Climate Anxiety Is Not a Psych Disorder

“If cultural values are ‘off,’ the culture degrades and dies off in some way or other, sooner or later,” a friend of mine commented. (And this is true of individuals as well, at least according to my own experience with going astray from my own values that I know are sound.)

On this subject, I just read an article about how “climate anxiety therapy” has become a growing category of psychotherapy (“Climate Change Enters the Therapy Room; New York Times”).

Make no mistake, I wholeheartedly believe it’s essential for people to learn how to handle their emotions so as not to get eaten alive by them or take them out on others. Our privileged society, relatively insulated from hardships, is not good at showing people how to deal with their feelings. I’m sure this is a big part of why, despite being awash in luxuries compared with most people from around the world and throughout history, we have so much drug abuse, mental illness and gun violence — and also verbal violence.

A personal note about grief: After my Dad died, I often heard Mom apologizing for crying, and generally berating herself for not being OK. I tried to reassure her she was having a perfectly normal reaction to losing the love of her life who she’d lived with for almost 50 years. But she just kept on feeling bad for feeling bad.

So yeah, we as a society absolutely need to get better at accepting the existence of “negative” feelings, and recognizing that they are valid. And I think that anxiety and grief about ecosystems collapse and other destruction happening on the planet are healthy, appropriate feelings in response to the horrific planetary reality that is finally reaching our shores (and that people in less privileged circumstances & places have been dealing with for years). Rather than treating eco-related anxiety and grief as a “problem” for therapists to solve, I think we’d do better to really face up to how our “off” cultural values have led to the planetary conditions that are prompting people to feel grief and anxiety.

‪We should be trying to fix our society’s mindless hyper-consumerism, destructiveness, and disconnection from nature, not trying to “help” people feel better about styrofoam, plastic, heat-domes, massive die-offs of wildlife, and so on.

And definitely we should not be trying to ease people’s grief and anxiety by “reassuring” them that everything is beyond their control; that there’s nothing individuals can do. Handling our emotions in a constructive way is an essential skill, without which neither individuals nor society can be truly healthy. But. we should not be teaching people to “manage” their emotions by disconnecting from the types of pain that are a reasonable reaction to the circumstances.

How about instead, we take our grief, anxiety, rage, or what have you, and channel that energy to push harder at the food corporations that are saddling us with mountains of plastic packaging! And the gadget-makers with their planned obsolescence and constant forced upgrades.

And to push harder at our government leaders to take real action on climate, and protecting biodiversity.

And to write letters to the editors of our newspapers and magazines asking for articles about how to grow food and community, and handle hardship, and look out for our neighbors, and arrange fun local learning opportunities with our kids — instead of articles about what fancy destination we need to fly to for our lavish family vacation, or what new gadget we simply must have?

We could also, instead of (or in addition to) seeking therapy, look more to community, and to spirituality, to help us navigate grief, anxiety, horror, and other feelings, and accept that they are simply part of the human experience, and reach a sort of peace with that.

The NYT article linked above has gotten over 500 comments; you might enjoy reading them along with the article. Here are a few comments I found particularly helpful:

• “Many of us are not just consumers, we’re also stock holders. Take a look at where your money is invested. There are online sources that will evaluate your holdings for sustainability. If you don’t like what you see, vote with your dollars. Let the corporations you sell off know why you’re doing so.”

• “Lots of trolls in this comment section. Don’t let ’em get to you: it’s okay to be worried. But with the worry, find some optimism: We’ve got a lot of work to do, and things will get worse before they get better, but we can still avoid the worst. So do what you can: fly & drive less, eat less red meat, support your favorite environmental non-profit, and hound, hound, hound your representatives to pass climate legislation.”

• “A growing sense of despondency motivated me to get involved in my community to help enact climate smart policies on the local and state level. It is slow going but to actually see progress happening has helped alleviate some of my feelings of powerlessness, guilt and anxiety. The more of us who get involved and make our voices heard the better. Give it a try. You will meet likeminded people who will help carry the workload of making positive changes happen.”

• “I certainly wouldn’t want well-meaning, overworked people to feel terribly guilty about their carbon footprints, but I wish Dr. Doherty wouldn’t treat our carbon footprints as the fault of corporations alone. There are many things that people can do to lower their footprints and then feel better about themselves. The simple life can be a pleasure as both Thoreau and Stephanie Mills have pointed out. And you don’t have to work as hard to support such a life.”

• “Climate anxiety has changed the way I parent – for the better. My focus is on enjoying every day and every experience we have. I don’t feel comfortable doing some of the carbon heavy “fun things” families do – like flying to exotic destinations – but we do as much as we can locally to explore and enjoy life. I don’t care much about what college my kids get into or what career they choose. I’ve let go of that stressful, future- and achievement-oriented life. It is far too late to do anything to change what’s coming around 2050. For now, we live!”

Getting back to the opening of this post, about the importance of having sound values (and practicing them), and knowing when we are “off”: This actually leads to happiness. Real, lasting happiness.

We humans, like any other biological organism, have an innate instinct to avoid pain and maximize pleasure. It’s natural! That said, pain (be it in the form of sadness, grief, anxiety, anger, or what have you) exists for a reason. Substances, and entertainments, and finger-pointing at the “bad guys,” can temporarily ease our pain. But the ease is only temporary. Whereas when we face our pain and look for the root causes and start to address those, the relief is immense, deep, and ongoing. Which is not to say life will ever be pain-free. But when I look at all the people I know who seem truly happy, the things they have in common are that they’re engaged in some endeavor that is deeply meaningful to them and serves others; and that they are willing to face difficult feelings in themselves and others.

All of that said, I can REALLY identify with people who are experiencing eco anxiety, climate grief and so on. Sometimes I have felt utterly desolate. And many many times I’ve felt just like the woman in the article who was agonizing while grocery-shopping because some nuts she wanted to buy came packaged in layers upon stupid layers of plastic. For sure, eco anxiety, all those choices to make, often with a lack of real alternatives, constant drip-feed day in and day out, is real! So what are we going to do with the anxiety? Use it as jetpack fuel to push for deep change, would be one good answer.

In closing, I was just reminded of a favorite quote of mine. It’s from Jiddu Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”