If you’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for years, you’ve likely already noticed how climate change impacts our region.
Our typically temperate weather patterns have started including record-breaking heatwaves and winter storms. Our glorious not-too-hot, late summer days are now threatened each year by wildfire smoke. Our animal neighbors, such as orcas and salmon, are dwindling in number.
If all of this makes you feel anxious — even mournful, grieving for the PNW of before — you’re not alone. Scientists are learning that more and more people are experiencing climate anxiety and grief.
Why your eco-anxiety and eco-grief are valid
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations group of experts who assess and pose solutions to global warming, released part of their sixth international report in February 2022.
Their big findings? Disastrous effects from climate change are already happening all over the world — and we will all need to band together and take action quickly if we want to prevent the climate from warming enough to cause irreparable damage and displacing billions of people.
Feeling helpless in this situation or dreading a warmer future can trigger climate anxiety, says Katherine Hoerster, a clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences in the UW School of Medicine, who specializes in treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She says it’s also common to feel grief for the things that have already been lost.
“Some reactions may be more fleeting, while others may manifest as new diagnoses, recurrences or exacerbations of existing mental health disorders, for example PTSD, generalized anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, substance use disorders or depression,” she explains.
Basically, if you’re feeling anxious about the future of the climate or grieving for the climate of the past, know that you aren’t alone, and your feelings are completely valid.
Feeling anxious or grieving isn’t inherently a bad thing, though. We’re often taught that negative emotions are bad and should be avoided, but that isn’t true. For example, while anxiety can be difficult to manage and distressing to experience, it can also spur people into action.
Climate anxiety affects us all differently
While recognizing that all our anxiety and grief is valid, it’s also important to recognize the wide range of experiences people of all different backgrounds are facing.
In the United States, people who live in poorer areas that are near pollution sources and have less tree cover face hotter hot days than people who live in wealthier neighborhoods with tree-lined streets. People with disabilities face barriers to relocation that can put them in danger. Worldwide, developed nations like the United States contribute more to global warming while developing nations who contribute less bear the brunt of the burden.
Because of the way discrimination and injustice intersect, many of the people who are facing worse impacts from climate change are people of color.
“For people of color and others who experience systemic and interpersonal oppression, the stress of climate change and its intersection with injustices may potentiate mental health impacts,” Hoerster says.
The more our climate changes, the more we’re all going to be impacted. What those impacts are will depend on where someone lives and what access they have (or don’t have) to resources, but eventually most of us will start feeling the heat.
What can we do to manage climate anxiety?
Hoerster is no stranger to climate anxiety — she has experienced it herself.
“When the 2018 IPCC report was released, I finally came to grips with the scale of the problem we face. I experienced fairly profound guilt, grief and demoralization. I regretted not having done more to address systems-level drivers of climate change. And I worried deeply for the future of my kids — and all kids around the world,” she says.
As a therapist, she knows helpful ways she and others can manage these feelings:
- Share what you’re feeling with peers to build connections and community.
- Volunteer with climate initiatives.
- Regularly check in with your values and make sure you’re making choices that align with them.
- Focus on self-care when you feel overwhelmed.
- Recognize what is and isn’t within your control.
These are strategies anyone can use to cope with their personal feelings of anxiety or grief. Of course, seeking care from a therapist, psychiatrist or primary care provider is important in cases of persistent distress that’s affecting your functioning.
For large-scale fixes, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is that our mental health care system is already strained, and it’s only going to get more so.
“One of the biggest issues we will face is access to mental health services. We need scalable, adaptable care models — for example, psychological first aid — that can provide services in the wake of an acute climate crisis, as well as in the recovery and adaptation phase,” she says.
The good news is that existing mental health treatments can be adapted to the individual and to the specifics of climate anxiety.
“We have long had evidence-based psychotherapeutic and medical treatments for mental health disorders, so the mental health community has a strong foundation from which to deliver care for climate-related distress, in whatever way it manifests,” Hoerster explains.
How to turn climate anxiety into action
Most of us don’t have the power to singlehandedly make large-scale changes that will help reverse global warming. But we can make change in our lives and in our community.
Use your skills to advocate for action
“One of the potential pitfalls of letting eco-anxiety run the show is that those with power and privilege will seek to hoard that advantage to ensure security, thereby further amplifying the harms of climate change for the more vulnerable,” Hoerster says. “Instead — to help yourself and others — consider engaging in actions related to climate change. Because climate change touches every part of life, what you choose can be tied to your interests and capacity.”
Are you an artist? Sell your art and donate your funds to environmental organizations. Like gardening? Volunteer with a local organization that removes invasive plants so native ones can thrive. Savvy at social media? Use your skills to help support a nonprofit that needs more attention.
The actions you decide to take to fight climate change will be unique to you depending on your skillset and how much free time you have. The important thing is to do something rather than sitting back and letting dread overwhelm you.
Center the voices of those most impacted
To address climate change impacts, it is important to partner with communities most affected by climate crises. For example, Hoerster references the UW Participatory Active Transportation for Health in South Seattle (PATHSS) study, which she co-led.
“We focused on improving equitable access to transportation, a key driver of climate change and source of stress in the South Seattle community. Centering the voices of youth of color, we identified numerous community-driven solutions and partnered on youth-led advocacy,” she says.
If you and your community are being affected by climate change, leaders need to hear from you. And if you have power or advantage, center the voices of those most impacted, including people of color, low-income people, people who don’t have housing, people with disabilities, elders and others.
Make changes to your existing routines
Think about how you currently live and what small changes you can make to be more environmentally friendly. Can you start composting instead of throwing your food scraps in the trash? Purchase fewer food and drink items that come in single-use packaging? Shop at your local farmers market? Walk, bike, or take the bus instead of driving to run errands? Use less electricity at night?
These kinds of actions may seem small, but imagine what it would be like if we all did these things on a regular basis.
Join with people in your community
The climate crisis can seem too large to fix, but you don’t need to focus on large-scale problems to have an impact. Instead, do some research on what local organizations are doing to fight climate change and join their causes, whether that involves volunteering your time or donating money. Climate change affects all of us, so even if you live in a small town, chances are there is some way to get involved.
Lend a helping hand to your neighbors
When climate change affects your neighbors, what can you do to help? Maybe during a heatwave you could offer your guest bedroom to an elderly neighbor who doesn’t have air conditioning, or after a flood you could provide meals for a family whose house was damaged.
Even if your community hasn’t yet been impacted by a climate crisis, find out who near you faces barriers in accessing services they need or how you could start a project that would be beneficial for the whole community, such as building a p-patch or planting more trees along the street. That way, in case of a disaster, you and your neighbors will have stronger relationships and be better prepared to help each other in a time of need.
Prevent burnout by taking care of yourself
Just like you can’t work 24/7, you can’t do advocacy work 24/7. If it seems selfish or like there’s not enough time to take breaks and make time to rest, remind yourself that you will be more effective and do better work when you’re taking care of yourself.
“There can be a tendency to close-in and avoid, or on the flip side, get completely consumed. The goal is to find balance between those poles,” Hoerster says.