITH: And even if there isn't a community garden, start one and share - if you grow food, share it with the people in your neighborhood, and start having conversation and building relationships.

SIMON: And building connection may look a little different for some of us. It may look like connecting with our ancestors. Phoenix says in her ecotherapy workshops, she started asking people about family practices related to nature. She says people started remembering things.

SMITH: Oh, my grandmother used to grow this kind of fruit or plant, and then she would make this family dish. Other people would say, we would have a yearly family camping trip. People would get so emotional. I was surprised. You know, people would start tearing, or they would have - all these memories would come. And they never made the connection.

SIMON: Phoenix says remembering family traditions can be a healing way to deal with the fear around the climate crisis.

SMITH: And remembering, like, you're here today because your people survived some things. No matter who you are, you're here because your ancestors survived, and you were born.

SIMON: Which brings us to Takeaway 5 - you may end up thinking about mortality, and that's not always a bad thing.

WRAY: Yeah, it's really hard to talk about the climate crisis without it becoming a conversation about death.

SIMON: Here's Britt.

WRAY: I live in a canyon in a mountain, you know? And there's drought everywhere. I'm very aware that there could be fires at any time.

SIMON: Britt says she probably won't live in this canyon forever, but she appreciates being there now, embracing the quality of the moment.

WRAY: Appreciating what can be reaped. The beauty there - you know, there's 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.

SIMON: She says she's adopted that mentality for all of life.

WRAY: I do embrace meaning in life, not necessarily by how many years we're around for but the quality of the moment. And I think that there's something really healthy in that. And it's really allowing us through a grief process and then reorient our own perspectives on how we want to be with the time that we have.

SIMON: Phoenix says that our feelings around climate change definitely bring up some tough questions. But, they say, they're also some of the most important ones.

SMITH: Is this the life that you want to live? And is this the life you want to pass on to your children?

SIMON: Very big questions, yeah.

SMITH: They are. And they're not - you're not going to find it in a training or in a sound bite or on the interwebs, right?

SIMON: No.

SMITH: It's like, oh, it's not there.

(LAUGHTER)

SMITH: That's within you.

SIMON: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: So to recap - feel all the feelings. Climate change is scary. It's important to recognize these feelings without dismissing them. Takeaway 2 - find ways to reset and acknowledge the uncertainty of this time, whether that's meditation or taking a walk outside. Takeaway 3 - talk to someone, whether that's a friend, a therapist or an online climate cafe. Find a space to let it all out. Takeaway 4 - channel your feelings and connect with others, whether it's connecting with politics, with your community or with your ancestors. And lastly, Takeaway 5 - you may end up thinking about mortality, and that's not a bad thing. Climate change feelings may just end up inspiring you to ask the most important questions of life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: For more LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. I hosted one about how to compost, and we have another on how to manage kids' anxiety. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.

And now a completely random tip.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hi. OK. You know, you're getting ready to go out. You put your deodorant on. You pop your shirt on. And then you notice that you have deodorant-stain residue on your cute outfit. Well, here's what you do. You take it off, and then you take the material, and you rub it together where the deodorant ring is, and it disappears. I don't even know why that is, but it's pretty magical. OK, that's my tip. I can explain more, but my daughter's calling me in the other room, and I'm ignoring her, but now I have to answer. Thank you.

SIMON: If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823 or email us a voice memo at lifekit@npr.org.

This episode of LIFE KIT was produced by Clare Marie Schneider. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our production team also includes Audrey Nguyen, Andee Tagle and Janet Woojeong Lee. Our digital editors are Beck Harlan and Wynne Davis. I'm Julia Simon. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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