The terms ecoanxiety or climate distress have been coming up a lot more lately, so we thought we’d delve in to the topic as part of our takeover week at EcoHamilton. Follow along here and on the EcoHamilton Collective’s Instagram account and have a read and watch some of these resources to learn more.
Sara Moore’s 2017 opinion piece in Ensia (Is Climate Change Driving you to Despair? Read This.) is a good place to start. Moore shares some background on the origins of the terms and what climate trauma looks like and provides tips and tools for individuals and organizations who work on climate change to prevent burnout and recognize that they are susceptible to special kinds of stresses.
Renée Lertzman’s 2019 TED talk explores the question ‘can we find our way through the climate crisis in a new and different way using tools and concepts from clinical psychology?’ Lertzman explains that part of the reason we aren’t acting faster on climate change as a society and communities is because we aren’t acknowledging our psychological response to crisis, trauma and fear. Lertzman describes how insights and tools from psychology can be applied to understanding our experience of the climate crisis and our response to it, including understanding our window of tolerance, addressing the double bind feeling that limits action and creativity (eg.‘I care very deeply but I cannot have an impact so I won’t act’), and focusing on ‘attuning’ or finding the comfortable spot where we feel we understand the scope of the problem and are also able to take action and work to solve climate challenges.
Britt Wray’s writings on the topic of ecoanxiety in Gen Dread are also really helpful to understanding the term and how to apply it. Wray cautions that while it is valuable to have a word to describe the experience of environmental anxieties, and see the concept acknowledged more, the terms and concepts have some challenges. Namely, that the experience of ecological crisis and climate threats needs to be understood within the specific history and politics of the community and individuals experiencing it. Wray notes that the term climate anxiety “runs the risk of medicalizing, de-politicizing, and de-historicizing psychological distress” and that “blanketing the emotions that climate change produces as climate anxiety in a place that has endured acts of environmental violence throughout time just doesn’t make any sense.”
Rosemary Randall, a climate focused psychotherapist, recently shared six short videos on coping with the climate crisis. Randall shares how to understand our emotional responses through what she calls the climate distress that comes with the realization that the climate crisis is “life threatening and life changing”.
Want to get the conversation going with friends and family about this topic and what you can do about it? We recommend this short blog post by Bonnie Culbertson on how to cope with climate change anxiety in a healthy and proactive way.
For a more substantial read, check out this 2017 report from the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica which reviewed the mental health impacts of climate change. The report explains, “the health, economic, political, and environmental implications of climate change affect all of us. The tolls on our mental health are far reaching. They induce stress, depression, and anxiety; strain social and community relationships; and have been linked to increases in aggression, violence, and crime. Children and communities with few resources to deal with the impacts of climate change are those most impacted. To compound the issue, the psychological responses to climate change, such as conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness, and resignation are growing. These responses are keeping us, and our nation, from properly addressing the core causes of and solutions for our changing climate, and from building and supporting psychological resiliency.”
The report concludes with tips to support individuals, tips to support communities, and things that we can do as individuals to buffer some of the impacts and build a greater sense of individual security and control.
Another great reference is the recently released review by eco-anxiety researcher Panu Pihkala, at the University of Helsinki. Anxiety and the Ecological Crisis: An Analysis of Eco-Anxiety and Climate Anxiety, ends with the conclusion that eco-anxiety is a suitable and useful general term for “difficult feelings because of the ecological crisis” but that it would be highly misleading to think of ecoanxiety mainly as an anxiety disorder with a standard definition and ‘treatments’. Pihkala emphasizes the importance of understanding the impact of the multiple intertwined crises of the 2020s, and how these historical and ongoing crises are experienced in different social and cultural contexts. Pihkala also notes that for both research and health care purposes, it will be important to understand the experiences of those people who do not recognize—or do not have the time to think about—their eco-anxiety.
Finally, we wanted to ask, how does all this apply to better understanding how we can work to address climate change? To start, those of us working in climate engagement and action as our day jobs, can, as Renée Lertzman’s resource hub ProjectInsideOut.net suggests, ‘adopt a Guiding mindset’. If you are interested in this approach, check out the website for guides, activities and tools to incorporate into your climate action and advocacy work.
A practical example of incorporating emotional awareness in climate communications, is found in the Global Footprint Network’s online Ecological Footprint calculator. The tool, which we incorporate into our Power to Change grade 9/10 programs, builds in emotional reflection with some fun emoji prompts. After you’ve clicked through the tool and received your personal Earth Overshoot Day and Footprint results it asks, “Now that you know your Footprint, how do you feel?” and offers a series of emojis to choose from ranging from shocked, to worried, to inspired which then link to an empathetic message that offers next steps and further support.