For many viewers, watching Chernobyl crystallised parallels between widespread cultural panic around the nuclear threat and what we’re feeling now in the face of climate change. For veteran activists and therapists, the link has been clear for some time.
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Max St John, 41, had experienced symptoms of anxiety in the past. After reading the global warming report by the IPCC in 2018, he once again felt a similar sense of panic set in that he’d experienced earlier in life. And though he’d chosen not to read it, even just following social media conversations about Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation paper on the risk of social collapse under climate change disrupted his sleep for a brief period.
He found it hard to enjoy his surroundings or quality time with his family as low-level despair set in. “It wasn’t so much a worry that I chewed over, but more a growing sense of doom that lay a filter over my daily experience,” he says.
In addition to Bendell’s paper, David Attenborough’s 2019 documentary Climate Change: The Facts; changes to climate terminology re-naming it a full-blown ‘crisis’; and news about how climate change affects insect populations have also made people more aware of their vulnerability, “something we’ve been quite split off from,” says Caroline Hickman, a teaching fellow at the University of Bath and member of the executive committee of the Climate Psychology Alliance.
Luckily, coaches and therapists are as well aware as activists of the urgent need for systems of self-care as we find ways to live day-to-day in the face of climate crisis. And in fact, many therapeutic techniques developed during the Cold War to help people cope with nuclear anxiety are eerily applicable today.
Start by celebrating the good
Back in the 1980s, when the nuclear threat was at its most acute, an activist called Joanna Macy introduced a four-step program for dealing with this type of stress. The Work That Reconnects is now being used to process climate anxiety. Models like The Work That Reconnects provide a simple outline for addressing anxiety while respecting the fact that climate change is a real and pressing concern for us all.
The Work is a four-step process that starts, surprisingly, with gratitude. Yes, many of us feel a great sense of horror at doing anything involving a gratitude journal, but evidence that links appreciation with good mental health is now stronger than ever. Gratitude can lift mood, lower stress levels, improve social connections and strengthen immune systems.
Now 90, Macy no longer does interviews, but in The Work she makes the case that practicing gratitude before confronting anxiety grounds us. Chris Johnstone, who co-wrote a book, Active Hope, with Macy in 2012, concurs. “Sometimes people can feel a little bit impatient with gratitude,” says Johnstone. “They can feel like: ‘I’ve got all this pain about the world. I want to get in there. Gratitude is not how I’m feeling.’ But when you give attention to gratitude, it gives you a stronger starting point to face what’s difficult.”
If the idea of keeping a gratitude journal makes you nauseous, there are plenty of other options for low-cringe gratitude practices. Macy’s website has a few climate-specific alternatives (discussion prompts, nature walks, mindfulness meditations) to get you started, but your gratitude doesn’t have to be for nature—it can be for anything you love and value (and could well be the things that you feel most anxious about protecting from climate crisis).
Mourn the loss
Climate change is already affecting all of us, from local agricultural economies to the lives and locations of entire communities. Vulnerable populations will be hurt worst first, and already have been. Drought has forced thousands to migrate from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and is the leading factor in the explosive migration of millions from Syria, and sub-Saharan African nations. Meanwhile, rising sea levels risk making millions stateless in low-lying Bangladesh, Polynesia and the Maldives. Wildfires in the Amazon are razing the homes of 306,000 indigenous people.
For young people especially, anxiety about the climate might involve mourning lost possibilities.
Jamie Margolin, 17, is an activist who experiences anxiety around climate issues every day. Around two years ago, Margolin was diagnosed with anxiety and OCD, with symptoms of depression. In this same period, she began working as an activist by setting up a campaign organisation, Zero Hour, and organising a march in Washington DC.
She had been exhibiting symptoms of anxiety since the age of 11, she recalls, but climate coverage became a trigger in the summer of 2017. “It was just hurricanes and floods and wildfires all over the news all the time,” she says. “I was reading all these doomsday climate articles that [New York magazine] was putting out and they were just like, ‘No matter what we do, we’re fucked. We’re screwed. We’re never going to make it out of this.’
Margolin says, “And so I just kind of spiraled into depression: ‘Oh my god, nothing I do matters because this world isn’t going to be livable.’ I was like, ‘What am I working so hard for? What am I studying for? What am I planning for?’”
The second step in The Work is tapping into anxiety, fear, grief, anger, numbness—whatever emotions come out when you think about climate crisis. In her writing, Macy breaks this stage down even further into six mini-steps: acknowledging our pain for the world; validating it as a wholesome response; letting ourselves experience this pain; feeling ok about expressing it to others; recognising how widely it is shared by others; and understanding that it springs from our caring and connectedness.
