How to take control when eco-anxiety strikes.
A few years ago, Britt Wray felt overwhelmed by eco-anxiety. Fielding questions from family about whether she and her husband would have children, Wray contemplated the bleak future they might inherit. At the time, Wray was a science communicator and couldn’t ignore the projections of species extinction, crop failure, and increasingly disastrous weather events. Wray, who now studies the mental health effects of living through the planetary crisis caused by climate change, was stricken by a “profound sense of hopelessness” and found herself openly weeping on a train ride home one evening.
Of course, Wray is not alone. In the U.S., one survey conducted by the American Psychiatric Association found that more than two-thirds of Americans are somewhat or extremely anxious about climate change. Last year, the Lancet polled 10,000 youth between the ages of 16 and 25 from around the world and found that more than half reported feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty. (Wray was a member of the research team that published those findings.)
The trouble with eco-anxiety, a blanket term typically used to describe distress associated with climate change, is that there’s no easy fix. As Wray points out, anguish is a normal responses to the circumstances, and yet that despair can be so debilitating that someone experiencing it might need professional mental health help. If high-quality treatment is even available, it still doesn’t change the reality that the planet continues to tilt toward ecological chaos as politicians and corporations fail to meaningfully act.
In her new book, Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis, Wray attempts to chart a path forward for those who feel uneasy or even stuck when it comes to eco-anxiety. Wray’s approach is holistic, weaving together various strands of thought from psychology and public health to help readers cultivate the resilience and emotional intelligence they’ll need to fight for the planet — and to survive the calamities that might come.
These skills are critical not just for people’s long-term wellbeing but also as a bulwark against forms of extremism like ecofascism, which view the threat of environmental collapse as a problem caused by growing populations of racial and ethnic groups. The shooter who targeted and killed several Black people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, cited ecofascism in a manifesto.
“People are feeling unsafe and scared, because of what’s going on,” Wray told me in an interview. “While some, because of their environmental values, are deeply oriented toward compassion for other people and other species and wild places, some will interpret this through their own values and beliefs, and will enact violence as a way to make them feel more safe.”
While Wray covers numerous, often overlapping coping strategies in Generation Dread, she spoke with me about three tactics that people might find surprisingly helpful.
Eco-anxiety as “super fuel”
Climate changes prompts people to feel more than just difficult emotions. Existential in nature, it forces people to consider their mortality, the prospect of widespread deprivation and upheaval, and the possibility that many won’t survive. It’s no wonder, then, that some might first try to suppress their anxiety and grief. But Wray proposes a different, counter-intuitive approach.
“If you can have some self-compassion, if you can allow [those feelings] to be there, and then start doing the deep uncomfortable work of confronting the grief related to loss and mortality, or anxiety about how bad this is going to get, it teaches us things,” says Wray. “The torment becomes a way of tapping into existential meaning.”
Instead of a paralyzing burden, eco-anxiety can become “super fuel” that helps people learn how to cope and respond to climate change, perhaps through activism, community building, and making different consumer choices, like driving less and using less energy. But first, Wray says that wrestling with painful emotions related to climate change could, for example, prompt someone to imagine their deathbed and consider what really mattered to them. Would they be happy having spent a lifetime chasing money instead of purpose? Did their everyday actions match their values?
Wray says this “massively clarifying exercise” can help people step into a “climate journey.” What that looks like depends on the person, but Wray describes it as using one’s talents, skills, and passion to respond to the crisis, which in turn helps them remain excited about the work while giving them opportunities to make meaning and live with purpose.
Don’t skip “internal activism”
Some eager to start their climate journey might want to shift all their efforts to activism, but Wray says that can be a mistake without also undertaking “psychological and emotional resiliency training” that helps alleviate despair and burnout. Wray calls this “internal activism,” a term coined by climate-aware psychotherapist Caroline Hickman to describe the work of being with difficult emotions, without self-judgment, and learning to integrate them into one’s life instead of trying to avoid or bury them. When that is done in tandem with self-care, it can lead to more flexible thinking, which is also critical to responding to the challenges that climate change will bring.
Critics of this approach might call it navel-gazing, or insist there’s no time to do anything but organize politically, but Wray describes such complaints as a “tired binary.”
“We can be much better external activists when we’re good at doing the internal part of self-care, too.”
Wray argues that people need to develop skills like binocular vision, a concept she adapted from psychoanalyst Shierry Weber Nicholsen. Wray describes this skill as focusing on on the “worst forms of climate change chaos” while opening an eye toward the “imaginative possibilities for a better future.” With that ability, people can hold what feel like two opposing ideas at once, a form of flexible thinking that can make it easier to find strength and take action.
Wray also advocates for stretching one’s “window of tolerance,” a psychological space in which life feels manageable and fulfilling. That window shrinks when people feel hyper- or under-aroused, which can happen as a result of trauma, anxiety, and depression, among other experiences. Despair can set in when people lose their capacity to cope, making it much harder to fight climate change.
On the other hand, that window expands with resilience-building practices that help regulate difficult emotions, says Wray. Such strategies include mindfulness, meditation, gratitude journaling, yoga, quality sleep, and spending time with loved ones — basically anything that soothes the nervous system.
“We can be much better external activists when we’re good at doing the internal part of self-care, too,” says Wray.
Prioritize social connections
Coping with eco-anxiety can feel very individualistic. People focus on their consumer choices, perhaps buying an electric car and avoiding single-use plastic products. Or they might work through their emotions with a therapist. While these aren’t bad strategies, Wray says there’s much to be gained through social connectedness. Of course, being part of collective efforts to pressure governments and corporations can be rewarding. But relationships also make a difference when climate change brings any number of disasters, including extreme weather events.
Wray points to studies on how communities with high levels of social connectedness and social trust cope following a crisis. That research suggests that strong relationships and the ability to achieve shared goals together lead to more positive outcomes than in communities where social capital is low. When people come to each other’s aid, it can provide degrees of immediate and sometimes lasting psychological relief. That’s possibly why people with high connectedness may be less likely to develop mental health disorders following a disaster.
Wray challenges people to imagine a future in which people can leverage strong social relationships and mutual aid to rebuild faster after destruction and, as a result, potentially experience post-traumatic growth instead of persistent or chronic stress. That might look like using community and religious centers, schools, and civic spaces to bring people together to tackle problems like how to protect the vulnerable in a heat wave.
“If we continue to override or just ignore this aspect we will not be serving ourselves well,” says Wray. “We can go back to the old ways of living in community, living rooted with others, and doing what’s needed to be reciprocal and mutualistic in the way that we organize our social lives.”
UPDATE: May. 22, 2022, 8:40 a.m. EDT This story has been updated to reflect that Britt Wray was a science communicator before she began researching the mental health effects of climate change.
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