Living Green: Climate Anxiety

Illustration by Antonio Rodriguez

Illustration by Antonio Rodriguez

It happens when I see a red sun in the sky, knowing the cause is from wildfires burning 2,000 miles away; or when I read about ice sheets melting; or when I hear about pipelines being built: a tightening in my chest, my stomach feels queasy, my heart races, I feel tense and go from anger to despair to resignation in an endless loop, to the soundtrack of “It’s too late and I’m not doing enough and doesn’t anyone care?” It can be lonely.

As carbon emissions keep soaring, many people are struggling with emotions around climate. You don’t even need to experience climate-related disaster firsthand to experience “climate anxiety” — just reading about it can be triggering.

In a presentation at a Climate Town Hall hosted by Sandy Galef, who represents Philipstown in the state Assembly, clinical psychologist Eric Lewandowski of New York University defined climate anxiety as bouts of worry, grief, despair, panic, sadness, anger and/or hopelessness about the deteriorating environment or future.

“Climate change is a real threat,” he said. “It is rational to be worried. In this case, anxiety is an adaptive emotion signaling danger.”

During a conversation, Heather Zuckerman, a psychotherapist in private practice in Garrison, shared her own take with me. She noted, first, that “a lot of the younger generation are a little doom-and-gloom with the environment and the world.” 

A survey published in the Journal of Lancet Planetary Health backs this up. More than 10,000 young people around the world between the ages of 16 and 25 were surveyed, and 59 percent said they were very or extremely worried about climate change, while 84 percent were at least moderately worried. In addition, 7 in 10 described the future as frightening. 

Of course, young people aren’t the only ones with deep concerns. Zuckerman said she has noticed that among people of her generation — with older children who are leaving the house — there is anxiety about where to retire.

“I had friends who moved inland in Florida because of climate change,” she said. “They went from, ‘I can live anywhere,’ to ‘Oh my God, where am I going to live?’ ”

According to a landmark report by the American Psychological Association, the mental responses to climate change, such as “conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness and resignation” are growing stronger and prevent us from addressing the causes and solutions or from achieving “psychological resiliency.”

While it may seem counterintuitive, maybe a little climate anxiety is a good thing. It can motivate people. But you don’t want so much that you feel paralyzed. It’s about finding a way to harness anxiety and stay productive.

There are strategies for dealing with climate anxiety. Here are my takeaways from Turn the Tide on Climate Anxiety, by Megan Kennedy-Woodard and Patrick Kennedy-Williams, the co-founders of a U.K. firm called Climate Psychologists: (1) Understand and accept the facts about climate change; (2) Immerse yourself in nature; (3) Practice self-care; (4) Take individual and collective action; and (5) Celebrate success.

For action items, Philipstown Fights Dirty (philipstownfightsdirty.org), a campaign I spearheaded with the Ecological Citizens’ Project, provides more than 80 pledges you can take, including many that are low-hanging fruit. Climate Smart Philipstown also will be hosting workshops starting Wednesday (March 16) on how to take climate action. And Earth Day is approaching on April 22 — a time to celebrate and refill your cup!

Climate change isn’t your problem alone to solve, but we all have a role to play. Take care of yourself, so you can help take care of this beautiful world we call home.

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3 thoughts on “Living Green: Climate Anxiety

  1. Krystal Ford reports that Heather Zuckerman “has noticed that among people of her generation — with older children who are leaving the house — there is anxiety about where to retire,” adding, “I had friends who moved inland in Florida because of climate change.”

    Zuckerman’s friends should stop worrying, because many prominent, wealthy people such as Barack Obama (Martha’s Vineyard and Hawaii), John Kerry (Martha’s Vineyard) and Joe Biden (Rehoboth Beach), who regularly proclaim that climate change is an existential crisis, have, through their actions, demonstrated that there is little reason to be concerned that climate change will cause rising seas that will swamp property that is on or near a waterfront. How so? They themselves have each recently spent millions of dollars to buy such property.

    So Zuckerman’s friends, and others who share their concern, should simply relax and take comfort from the example set by these leaders.

    • I wanted to take a moment to thank you for this column, which put into words the sense of doom that so many of us feel when we hear about floods, tornadoes and wildfires in far-off places and experience immediate signs of climate change such as mosquitos in March, thunderstorms in January and trees that are still full of leaves late into November.

      In reading Wilbur Foster’s response, I reacted with jealousy that someone could ignore all these signs of impending doom and point to other people’s individual choices as a reason to say: “This is fine.” Every time I feel dread for the future that climate change is bringing in, I’ve coped by reminding myself that the problem is systemic, complicated and not the burden of individuals to solve.

      But it is real, and it makes me angry on behalf of the future generations that won’t have the same quality of life I did in my lifetime. Reading about other people who are feeling this anxiety gives me comfort that we are not alone. I will hold on to my anger and use my voice to remind anyone who will listen that this world and the people inhabiting it are worth fighting for.

      • I was amused by this response. Apparently Bennett Glauda does not recognize satire when she reads it. She erroneously criticizes me as “someone [who] could ignore all these signs of impending doom” from climate change. She should instead criticize climate-change hypocrites, such as those that I called out (Barack Obama, John Kerry and Joe Biden). They are the ones whose actions demonstrate that they are ignoring the “signs of impending doom.”

        When people who, on the one hand, ardently proclaim that climate change is an existential crisis, but on the other hand live their lives in a manner that shows they do not take those proclamations seriously, why should anyone believe them?

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