Climate anxiety or climate distress? Coping with the pain of the climate emergency

October 19, 2019 § Leave a comment


The phrase ‘climate anxiety’ has hit headlines in the last few months and a lot of people have been asking me about it – what it is, how common it is and how to cope.

I prefer to talk about ‘climate distress’, partly because it doesn’t have the overtones of a diagnosis, and partly because people are usually describing a whole range of painful feelings, many of which are not anxiety.

It’s normal to be upset

For a long time, many people have kept the real meaning of climate change at bay – they know what it is, know vaguely what it means but have refused to let its full impact hit them. This has become much harder over the last year: public protest has made it difficult to escape.

The feelings which arrive when you let yourself think about the climate crisis properly can be overwhelming. People describe feeling shock, feeling disorientated, being pole-axed by fear and knocked sideways by their own sense of powerlessness. Sometimes there is a panicky sense of disbelief – ‘This can’t be true, surely it’s not true.’ Often people are angry. Sometimes there are terrible feelings of guilt and shame, particularly if you are someone who has ignored the facts for a long time.

It’s important to recognise that these feelings are normal. They are the feelings we all have when we receive a piece of very bad news, something which – like the death of someone close to us – is life-changing.

Recovering from the first shock, understanding the knowledge properly, integrating it into daily life, deciding how to respond and what to do, are tasks which take time and are rarely complete. As with grief, we return to the pain again and again.

In the depths of it we cannot imagine ever being free of its horror. It may not help to be told that the acuteness of feeling will pass but most people do gradually develop a greater sense of calm, a slightly surer sense of what to do and the ability to continue to live in the face of the loss.

Three things which help: action, support and integration

In research into the experiences of climate activists Paul Hoggett and I found that three things made an immediate difference:

  • involvement in action helped people feel less powerless;
  • the support of others – talking, sharing, being together – helped people explore and work through the pain of knowledge;
  • integrating the knowledge through adjustments to their own lives and plans for the future – for example finding work in the sector or giving up flying – produced a new feeling of purpose.

In the longer term it was critical that the actions taken were both commensurate with the problem and compatible with some kind of normal life. Many of the people we interviewed had gone through a period of unsustainable, manic activity which had resulted in burnout.

In the resolution of this burnout people seemed to come to a different place. They held on to the urgency and need for action but no longer read the climate news compulsively and no longer talked endlessly about the detail and terror of the facts. These informed everything they did but they were able to park the knowledge and give more balanced attention to what needed to be done.

Finding the right action for you

Action on climate change doesn’t necessarily mean involvement in direct action. Important though this is, not everyone is able to take part and there are many other political campaigns (on transport, air quality, food for example) and many personal actions (lobbying MPs, letter-writing, changing one’s own life-style) that can also make a difference and give you back some feeling of agency.

When you just can’t cope…

Problems arise if you can no longer shut knowledge of climate emergency away but are unable to respond to it meaningfully. You may lack support and others to talk with. Your life may be so locked in – to a high-carbon lifestyle or simply to the responsibilities of work and family – that you cannot find time or space to do anything effective. Alternatively, you may be so caught up in the urgency of action, traumatised by both the knowledge of the climate emergency and the difficulty of achieving change, that you cannot stop long enough to find support for yourself.

This is when people can become seriously depressed or anxious. Some become preoccupied with the terror of imminent disaster. Some masochistically punish themselves by immersing themselves repetitively in each new scrap of bad news. Some burn out.

These are times when professional help may be useful. If you’re affected like this, you may be able to find a therapist independently but the Climate Psychology Alliance is also developing a network of therapists who are knowledgeable about climate issues and who can offer support. You can contact them here.


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