Krista Kurth, Ph.D.
How to Acknowledge and Work with Your Anxiety about the Future of the Planet
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
Tips for Recognizing and Dealing with Eco-Anxiety
We live in troubling and uncertain times. There are many reasons to be anxious about the state of the world and the future of our planet, particularly given what is happening in the United States in 2020.
I wake up worrying about whether we will do enough to get to global net-zero by 2050. Will the U.S. continue its backtracking on environmental protection after the election, or will we be able to reengage in taking significant climate action with a split government? The uncertainty of this outcome has me feeling what the experts call “eco-anxiety,” also known as “climate change distress,” “eco-trauma,” “eco-angst,” or “ecological grief.”
Since my fear of environmental doom and frustration with the speed and scale of climate action are likely to remain for the foreseeable future, I have been exploring how to expand my capacity to recognize and hold my challenging feelings and then redirect my emotional energy in more productive and supportive ways.
I have discovered there are some clear steps and tips to help me (and you) along the way:
1. Recognize what we are feeling and how it is affecting us.
2. Do something to accept what we are feeling and allow it to move through us.
3. Redirect our energy towards positive climate action.
How to Recognize Eco-Anxiety
Eco-Angst, like any type of anxiety, can be stealthy and hard to recognize. And when we don’t pay attention to it, the stress builds and accumulates. Therefore, the experts say that the most important tool in dealing with anxiety is to learn to recognize when you are feeling it. Kevin Gatley, in his article on Anxiety Tools for Uncertain Times, reminds us that “if we can get zeroed in on our anxiety signs, we can get to work and avoid many of the extreme symptoms.”
According to Crystal Raypole and other experts, there are some clear signs of eco-anxiety you can monitor. You might feel:
an increased sense of hopelessness or existential dread about the planet’s future
depressed, anxious, or panicked when seeing the news
grief and sadness over the loss of natural environments or wildlife populations
frustrated with the lack of action and progress by those in power
angry toward those who say climate change is a hoax
guilt, shame, or regret about the size of your own carbon footprint
like you’re obsessing about the climate crisis and doomscrolling
traumatized by living through a climate disaster
a sense of powerlessness and despair
restless and unable to sleep
Do you have any of these symptoms? Pay attention over the next week and journal about how your eco-anxiety presents itself. If you are uncertain you’re experiencing climate change distress, Gatley suggests that “any unusual or uncomfortable sensations and feelings you are experiencing, or some that you have previously experienced but could not explain until now, are likely due to anxiety.”
Once you know that you are experiencing eco-angst, the next step is to pay attention to what you’re feeling in a way that supports you. Although it’s tempting and understandable to want to avoid your distress, the experts advise against it. If you deny your emotions, your dread will probably intensify, and it will be harder to take climate action. Instead, when you find yourself panicking about the state of the climate crisis, honor your feelings in a way that allows you to move forward.
If reading about the symptoms has raised your anxiety, take a moment now to pause and focus on your breath. Breathe in deep. Breathe out long.
How to Work with Your Eco-Anxiety
If eco-anxiety has you in its grips, it’s best to do an activity that will help you tolerate your feelings better. You can use techniques suggested for general anxiety and eco-therapeutic exercises.
Typical Anxiety Reducing Techniques
Soothe your body by taking some deep breaths, going for a walk, exercising, dancing, taking a warm shower or bath, drinking cold water, covering yourself with a weighted blanket, or orienting yourself in the present moment using all your senses to experience safety at the moment.
Calm your mind by writing in your journal about your anxiety, listening to calming music, engaging in art, doing something with your hands that brings your attention to the present moment, or doing a meditation exercise like compassionate abiding or one where you observe your thoughts like clouds passing in the sky. You might try to find an app, like the Calm App, to guide you.
Seek emotional support by phoning a friend, asking a loved one to hold you until you calm down, or trying Tapping, a technique that helps you accept and move through challenging feelings. You don’t have to hold your eco-anxiety or grief by yourself. If your anxiety is overwhelming, seek additional support from a counselor, or religious leader.
Other Suggestions from Experts for Working with Eco-Anxiety
Reframe your anxiety. Smile and remember you are anxious because you love life on earth and want it to remain for a long time. The love at the root of your anxiety is the greatest source of compassion and courage.
Limit your exposure to news. While there is a genuine need to have access to information, we can get easily overwhelmed. Chasing news headlines is a recipe for anxiety that can feed on itself. So, consume with care. Gatley says, “Give yourself 30 minutes a day to engage with the media. Learn what you need to and then take the information and move on with your day. If you find that the news is typically a trigger for your anxiety, be ready to take action after you’ve gotten your information.” He also suggests if you must read something, read positive news stories. Check out the Good Grief Network or the World Wildlife Federation’s Good News about Climate Change page.
