Here is our full interview with Sarah Ray, a professor in environmental studies at Humbolt State University and the author of A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet. What is climate anxiety, and how can we recognize it?
Climate anxiety is the fear of environmental degradation or doom. Eco-anxiety is more general, it can be, for example, a fear of fire that's not necessarily linked to climate change. Climate change has got its own unique set of anxieties like it being systemic and bigger than all of us. The term has a downside of being put into the category of mental health, so it gets treated like a mental health issue just like depression and anxiety. Some people prefer the term climate distress, because it highlights the social phenomenon around it, by emphasizing that it's a systemic problem and politicizes it more.
Doom scrolling about climate news and having trouble unplugging from bad news is a sign that you might be dealing with climate anxiety. When it affects your ability to go to sleep at night, perform basic wellbeing functions, and keeping healthy. Also, if you're having a hard time appreciating the environment and nature around you, and all you sense is a threat, that's a very strong sign. How can we overcome it?
Climate anxiety makes people think it's their fault that the planet's like this. They think they shouldn't take care of themselves as a form of redemption, like they need to sacrifice themselves for the planet. So when they realize they are complicit in these problems, they think their comfort and health are causing them, because they consume and take individual action and have desires for happiness, so the anxiety makes them think they have to suffer to fix climate change. You don't, it's not your fault, that's how it operates.
Your cognitive dissonance around this goes to thinking the problem is so big it's your fault and therefore the best thing you can do is wipe yourself off the planet, and that's nihilism. Powerlessness is like a function of capitalism teaching us to not feel like we can control the conditions of our lives, and the vast majority of the news media around climate change is really negative. It is for a reason, it gets eyeballs, and the reason it does is that we have a negativity bias psychologically and we gravitate towards bad news, that's what our fear receptors are telling us is going to protect us. Our reptilian brain tells us that if we look fear in the eye, we'll be protected. That fuels the supply of news, it responds to that demand, and we then have this terrible feedback loop of being in a climate doom reality. That's the ecosystem of our storytelling. And that's the number one thing we can be conscious about when dealing with climate anxiety. Being really clear about how media operates in our lives psychologically.
You can be very informed about climate and not necessarily go down that rabbit hole. Also, actively seeking out stories that give you hope, show you great things that are happening, and that you're not alone and there are people to take inspiration from. How can we find a sense of community?
The number one thing people can do is foster their well-being and take care of themselves to take care of the planet. Whether that's through a support group or starting to meditate. It's going to be different for everyone, support groups can be talk therapy, but you're connecting collectively with other people to fix the problem in any environmental volunteer situation. They're both legit and both provide a community. What can we do to become more resilient?
Reflecting on how climate is connected to you, identifying your fears, figuring out how it appears in your daily life. Asking: What would it take for me to desire a future? Rather than fear. What would it take to not fear? People don't stop and think how big of an impact climate is having on their mental health, so reflecting on it is an important step.
The planet needs you to be resilient and resilience is the ability to find hope and purpose despite bad things happening. So, what works for me is using the anxiety to protect what I love and that's under threat. Bringing the attention of fear to the objects of our love and creating conditions and nurturing them to thrive. That habit of doing that is a real skill for resilience. Resilience is the ability to move away from our brains that consistently tells us to feel fear, and choose to focus it on love instead. What message do you have to our readers?
Young people live in a threshold shift where consensus, normalcy and stability are shifting. They grew up in a moment where everything is changing towards instability. The generations after will have instability built-in. That's particularly and uniquely painful for that generation. But the awakening that's happening culturally is really uplifting and that generation is the cause of that awakening, and will be the main beneficiaries of it too.
Our future its not written in stone and we don't know what this generation is going to do. It's the largest generation in U.S. history, and that's a lot of power. The political power they already have shaped the conversation radically in a way the climate movement has been trying for decades.
They're going to need to get wise fast about how it's not all doom, and how essential their mental health is for saving the planet. That's just not negotiable, indulging despair is not possible anymore. That generation is going to have to militantly protect joy in their lives, and become wise about it really fast.
We also need to shine a light on human-made solutions. We talk a lot about how humans got us here to begin with, and while that's true, there are humans every day successfully conserving and restoring ecosystems and the planet.* Want more content like this? Sign up to the Seedlings email, which as well as keeping you informed, gives you one positive step to do each week.