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.


Talking to friends about climate change

April 30, 2013 § 5 Comments

Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself engaged in a number of difficult conversations with friends. I met someone who one day was celebrating the purchase of some cheap outfits from Matalan and the next horrified at the collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh. Another friend is enthusiastically exploring consultancy opportunities in China. A third has flown half across the world for two days work in London and intends to do so again, later in the year.

Opening up difficult conversations

I repeat the same advice to people who ask me how to deal with conversations like this: listen; open up the conversation; try to understand the other person’s position; empathise with the dilemmas; explore the conflicts; try not to get angry. I still think this is good advice but are there occasions when it’s not appropriate? Definitely. There are times when you need to challenge someone, times when you should get angry and times when you might risk falling out with even your closest friends.

As a therapist I spend a lot of time trying to understand other people’s experience. Empathy is essential. It’s critical to appreciate the complexity of someone’s mixed and conflicting feelings. You need to have compassion for the anxiety that produces paralysis and for the fragile self that struggles with self-criticism and self-doubt. You need to attend to the unconscious roots of seemingly irrational behaviour and self-destructive actions. You listen; you suspend judgment; you try to help someone through the tangle to a more creative solution.

Authenticity and truthfulness

But there are also times in therapy when you challenge someone. Authenticity and truthfulness matter as well and it doesn’t help to be a pushover or to collude with someone’s self-destructive impulse. I once listened for a long time to a man explaining his distress at losing his driving licence following a series of speeding incidents. He was struggling with alcohol but had somehow avoided being breathalysed and had to date succeeded in avoiding accidents too. After a while of listening to his self-justifications, I said ‘Actually, I think the court was right.’ He was angry with me, but I was also standing up for a better part of himself, the part that knew that he was dangerous behind the wheel.

Understanding the defensive moves

These situations are always complicated. Sometimes a friend is trying to wind you up. If they can succeed in becoming the victim of your anger they can feel relieved of any guilt they feel. You will be in the wrong for attacking them. They will be the innocent party. Sometimes a friend is seeking your absolution. They want to be accepted and forgiven for acts they feel are not really justifiable. They treat you as a parent who will offer compassion for their powerlessness or their need to be special. Sometimes a friend is asking you to collude. They are inviting you to share in their denial, encouraging you to ease their guilt by joining them in pleasures it might be better to forfeit.

In the course of one of these conversations you will encounter all the defensive moves that Stoll-Kleeman and colleagues[i] describe so well in their discussion of climate change denial. Things like:

  • It’s the clothing company’s responsibility not mine
  • If I don’t buy from Matalan, the garment workers won’t have jobs
  • I’m too small to make a difference
  • The plane was going anyway
  • China needs people like us to put them on the right track
  • My contribution is unique – I have to go there to make it
  • I have to make a living
  • If I don’t do this, someone else will
  • It’s too late for mitigation

It is important to address these objections sympathetically, explore their origins, tease out their emotional charge and the social constraints that reinforce them. But it is also important to hold your ground, know when you are being manipulated and when to offer a challenge.

Gregory Bateson

In the 1970s, systems theorist and polymath Gregory Bateson expressed this moral challenge very clearly in an appeal which drew, surprisingly, on St Paul. If ever there was a man who understood the intricacies of both human relationships and ecology, it was Bateson, but here he is with a crystal clear statement of what I have elsewhere called ‘the ‘no’ of nature’[ii] – the incontrovertible fact of the limits of nature which challenge our narcissism, our phantasies of immortality and our blindness.

“The hardest saying in the bible is that of St Paul, addressing the Galatians: ‘God is not mocked,’ and this saying applies to the relationship between man and his ecology. It is of no use to plead that a particular sin of pollution or exploitation was only a little one or that it was unintentional or that it was committed with the best intentions. Or that ‘If I didn’t, somebody else would have’. The processes of ecology are not mocked.”  Bateson 1970 p.480[iii]

Sometimes this is a challenge which needs to be spoken straight.

[i] Stoll-Kleeman, S., O’Riordan T. and Jaeger, C (2001) The psychology of denial concerning climate mitigation measures: evidence from Swiss focus groups. Global Environmental Change, 11: 107-117.

[ii] Randall, Rosemary (2012) Great Expectations: the psychodynamics of ecological debt. In Weintrobe, Sally (2012) Engaging with Climate Change. London: Routledge.

[iii] Bateson, Gregory, (1970) Ecology and flexibility in urban civilisation, in Steps to an ecology of mind. 1973, Granada publishing P.480.

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