How facing your fears about the climate crisis is better for you and the planet

Predicted increases in heat and flooding in our region and the news about extreme weather elsewhere — like drought and wildfires — can be a lot to process.

add to that direct international climate reports and warnings that we have just a decade to make the changes to stop the most catastrophic climate impacts, and it’s no wonder that many of us are experiencing intense emotions around these issues.

Some have used the term “eco-anxiety.” It’s not a diagnosis, but more people are looking at these feelings to help people cope — like Britt Wray, Ph.D. She’s a broadcaster, author, and researcher, and her latest book is “Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis.” The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple recently spoke with Wray about it.

Listen to the interview:


This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Kara Holsopple: What’s your definition of eco-anxiety?

Britt Wray: I think of eco-anxiety as this storm of emotions. It’s not only a particular type of anxiety related to ecological degradation, which also includes feelings of sadness or grief or general anger and distress about what’s going on with the climate and wider ecological crisis.

These emotions can be constructive. They can be adaptive. They can point important things out to you about what’s under threat and cause you to make change in your life and band together with others to take action.

But because of their deep existential nature, when they make people feel truly unsafe in the world and fear the future in a very chronic way, they also can become disruptive to daily functioning, overwhelming, and therefore a huge impediment to mental health and well- being.

Kara Holsopple: How does eco or climate anxiety show up in people’s thinking and behavior.

Wray: In really different ways. It doesn’t show up at one severity level. There’s a scale that a climate-aware therapist Caroline Hickman has come up with that really charts this based on observations with thousands of people around the world who she’s helped as a therapist.

Let’s say at the mild level, if someone’s starting to get a whiff of eco-anxiety, they might feel uncomfortable in a grocery aisle surrounded by single-use, plastic-wrapped vegetables, and it becomes uncomfortable for them and they become kind of paralyzed with how to navigate that shopping experience.

But something that could be a bit more significant for someone would be, “Okay, I’ve had a significant wake up to the severity of the climate predicament. Maybe I don’t feel comfortable having children anymore and my partner wants to, and we’re in a huge conflict over that and maybe we’re going to split up.”

These kinds of relationship issues can become quite pronounced. If the feelings are really severe, a person may not be able to sleep anymore and not be able to concentrate, go to work, go to school, and unfortunately maybe even become suicidal and self-harming. So it really runs the gamut of all forms of manifestation of distress.

Holsopple: I was interested in this idea of ​​an internal-facing of our fears and emotions around the environmental crisis, and then that outward-facing of the problem by taking some action in the world to try to change things. Can you say a little bit more about the relationship between the two?

Wray: We are very used to a sense of urgency on the climate crisis. We’ve had that truth imprinted into us over decades of environmental and political campaigning on the issue. And it’s true. We do not need external action in terms of our policies, our technologies, our innovations, and our science in a dramatic way. We need to be bold.

It’s just that we haven’t often recognized that there are internal skills and strategies that are just as important to an environmental struggle as there are these external actions.

At the same time, we have not often recognized that in order to shore ourselves up psychologically, mentally, and emotionally, to be able to do that work, which is hard and strenuous over the long term, essentially for the rest of our lives, because this crisis will be confronting with us over that time period and getting harder — well, we can’t do that from a depleted internal state.

It is very much a neighborhood of burnout that many activists and green politicians and climate scientists and other people who are working on this problem full-time experience because of the mental exhaustion of knowing that we have solutions, and continually seeing their importance disavowed and denied and not deployed by leaders who could otherwise do so.

That is just a process that taps people out and it leaves them essentially deflated and sometimes despairing, which then becomes easier as an individual to turn away. It’s just too painful.

But that can be resolved if work and attention [are] paid to the internal emotional resilience-building practices that are also available to us. To fill our cup up enough to be able to be resilient, connected, and grounded in a really deep way so that even as the going gets tough and tougher, we can stay in the work.

It’s just that we haven’t often recognized that there are internal skills and strategies that are just as important to an environmental struggle as there are these external actions.

We found that 45% of these young people around the world said that their feelings about the climate crisis are negatively impacting their daily functioning

But of course, many social justice activists have known this around legacies of colonization, slavery, and systemic racism. We can look at many different movements where predominantly people of color have been working to improve their situation and understanding that you need to be able to restore yourself internally to be able to take on the oppressions outside of you.

