The Earth is in crisis. Climate crisis. And it’s so understandable that many of us are very anxious about this. Climate anxiety is a rational response to the real situation that our planet is in right now.
But anxiety is problematic. When we’re anxious, we:
- Enjoy life less
- Have less energy available to us
- Have more difficulty in relationships
- Can feel paralysed and unable to act
- May get depressed
The other thing that often happens when our anxiety is up, is that we then turn to psychological defences. Defences are our mind’s way of trying to protect us from emotions that it fears may flood and overwhelm our ability to get on with life.
Defences can be mental attitudes, like denial that anything’s wrong, minimising the problem, or dissociating. Behaviours like using substances, picking fights, or overworking, can also be used as psychological defences against anxiety.
Although some defences are (in certain situations) useful and are always intended to psychologically protect us, defences tend to have BIG downsides. For example, if we habitually use the defence of denial — pretending that everything’s fine — we can find ourselves landing in a lot of trouble, further down the line.
Minimising Anxiety, But Without Pretending
We need to do what we can to help ourselves minimise our feelings of anxiety, but to do this without pretending that the climate crisis isn’t happening. To take effective action, we need a level head and a sense of purpose and positive determination. We need to be able to see the problems and face them squarely, without being emotionally flattened by what we see. And for this, we need to hold, contain and balance several things that may seem quite opposite to one another: fear, grief, action, joy and calm.
We need to find (and keep re-finding) ways that we can manageably feel our fear and grief, and still love life and embrace joy on a daily basis. We need to help ourselves and each other feel safe enough, calm enough, and emotionally secure enough, that our nervous system doesn’t get stuck in a constant groove of panic and dread.
We Need to Find Ways to Stay Loving
We need to do all that, not just to feel better, but to stay functioning, stay aware, stay communicating, stay fighting to protect as much of the earth (and humanity) as possible, given the precarious state that humanity and our planet are in.
Above all, we need to keep on fiercely loving. Loving life, loving one another, and loving our beautiful, miraculous, extraordinary, dangerous, endangered planet.
Sometimes this love may feel very, very far away; sometimes we may be so full of this fierce, desperate love that we feel we might burst. And sometimes the love will be soft, gentle and tender, whispering and intermittent, like a small, flickering light.
“The sorrow, grief, and rage you feel is a measure of your humanity and your evolutionary maturity. As your heart breaks open, there will be room for the world to heal.”Joanna Macy
So how can we do all this? How can we hold the complex feelings and facts, without slipping into denial, and while keeping our ability to love, support one another, and take effective action? The answer will be different for everyone; and different for each person at different times. But I’m going to have a go here at listing 12 things that we can do, that I hope could really help.
12 Ways You Can Help Manage Your Climate Anxiety
1. Make Space for All the Feelings
Anxiety gets stronger when we’re not able to process our core emotions. Anxiety is not a core emotion (even though sometimes it may appear to be the strongest emotion you have!) Core emotions are fear, sadness, anger, disgust, joy, excitement and sexual excitement.
And the core emotions of fear, sadness, anger and disgust are very normal responses when we consider the climate crisis. If you are not used to allowing these feelings to the surface, you might need some help from someone else in allowing them to pass through. Notice that a core emotion, when processed safely, comes in waves and passes away again within minutes, leaving you feeling clearer and calmer.
Remember that it’s okay to have a mixture of emotions, and that you can make space for a wide range of feelings. Read my article ‘Emotions: 17 Things You Need to Know About Your Feelings’ for more information.
2. Visualise a Helping Web
When you’re feeling overwhelmed and only-too-aware of the powerful corporations and politicians in the world who are actively suppressing positive action on climate breakdown, try this visualisation exercise. First close your eyes, centre and ground yourself with slow deep breathing. Then begin to imagine all the people around the world who are working to help the planet. Allow your imagination to run with this. You might picture a vast web of interconnected paths or lines, perhaps illuminated in twinkling (solar-powered!) lights; millions of people’s hands linked, circling the globe; or you may like to dwell in detail on picturing a community or person somewhere doing positive actions such as planting trees.
3. Choose Some Personal Actions
Periodically, perhaps once a month, make time to consider what actions you want to commit to that are in line with your values of combating climate breakdown. Maybe you want to take fewer flights, eat locally sourced food more often, eat less meat, or avoid buying products from certain companies. Where these involve some personal sacrifice, acknowledge your mixed feelings with warmth and self-compassion, and remind yourself why the action is still important to you.
Keeping your actions broadly in line with your values is a great way to build a solid sense of self-worth, satisfaction and happiness. Do what you can, but please, please don’t shame yourself or anyone else for their (or your) choices. Shaming, like fear-mongering, closes us down and makes us feel apathetic and/or reactive. Remember that our modern world has been set up in ways that can make it extremely hard to ‘go green’, so don’t beat yourself or anyone else up for not being ‘eco-virtuous’ enough.
4. Spread the Word
What needs to be said, and who needs to hear it? Who can you talk to, or call, or write to, about the climate emergency? And how can you pitch things so you’re heard and taken seriously? Can you spread awareness by posting and dialoguing on social media in ways that don’t just get you muted? It’s natural that people, politicians and corporations don’t want to hear the truth, because it’s such a hard truth to hear, but we need to keep saying it, in as many peaceful and inclusive ways as we can. Channel your inner Greta Thunberg!
5. Practise Self-Compassion
Self-compassion is very different from self-pity. Feeling the physical feeling of self-compassion, and having self-compassionate thoughts at the same time, is a very powerful way to access your best self. And your best self can then feel resourced and grounded enough to turn outwards, and feel deep compassion for the natural world and for our fellow imperfect-but-hopeful humans.
