March 1, 2024

7 ways to deal with climate despair

FForget climate anxiety: many people are in total climate despair. About two-thirds of Americans (65%) say they are concerned about global warming, according to a January report from the Yale Climate Communication Program. One in ten say they have recently felt depressed because of their worries about the planet, and a similar percentage describe feeling nervous or like they can’t stop worrying about global warming.

No wonder more people seek care from climate-conscious therapists. Some go to therapy to find out whether they should have children in the era of rapid climate change. Others are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder caused by natural disasters or are burnt out from advocacy work.

But if the threat is existential, is it worth figuring out how you feel about it? “The first step is complete validation,” says Leslie Davenport, a climate psychology educator and author of books including Emotional resilience in the era of climate change: a clinical guide. “Things like, ‘That makes a lot of sense, I’m listening, I understand, let’s talk about this more.’” Understand that it’s not irrational to be filled with worry, anger, fear, guilt, or sadness when the planet is on fire.

Here, climate-conscious therapists share their most effective coping strategies for going from overwhelmed to empowered.

Talk about it.

Climate change tends to get the religious and political treatment — people avoid talking about it, says Carol Bartels, a therapist based in Long Beach, California. “But we need to talk about it,” she adds. “We need to know if other people are feeling the same.”

Join a climate café – discussion spaces, both online and in person, where people can talk freely about their fears and other feelings related to climate change. Or try the Good Grief Network, a peer support group that follows a 10-step approach to help people process any type of grief, including for the planet.

Use your connections.

Research suggests that the more lonely and socially isolated someone feels, the greater their levels of climate distress. Finding your people can help. Join local land restoration efforts, get involved in community gardening, or visit your favorite park’s cleanup day. “A lot of the messages we get are very individualistic, like ‘Stop driving so much,’” says Jenni Silverstein, a licensed clinical social worker who lives in Santa Rosa, California, an area that has been devastated by wildfires. “These actions are valuable, but this is a collective situation and it is in collective responses that we have power.” We accomplish more with others than we do alone, she adds.

If you’re struggling to find a like-minded community, think about where you already have a foot in the door. If you work in the medical field, for example, ask your colleagues if they want to help start an initiative to reduce waste, suggests Davenport, or if your department could oversee a new rooftop garden. “You have some influence – you’re already part of a community,” she says. “If each of us got involved in the places where we already work, it would make a huge difference.”

Analyze your carbon footprint.

Some people cope with climate suffering by distancing themselves from the problem—ignoring it, hoping it will go away, says Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C., who co-founded the Climate Psychiatry Alliance. It’s more effective to “take the energy of all those emotions and redirect it into constructive action,” she says, and that starts with analyzing your own carbon footprint. Online calculators can help you determine the total amount of greenhouse gases generated by your actions. It can also be helpful to simply take inventory of your habits, Van Susteren points out: Could you walk or bike instead of driving to work? How about reducing CO2 emissions by taking the train instead of the plane? “Be honest with yourself to understand the opportunities and challenges,” she advises.

Share your opinions.

This is no time for humility. Make sure everyone around you knows what you’re doing to combat climate change, says Van Susteren. “What motivates people is not our independence – we follow the crowd.” Someone may not make green choices in the interests of future generations, but they will if everyone else does. So post on Facebook about your advocacy work or the trees you planted. and tell whoever is next to you at parties.

If you’re surrounded by people who don’t seem to prioritize the environment as much as you do, lead by example rather than trying to change their minds, advises Bartels. She grows fruits and vegetables and shares them with her neighbors, for example – even those who don’t care about climate-friendly lifestyles. If you ask about her garden, she explains how to get started. “Being mad at people doesn’t do anything,” she says. “It is important to keep the dialogue open. When we turn people who could be our allies into enemies, we make a serious mistake.”

Make it a family issue.

Some research suggests that climate change is especially affecting the mental health of young people. If your children come to you with concerns, listen to them and validate them, says Van Susteren. Then imagine how your whole family can act together. If your kids are young, “they won’t talk about climate tipping points, but they might say, ‘Let’s plant a garden, let’s clean up a park. Let’s show Mother Earth that we care about her.’”

High school students enjoy doing things with their community, she adds, so consider banding together to raise money to install solar panels at the school. Older teens may want to start or join climate clubs; If they express interest in going to a protest, ask if they would like you to accompany them or if you can help them get there. “You can also hold family meetings and say, ‘We take your feelings seriously and have decided as a family that these are some of the things we can do,’” suggests Van Susteren. For example, “’This is why we won’t fly here or there; Instead, let’s take a hybrid and drive through the Shenandoah, camp, and look at the stars.’” Brainstorm activities or changes that will help you all feel like you’re making a difference.

Be artistic.

Making art can help people regulate and work through their emotions, says Ariella Cook-Shonkoff, a psychotherapist in Berkeley, Calif., who specializes in art therapy and ecotherapy. “You’re doing repetitive, patterned movements and getting into a state of flow,” she says. Try it in the natural world – drawing in front of the ocean or on a bench in the forest, for example.

She often challenges clients to use color, shape, and line to express how they are feeling in that moment. You might be surprised by what comes out on paper; art is a way to explore thoughts you didn’t even know you had, says Cook-Shonkoff. By studying the finished work and trying to understand its meaning, you can gain a deeper understanding of how you are really feeling. “You can start to distill those emotions and be able to communicate them to other people,” she says. “There’s a lot of dialogue that can happen.”

Enjoy the time outside.

Spending time outdoors in green spaces benefits well-being – although Davenport acknowledges it can be complex. You go to your favorite lake, but it’s closed because there is toxic algae growth caused by the warm water. A walk in the woods in the depths of winter is lovely, but the unseasonal heat unnerves you. “Love and sadness are two sides of the same coin,” she says. It’s worth working through challenging feelings, she says, “because it can renew your sense of why it’s important to fight for it.”

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