In groups, “mourning” might involve sitting together and using objects to symbolise emotions that people can touch or hold, saying how they feel. On your own, a mindfulness meditation like Tara Brach’s RAIN (recognising, allowing, investigating, nurturing) can be a helpful model.
Imagine a better world
Harking back to its 1980s roots, the new-agey original name for this third step is “seeing with new eyes”—using experience, empathy and imagination to get away from a hopeless, solipsistic position, and to connect with a wider social mission to confront climate change. What’s the best outcome for this situation? Could it be OK?
One group exercise Macy recommends that you can also do alone, is to think of a time in your life when something important and good happened because of what you said or did. It doesn’t have to be a political or social change, either—remembering a time when you fixed something at work, or a step you took to help someone, could also work here. Recapture the scene and play it back in your mind. Ask someone else the same question and, when they tell their story, try to listen out for what strengths or qualities enabled this person to make a difference. The idea is to remind yourself of your own power and agency, so any exercise that achieves that goal would be effective here.
Make plans to take action
The fourth and final step in The Work, “going forth,” is about making a plan of what you’d like to do next. For Margolin, “taking action” by organising the Zero Hour march was a tonic for her anxiety. “I got so consumed with organising all the logistics and emails and putting on this march and doing this thing that I kind of got detached,” she says. “You are so busy that you don’t have time to lie around feeling helpless. That was a positive experience and it helped a lot.”
Margolin also kept using techniques for general anxiety alongside her activism: “I have my own internal coping mechanisms, [which is] how I cope with anxiety. I take deep breaths, kind of step back and I tell myself, ‘OK, that’s just anxiety talking’. But in terms specific to climate anxiety, my only coping mechanism is doing the work.”
For St John, his key tasks are parenting his kids, four and seven, and living in a way that demonstrates his values. “I’m trying to be clear about what is and isn’t within my control or influence,” he says. “I’ve massively cut down on meat and dairy, I rarely fly, I grow my own [fruit and vegetables], I consume less (clothes, food, products) than I ever have before.”
It’s not just personal changes that temper St John’s anxiety—he also works and volunteers as an educator in his local community. “I’m not afraid to talk about climate change or the impact of consumerism with other people who might not share my views,” he says. “I hold talks locally and work with kids to get them to really connect with nature. All these are things that allow me to have an influence but without trying to change or control other people.”
Investigate your anxiety
If, after all that, you’re still feeling overwhelmed, ask yourself if other sources of stress in your life might be making anxiety about the climate feel unbearable in day-to-day life. Beth Collier (MA, MBACP), is a qualified integrative psychotherapist, tutor, and author. Collier says that although people are increasingly talking about ‘eco anxiety’ or ‘climate anxiety’, in her experience it rarely presents in therapy—that is to say, clients rarely raise the issue.
But, she says, “This is not to say that wider political issues are not relevant or that concerns about them aren’t valid.” Taking steps to manage feelings of anxiety and depression will leave you better equipped to handle climate-specific worries—preventing burnout and helping you refocus on activism.
In terms of practical advice, Collier says that people can do a lot to prevent burnout and explore anxiety by simply paying attention to them. “There’s a benefit of working with a therapist, but I wouldn’t say that you need to,” she says. “It’s about emotional honesty: asking, ‘What’s going on with me?’ Like layers of an onion, trying to sort of peel back and work out, ‘Where’s what I’m feeling coming from?’”
She adds, “It might be triggered by a daily event in the office, for example. Noticing you have a strong reaction, wondering, ‘Why am I reacting to this in that way?’ As you peel back layers, you might discover it actually stems from earlier experiences.”
The US’s NIMH distinguishes a disorder as anxiety that ‘does not go away’ or gets worse over time, whose symptoms interfere with school, work or relationships. And in the UK, the NHS advises that people see a doctor if they find that worrying “significantly” affects daily life, feels uncontrollable, or if they have felt worried “nearly every day” for at least six months.
However, feeling that way for even just two months would be enough to warrant a trip to check in with a professional, says Dr Dominique Thompson, a GP, author and expert on young people’s health. “Anxiety is a genuine and exhausting condition which affects many people,” she says. “It requires a compassionate and supportive approach. If debilitating symptoms are adversely affecting people’s lives then it is important to assess them non-judgmentally and objectively, whatever their cause.”
If you think you may need help, seek it out, and know that millions of other people across the globe are just as concerned as you are.