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At the Front Door: Climate Change Can Challenge Your Mental Health – a column on climate change in our lives.
It’s been called eco-anxiety, eco-grief, climate grief, among other things…that overwhelming, exhausting experience of relentless worry, loss, helplessness even horror in the face of climate impact after impact. Another kind of response is climate dread, which is a form of anticipatory grief. When we experience anticipate grief, we experience loss before the loss event has actually happened. It is a sense of dread, gloom, sometimes helpless paralysis that rises as we confront the greatest existential challenge of our generation. The fact that the climate crisis is real and getting worse only legitimizes these mental and emotional conditions.
Now an increasing number of psychologists believe the trauma that is a consequence of climate impacts and the climate crisis is also one of the biggest obstacles in the struggle to take action against rising greenhouse gas emissions. The challenge of the emerging field of climate psychology is to help people understand how to motivate positive change without simply re-traumatizing each other over and over again.
In my professional work as a healthcare Chaplain and bereavement manager (certified in grief/trauma counseling), I have derived some simple principles that, when practiced, can help people coping with eco-anxiety, climate grief, climate dread and climate related trauma.
First Principle: Realize it is very normal to feel this way. The scale of the existential threat is such that not feeling dread/anxiety/grief, even trauma, in response would be a sign of shutting down/avoiding/denying/paralysis. The fact that you can practice rigorous honesty about what is happening and feel fully the emotions associated with climate reality is healthy. Not comfortable maybe, but healthy.
Second Principle: Adjust your perspective. If you feel overwhelmed, paralyzed by the global scale of destruction looming, most of which is beyond your control, then shift your focus to what you can influence/effect. What is your immediate ecosystem? Who is your immediate community? How can you work with others to protect your immediate turf/tribe? This downsizing of your expectations about making an impact can help.
Third Principle: Throw your love at what you love. Even if you don’t feel like doing it, do it. Let the behavior lead if your heart isn’t in it at first, because your emotions will follow and your thoughts will re-center on what you cherish. The antidote to despair/powerless/hopelessness is gratitude/appreciation/love for the joy/beauty of life, and for that which you cherish. By putting constructive energy toward that, you respond to climate dread through acts of love, kindness, humor and tenderness. These experiences counter-balance grief and despair.
Fourth Principle: Pace it. There is a lot of urgency and a lot of pressure to get as much done as we possibly can in no time left at all. That is the relentless messaging, and I’m not here to say it’s wrong. It’s just not sustainable for any sane person day after day without relief. So, pace it. Allow yourself limits. Give yourself time each day, yeah, I mean each day or evening, to dither. If you make choices and do actions in a day, you can also let your mind rest and play in a day.
Fifth Principle: Be with nature. Listen to it. Be among it without doing anything to it. We are in charge of trying to fix the messes we’ve made, but nature has its own way of responding that doesn’t require human engagement.
I hope this will be the start of an ongoing conversation about coping with the mental and emotional challenges of climate change. Take care of yourselves so you can take care of our environment.
Charlotte Bear, co-chair of the Climate Reality Project – Silicon Valley Chapter, is a multi-faith reverend, certified grief counselor, with 25 years of counseling experience.
Climate Reality Leader Erin Zimmerman contributed to this report.