Get outside. Connecting with nature does wonders. Even though the world is scary right now, natures carries on. The birds are still singing, and the sun is still rising. Gately says, “The ability to find perspective in challenging times by being in nature can help to calm the mind and body and for me is often a tonic for anxiety.” Julia Curran in her photo essay asks, “Are you feeling the way this world is buzzing, thrilling, electric and on the cusp?”
“Are you feeling the way this world is buzzing, thrilling, electric and on the cusp?” Julie Curran
Take part in an Eco-Anxiety webinar. These webinars provide an overview of eco-anxiety and then break participants into discussion groups about how we experience eco-anxiety in day-to-day life.
Work with an Eco-psychologist, someone who has both therapy skills and knowledge about the climate crisis. To learn more, check out Mary-Jayne Rust, a British eco-psychologist, or Dr. Susan Kassouf, who writes about climate psychology.
Use eco-psychology practices on your own. In a recent article, Christyl Rivers Ph.D. outlines several helpful eco-psychology strategies:
Acknowledge reality by going outside and opening your senses to what is happening around you, both dismal and wonderful. Rivers suggests you “let your body feel gravity, balance, thirst and hunger, and every other sensation that binds you to your biological family, and therefore, your belonging.” Feel the sun on your face. It "is our primary hope for limitless electric energy, and photosynthetic transformation.” In connection with nature you will find “resilience, inspiration, beauty, grace, and wisdom.”
Don’t give away your power by blaming others for our situation. Rivers writes that we tend to“blame others as a way to excuse ourselves, while assuring ourselves ‘They did it, not me.’” Become more conscious of when, how, and why you feel guilt, or how you project it as blame. Claim your power to make a difference. As Jane Goodall puts it, “Every choice you make makes a difference. Just choose the difference you wish to make.”
Give yourself a break. You need to care for yourself and take climate action. It’s like putting your oxygen mask on first in an emergency. Give yourself time to feel what you feel and be gentle with yourself. Find a safe space to hang out in where you feel nurtured, whether that is with a partner or in nature. Remember that life usually goes on. What’s happening is the sound of people waking up to the new reality of our world.
Remember that life usually goes on. What’s happening is the sound of people waking up to the new reality of our world.
How to Redirect Your Emotional Energy
Once you’ve worked with your eco-angst enough so it’s no longer overwhelming you, the next best thing to do is to redirect your emotional energy toward positive action. Psychologists often advise those dealing with challenging emotions to step outside their own worries to serve others. Gately states that when you take meaningful action grounded in courage and compassion, you feel less alone and more powerful, and is a brilliant response to eco-anxiety.
Take climate action. Use your concern about the world to make a difference. Double down on something you are already doing or identify a new action you can take to reduce Greenhouse gases. For instance, join a new climate group, or assist someone who is significantly affected by climate catastrophe. You can learn more about what actions you can take as an individual in this article on The Most Impactful Climate Actions You Can Take.
Share and protect nature. Christyl Rivers, Phd. suggests we join with others in enjoying and conserving the environment, “whether it be through gardening, conservation efforts, outdoor recreation, activism and cleanups, or quiet contemplation and mindfulness.” When we do, we amplify our effort. Leah Stokes, an author in the anthology, All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, says that when we broaden the circles in which we take climate action, we have more impact. And often, it is the support that comes with partnership and community that keeps us going when solutions seem far off.
Become a Tender Warrior. Maria Shriver, in her Sunday Paper Newsletter, recently encouraged us all to become tender warriors. She says, “It is time for the tender warrior: courageous in thought, word, and deed... The tender warrior uses their eyes to see what is,… The tender warrior is an empathetic storyteller, one who is courageous enough to tell the story of where we are with honesty. Their mission is… to reassure us that the future we imagine is, in fact, possible for all of us.”
Cultivate hope and stubborn optimism. It is crucial, amidst all the climate catastrophes, that we keep hope and optimism alive. They empower us and drive our desire to engage, contribute, and make a difference. Christiana Figueres, one of the architects of the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, talks about the need for us who care about the planet to become stubborn optimists. I wrote more about it in this article. The editors of All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, told journalist Sarah Kaplan, “Even though there is so much we can’t save, the other side of that is there is so much that we still can save. So, who are we to give up? What gives us the right to give up on the planet and each other? The subtitle is the answer to ‘If not hope, then what?’ It’s truth, courage and solutions. That’s what’s going to get us there.”
Make and share art about climate change and its impact. Halena Seiferling, an artist and community organizer in Canada, believes “we need the people who dream, create, move, and shake in ways that help the rest of us see exactly what we’re fighting for… We can use art to help us try on new systems, new possible realities, without the certainty of our current reality holding us back and getting in the way. After all, it’s just art.” In particular, we need art of all kinds to envision the world we want to build; a world that is resilient and sustainable, like the one shared in the short film from The Intercept called “A Message From the Future With Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.”
I wish you well as you work with your eco-anxiety. As inspiration, I leave you with this quote from Adrienne Rich.
"My heart is moved by all I cannot save: So much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely
with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world."
All the best,