I spent a year with the Sunrise movement when it first emerged as a voice in climate action. During a remote team-building activity, I was paired with another middle-aged person, and our task was to brainstorm ways that climate change had affected our local regions. My partner admitted she couldn’t think of any climate change event. Wow, was I caught off-guard! Regrouping, I shared the news of surging high tides on Cape Cod, Massachusetts and how towns were awash during extreme weather events of nor’easters. Meanwhile, more youthful Sunrisers were sharing stories of record wildfires, drought, and hurricanes, and how these catastrophes had unnerved them and their family members personally. They were expressing eco-anxiety — a newly recognized psychological condition that arises from a fear of climate change.
Eco-anxiety is affecting more and more people as the climate crisis profoundly influences the human quality of life.
While my Sunrise breakout partner and I discussed — mostly in theory — the climate crisis, our middle class lives were relatively insulated from its effects. Yet the climate crisis is a reality that is increasingly threatening each of us on Earth. This realization has caused many people who are keenly conscious about the human need to protect the environment to experience eco-anxiety.
And it’s not just young people who are manifesting symptoms of uncertainty and distress as a result of the changing climate. People of all ages are concerned, especially in light of what Rao and Powell at the Imperial College London note is “the extraordinary level of indifference and banality with which the climate crisis is treated by many others, including those in positions of influence.”
But these researchers also offer solace, saying that it’s possible to build optimism through reliable information on climate adaptation to calm pervasive distress.
Putting Words to Feelings of Eco-Anxiety
The American Psychology Association (APA) describes eco-anxiety as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future and that of next generations.”
Thomas J. Doherty, a Portland psychologist who specializes in climate, has helped people with such fear to find strategies to work through their eco-anxiety. Several years ago, Doherty realized that people could be affected by environmental decay even if they were not physically caught in a disaster. In 2011, he co-authored a paper with Susan Clayton which argued that climate change would have a powerful psychological impact on people directly experiencing its effects as well as on interested people who tracked its consequences through news and research.
Not everyone felt the theory had merit.
Fast forward to 2022. Doherty now hosts a podcast, “Climate Change and Happiness,” and has most recently written a chapter titled “Clinical Psychology Responses to the Climate Crisis” in a new book of clinical psychology. As one of the most visible authorities on climate in psychotherapy, he’s someone who helps people put words to the loneliness they feel about climate experiences.
He asks, What does it take to:
- “hold space” for climate feelings?
- “stand one’s ground?”
- “contain” experiences of sadness, grief or rage?
- practice “climate cosmopolitanism?”
In posing such probing questions, Doherty seeks to make the origins of eco-anxiety transparent.
He draws upon existential therapy — conceived to help people fight off despair — and ecotherapy — which explores the client’s relationship to the natural world — to help his clients reconcile their confusion over their role in the Earth’s warming. He helps clients to put language to what they are feeling about the climate crisis and also about feelings they can grow and cultivate. This approach supports resilience, mental health, and well-being.
Doherty says, “We get anxious or we have grief because we have things that we value are threatened, either personally or things that we value threatened, or we witness this, and then it causes us to have these emotions.”
One of his clients is Alina Black, who, on weekends, practices walking in the woods with her family without allowing her mind to flicker to the future. Her conversations with Dr. Doherty, she told the New York Times, “opened up my aperture to the idea that it’s not really on us as individuals to solve.”
Doherty helps his clients to reject the notion of a climate footprint, a construct he says was created by corporations in order to shift the burden to individuals. His clients come to accept the reality that just a few large corporations — and complicit politicians — have set us on this path of climate crisis. They learn that, as individuals, it’s easy to feel helpless to stop the destruction of the biosphere. We can also reteach ourselves self-talk that can move us from self-blame to positive social action.
Research Shows Eco-Anxiety is on the Rise
Experts say that, as climate-related problems grow, so will the number of people experiencing unsettling psychological patterns. An APA survey found that two-thirds of US adults said that they felt at least a little eco-anxiety.
A 10-country survey of 10,000 people aged 16 to 25 published in The Lancet uncovered pervasive rates of pessimism — 45% of those surveyed said worry about climate negatively affected their daily life. Three-quarters said they believed “the future is frightening,” and 56% said “humanity is doomed.”
A scoping review was conducted to examine eco-anxiety and related intervention options and recommendations. Five major interventions for individual and group treatment of eco-anxiety resulted: practitioners’ inner work and education, fostering clients’ inner resilience, encouraging clients to take action, helping clients find social connection and emotional support by joining groups, and connecting clients with nature. Recommendations for treatment plans were to focus on holistic, multi-pronged, and grief-informed approaches that include eco-anxiety focused group work. Mindfulness-based strategies can also help people cope with the intense emotions associated with climate anxiety and grief.
Not surprisingly, most of the evidence about eco-anxiety comes from the Western countries, and future research is needed in non-Western countries. Indigenous peoples, young people, and those connected to the natural world deserve to have their voices heard as they experience trepidation about a future unalterably changed by the climate. These are people who are significantly impacted by eco-anxiety and who are most vulnerable. Their lived experiences need to be understood and respected, too.
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