Managing Ecological Grief and Anxiety Through Action

How do we manage the psychological repercussions associated with the multiple ecological crises we face? Anyone who follows climate change, environmental degradation, or biodiversity loss, knows how stressful it can be. We live in a geological epoch that is a tragic testament to the devastating impact humans have had on this planet. We are depleting, and poisoning the earth, while endangering entire ecosystems and altering the global climate system.  Facing the fact that this is caused by our way of life can be overwhelming. It can be even more stressful to come to terms with the fact that we are rapidly running out of time to do something about it.

Emotions related to these concerns can augur a cascade of adverse psycho-physiological effects. Research shows that environmental stress is linked to a range of negative mental health impacts,  Emotions such as anger, anxiety, distress, depression, despair, and hopelessness can also have adverse impacts on our physical heath. Such sentiments increase cortisol levels which weaken our immune response and contribute to everything from decreased bone density, to spikes in blood pressure and increased risk of heart disease.

Pain (anxiety/grief) and paralysis (apathy/denial)

We need to understand our pain and the tools required to manage it. The first thing we need to understand is that pain has two major maladaptive pathways. It can be projected outward in acts of violence or it can be internalized as fear (sometimes called eco-anxiety), and sadness (sometimes called eco-grief). The American Psychological Association first defined eco-anxiety in 2017 and a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change defines eco-grief as: “The grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change.”

Anxiety and grief are sane responses to our failure to reign in multiple environmental crises. As some have said, “if you’re not terrified, you’re not paying attention”.  However, over time, such states of mind can take a toll on our mental and physical health.  It is easy to succumb to exhaustion because we cannot maintain the high levels of fear that these crises warrant. People feel overwhelmed by the plethora of reports about an impending collapse. Thus, we see people suffering from what has been called apocalypse fatigue (doomsday fatigue, climate fatigue, environment fatigue and green fatigue). 

Fear evolved to help us address threats to our well being. While a certain amount of fear can be motivational, living in a constant states of fear can be debilitating.  Fear can lead to avoidance, just as loss, anger, hopelessness, and despair can cause people to be apathetic and fall prey to denial.  As explained by eco psychologist Joanna Macy, to avoid paralysis we must first honor the pain we feel rather than ignore it in an effort to stave off negative feelings. 

While feelings such as anger, guilt, grief, terror, shame, anxiety, and despair are all legitimate and appropriate reactions to the state of our world, the defenses we erect to deal with these feelings can be maladaptive. When our defenses cause us to deny or disavow reality, they can be considered unhealthy because they prevent us from addressing the cause.

Finding the emotional strength to countenance the crises we face is no easy task.  Simply acknowledging and expressing the grief we feel can help us find the strength and manage the strain.  To ensure that we do not ignore or belittle our feelings, we must consciously make space for sorrow and give ourselves permission to grieve.  Only then can it be channeled in a way that strengthens our resolve and enhances our commitment to defend the biosphere.

Cape Breton University Canada research chair Ashlee Cunsolo Willox argues that in its proper context, pain can build solidarity, support healing, and expand our capacity to act. “Re-casting climate change as the work of mourning means that we can share our losses and encounter them as opportunities for productive and important work,” she says. As the late environmental scientist Donella Meadows explained, feelings can be “motors for change.”

Agency through Activism and ecological fellowship

Ecological fellowship may be the key to transforming negative emotions into productive catalysts.  There is reason to believe that coming together with other like-minded people can help individuals to overcome their feelings of powerlessness. When we align our actions with our principles, we are better able to connect with the planet and all its inhabitants. We need to feel empowered to act and we also need to understand what we can do to make a difference. Empowerment starts with sharing our concerns and working with others on collective action.

US climate activist Bill McKibben argues that the most important thing one can do is to work with others to tackle the climate crisis. We are social creatures; this is rooted in our DNA. Our ability to cooperate is the great strength of our species, and we can leverage this to our collective advantage by fostering social capital in the workplace, at school, in our neighborhoods and our communities. 

Cooperative climate activism has been shown to reduce the symptoms of mental illness. Working together also seems to combat the pain of eco-anxiety and eco-grief. As reported in the Independent, Alison Roy, from the Association of Child Psychotherapists, said climate activism helps to counteract powerlessness. Graham Frost, headteacher of Robert Ferguson Primary School in Cumbria, said he has noted that activism made students, “feel more positive. They felt as if they were doing something about it.”

Sometimes we need to consult a therapist who may encourage us to accept our pain while helping us to understand the dynamics that fuel our apathy or denial. A new and growing field of eco-psychology is well suited to the task of assisting people who need help managing their response to ecological crises.  Ecopsychology sees people as an interconnected part of the web of life and it explores human nature and the human capacity to be good environmental stewards capable of influencing efforts to deal with ecological crises.  Part of this approach involves reconnecting people with nature.  The assumption is that the absence of nature in our lives causes both physical and emotional harm. Ecopsychologist Joanna Macy has proposed three stages starting with gratitude for the aspects of life and the world that nourish us. The second stage encourages people to take stock of the pain they are experiencing. The third and fourth stages relate to exploring new possibilities and practical actions.

Higher consciousness (hope and love)

To contend with our planetary crises we need thoughtful, responsible people who make ethical decisions and apply higher-order judgment. This may require a higher state of consciousness than the ones that are currently offered by much of contemporary culture. We need to look inwards, perhaps even undergo a spiritual transformation.  Sustainability expert Jem Bendell calls this “deep adaptation”, a process of deepening our understanding of our relationship to the planet and all its inhabitants.

Reflections on the attributes required for environmental responsibility are not new, nor are the psychological impacts of environmental decline. Henry George’s 1883 work Social Problems suggested that we need responsible and conscientious citizenship (a higher conscience, a keener sense of justice, a warmer brotherhood, a wider, loftier, truer public spirit). In 1992 Phyllis Windle pointed out that many ecologists were suffering from what could be called “disenfranchised grief”.

Former UN climate chief Cristiana Figueres has argued the only way we can save the planet is with relentless, stubborn optimism. This may be true as hope is an important driver of action. It bridges the uncertainty and moves us to work towards the creation of  a better future.  Hope is often contingent on what we can gain. Thus, we must be able to articulate a vison of a possible future in which we help restore the Earth’s biodiversity, protect nature and preserve the beauty of this planet.

Love may be the most powerful impetus to act and it is also an effective way to combat eco-anxiety and eco-grief. As we endeavor to make life livable for future generations we realize that we are striving to right the wrongs of this world because we care about something bigger than ourselves.  Astrophysicist turned climate scientist Peter Kalmus underwent this type of transformation. In a piece for the LA Times, Kalmus offered a deeply personal account of his journey in which he explained: “My love for my son made his future mine. This love expanded to include all the life on this planet, this marvelous spaceship” Kalmus wrote, “I felt a sense of responsibility to do something”.

We overcome paralysis by accepting our anxiety and our grief. In the process we connect with others and discover the audacity to hope for transformative change. As we learn to live with our pain and our uncertainty, we find the hope to keep going because we are motivated by love for our fellow humans and for all of creation.

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