And while climate scientists haven’t been trained to think about that, it’s relevant here as well. Those are the kinds of arguments that the book makes in terms of turning inward to do whatever you need to do to integrate in a helpful way the anxiety and anger and grief that comes with confronting this crisis and bearing witness to more loss, and then being able to be externally strengthened and in relationship with others to push on the levers that we have to prevent more harm and save what we can.

Holsopple: I wanted to ask where privilege comes into this. Is eco-anxiety the manifestation of white, middle-class fears, while many people are already facing other existential threats, like systemic racism or other systems of oppression?

Wray: The data tells us that no, it actually is more pronounced for communities of color and often poor communities of color. just in one study that my colleagues and I did, we looked at 10,000 16 to 25-year-olds in ten countries around the world. We were trying to understand the scope and burden of their climate anxiety in places like India, the Philippines, and Nigeria, but also in the US, UK, France, and some other countries.

We found that 45% of these young people around the world said that their feelings about the climate crisis are negatively impacting their daily functioning -– eating and sleeping, working, concentrating, playing, and having fun, those types of things.

But in Nigeria, India, and the Philippines, for example, it was much more pronounced than the global average. It was around 67%, which is showing that these low and middle-income countries have greater exposure to climate hazards already are being more disturbed in terms of just getting through normal tasks.

In the US, we have data from the Yale Program on Climate Communication that shows us that Black and Latino communities are more likely to be alarmed about the climate crisis than their white counterparts, and subjectively, also more willing to move into a position of power and agency and take some action on the topic because of their disproportionate exposure to the harms.

10,000 16 to 25-year-olds…75% said the future is frightening, 39% said that the climate crisis makes them hesitant to have their own kids, and 56% said humanity is doomed.”

So really it’s just an extra load of burden on top of marginalized communities. Why we tend to have this reaction that we think maybe it’s just a privileged concern -– it’s just that it’s the first time that some privileged people are feeling destabilized in the world in terms of their own safety. So it’s the best way to describe their distress, but it’s not the best way to describe other communities’ distress where there might be more immediate threats.

Holsopple: Maybe not surprisingly, you write that climate anxiety affects kids the most. What can parents or teachers or the adults in their lives do to help them to cope?

Wray: It definitely does affect younger folks in a hugely outsized way. And one thing that makes this so hard is, going back to that study I mentioned of the 10,000 16 to 25-year-olds that we did, we found that not only was there disrupted daily functioning, 75% said the future is frightening, 39% said that the climate crisis makes them hesitant to have their own kids, and 56% said humanity is doomed.

Young people feel abandoned, belittled, and dismissed in their distress by older generations who aren’t stepping up to help them in this time.

Importantly, all of these sentiments were tightly correlated with the sense of being betrayed by governments and lied to by leaders, which introduces this important concept of institutional betrayal and the psychological harm that can come when people with less power require responses from people with more power in order to be protected and have their well-being upheld.

But when those with more power aren’t really leaning into that responsibility and doing right by it, this can create all kinds of negative emotional and mental health impacts on those who are dependent on them.

This is the widespread intergenerational problem that we’re dealing with on the climate crisis. Young people feel abandoned, belittled, and dismissed in their distress by older generations who aren’t stepping up to help them in this time, and instead are often saying things like, well, you know, when it gets really bad, I won’ t be around.

This is maybe trying to use some gallows humor, but it actually ends up making the distress much more severe for young people because it’s a direct abandonment of something that is overwhelming, that they unfairly inherited along with the duty to clean it up.

They’re made aware of this before they can even vote and have any agency to act to change the structures that are stressing them. It’s just injustice all the way down, which means a site of serious repair would be stepping into solidarity, would be showing young people that you get it if we’re older, that we’re there for them, that we are not going to simply sit around on our couches and hope for a better future or rather offload our hope into young people who will save the day. But actually link arms with them, roll up, roll up our sleeves and use this amazing opportunity we have with this wild time in which we’re living to step into some purpose and support them.

If that institutional betrayal piece could be minimized by watching people within and outside of institutions come together on this issue, even as the world is burning, young people would be feeling much better. They would be less isolated, less alienated, and would know that people cared.

Britt Wray is the author of the new book “Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis.” She also publishes the weekly newsletter, Gen Dread. Wray is currently a Human and Planetary Health Fellow at Stanford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

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