For more information on self-compassion, take a look at Kristin Neff’s website.
6. Take in the Good, and Limit What Brings You Down
In his books, therapist Rick Hanson describes the importance of consciously working to build our capacity to ‘take in the good’. This firstly involves looking for, and noticing, moments of positive experience (e.g. awe, beauty, pleasure, ease, gratitude, fun, play, etc). It doesn’t matter how tiny or ordinary these good moments/ experiences are (such as getting a seat on the crowded bus when you’re tired, or savouring a delicious cup of coffee). Hanson advises that you spend around 12-15 seconds really trying to consciously take in the good experience, and aim to find something several times a day if you can (although just one would count).
Equally, to avoid the danger of burnout you’d be well advised to limit or modify your intake of painful or difficult material. Do you feel compelled to watch the news on TV more than once a day, or to read climate-denying trolls’ baiting comments on social media or news websites? To keep going over the long haul, it’s worth keeping an eye on how often, and for how long, you are consuming challenging information/ views.
7. Rest and Replenish with Music and Dance
Try connecting as often as you can with the joy, energy and soulfulness of musicians and dancers doing their thing. Whether you’re creating it, taking part in it, or just watching and listening, music and dance can be incredibly powerful uplifting and healing agents to counterbalance the heaviness of climate anxiety. Follow what excites you, moves you, sends shivers down your spine or makes you want to jump about. Go to gigs if you can, or concerts, watch performances on YouTube or movies, or just put on a CD and jiggle about in your living room. (Recently I’ve felt deeply restored, inspired and uplifted by watching two extraordinary singers, Lisa Fischer and Ledisi, performing with the Metropole Orkest at the 2019 BBC Proms.)
8. Don’t Think in Polarities
When humans get scared, our default is to slip into thinking in polarities. We start to see ideas – and people – as either all-good or all-bad. But polarised thinking (sometimes called ‘black-and-white-thinking’), is psychologically immature. It’s also dangerous. This kind of mindset can lead to fascism, with attempts to obliterate or squash groups of people who are seen as ‘other’.
The climate crisis is too big for this. Like it or not, we all have to try and dialogue with one another and somehow work together. We need to keep our hearts and minds open even when we disagree with someone, because if we don’t, we’re closing off the communication that will be absolutely vital if the climate crisis is to be mitigated.
The other problematic thing about black-and-white thinking is that it can quickly lead to despair, hopelessness and giving up. Which helps no-one, and certainly doesn’t help our beloved planet. We need to recognise that although we may personally feel despairing and deeply dispirited at times, moments of love, pleasure, hope, fun, calm and joy can still be available to us.
Remember that there is a spectrum of possibilities. Although it’s certain that the climate is changing, the scientists tell us that there’s still a lot of leeway. In practical terms, the half-a-degree difference between a global temperature rise of 1.5°C and 2°C or above is enormous. No-one yet knows how much the planet will heat up, and actions we take now and in coming years can potentially make a huge impact in limiting the damage. Change is inevitable (and a lot of that change will be deeply uncomfortable and involve great losses) but that does not necessarily mean the world is doomed, if society and institutions can work successfully to limit the global temperature rise.
11. Join Something
If you’re energised and sustained by being a part of community action, go along to meetings: Extinction Rebellion, Greenpeace, School Strike for Climate, or another active group in your area. If you’re ‘not a joiner’ or are just not in a position to get out with others, you can still support from afar. For example, you might check out TreeSisters, a scheme which supports communities to cultivate and plant trees in parts of the world where they’re most needed to combat CO2 emissions.
Find other people who share your passion for sustaining nature and humanity. Seek out (or create) things you can do together, whether it’s planting vegetables in allotments, helping local children to connect to nature, or creating community amenities so that local people don’t have to travel far to attend social or cultural events. And make new friends!
12. Give What You’re Best At
You don’t have to invent ways to provide renewable energy – unless you’re an engineer already (and actually, the technology for renewable energy already exists; we just have to get it more widely available). You don’t even have to go on marches unless you want to.
Think about the things you already have skills in, knowledge of, or a passion for. Then think of ways that you can use those strengths. For example:
- If you’re fantastic at explaining things, maybe you could go into schools, workplaces or even your local pub, and spread awareness about what the climate crisis really means, and how people can help.
- If you’re a lawyer, maybe there’s a way you can spend a few hours a month helping support climate activists.
- If you’re a musician, maybe you can keep people’s spirits up and enhance a sense of community and positivity, or help people process their grief through music.
- If you’re a therapist, maybe you could join the Climate Psychology Alliance and offer three free therapy sessions to an activist who is suffering and at risk of emotional burnout.
‘The best way to protect yourself is to think more, and talk more, and read more.’ – Lisa Marchiano (interviewed on Windward podcast, episode 005)
I hope we can we live with, and act on, our climate anxiety, without imploding and withdrawing into despair. And please remember: you’re just one person, amongst 7.7 billion; you can never have the ability to do everything! You do not have to be perfect, you do not have to have the answers, and yet you might be able to do a few things that can count, in a small way. Even if it’s just being real, and acknowledging your vulnerability, and helping lovingly support a few people and a tiny bit of Nature in your own small corner of the world.
Maybe there’s something in my list here that could help you. And maybe you’ll have something more to add that could help me and other readers to manage our climate anxiety – please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Further Reading and Online Resources
I would like to thank Emma Marris, Sarah Niblock, Professor Jem Bendell, Mary-Jayne Rust, Tree Staunton, Caroline Hickman, Dr Audrey de Nazelle, Dr Neil Jennings, Dr Joeri Rogelj, Professor Rosalind Coward, the Grantham Institute, and the staff of UKCP for their input as I prepared this article.