How to Process the Existential Dread of the Climate Crisis
This interview is part of Strange Futures, a column hosted by Willa Köerner of The Strange Foundation, which features artists and organizers who are actively creating transformation in this moment. Here, Willa talks to climate-focused broadcaster and author Britt Wray, PhD, who is a Fellow at Stanford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, about her work to better understand the emotional and psychological toll the climate crisis is taking on us, and what we can do to cope.
To start off, can you share what your work is focused on these days?
Right now I'm focused on the emotional, psychological, and mental health impacts of climate change and of the larger ecological crisis. In my postdoc I’m specifically researching how 18- to 25-year-olds are being affected, while also working with mental health experts to design interventions that can help support young people through the climate-related stress they're experiencing.
I've also been writing a book for the last three years, called Generation Dread, which I'm just finishing up now. In it, I’m trying to articulate what happens to people's mental health after traumatic climate episodes—things like wildfires or hurricanes. But I’m also looking at the more subtle, vicarious trauma which we now often call “eco-anxiety,” and looking for ways we can collectively cultivate resilience moving forward.
I'm curious how you ended up in this line of work. Was there a turning point that led you down this path?
In 2017, I had my own encounter with eco-anxiety at a higher level than I had experienced before. It was spurred when my partner and I started talking about trying to get pregnant. When the World Health Organization is putting out reports saying that, given what the climate crisis is turning into, there isn't a single country on the planet that is adequately protecting children's health—that was a really tough set of data to look at while considering that question of, “Do we want to have a child?”
Through this experience, I realized hardly anyone was talking about how the climate crisis puts pressure on our reproductive decisions. But in the years that followed, it became a huge topic of conversation. More activist movements were founded around this concept that we need our collective environment to be protected from climate chaos in order to make the world a safe place for kids to grow up in, with adequately clean air and water and food. These are things that Black and other women of color activists articulated much earlier, starting in the '90s—specifically, the Sister Song Reproductive Justice Collective.
As I continued to grapple with my own feelings of eco-anxiety, it became clear to me that the psychological impacts of the climate crisis are hugely pressing on many levels. What's happening is causing us to existentially approach ourselves in new ways, by making us question where we're going to live, what kind of work we're going to do, and how (or if) we're going to raise families.
As the conversation kept picking up, I realized I wanted to reorganize my work around these topics. Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for Future were becoming a well-known name around the world, as was the Sunrise Movement and Zero Hour. This showed the world that a variety of youth leaders were pioneering a new type of activism that was full of heart and guts and anguish and despair. Theirs wasn't the typical climate movement of graphs and parts-per-million and moralistic arguments; instead, it was really about the urgency of our existential feelings.
So that's when I kind of removed myself from the field I was in. I'd been studying synthetic biology for the better part of the last ten years, and was wrapping up a PhD in science communication. In a pivot, I decided to throw myself into the psychological and mental health ramifications of the climate crises, to try to understand it all better. Now, here I am three years later, using my skills as an author, researcher, documentarian, and journalist in order to help people come to terms with their eco-anxiety.
Through your research, what kinds of tactics have you uncovered as effective for dealing with eco-anxiety?
First of all, it's worth pointing out that “eco-anxiety” does not just present as anxiety in most people—it's an umbrella of feelings that can include anxiety, fear, grief, helplessness, shame or guilt for being caught up in this system that is morally injuring them. Climate-aware people don't want to be living these carbon-intensive lifestyles that they know are creating radical ecological danger for us all. So there are lots of complicated emotions to process and alleviate in various ways.
The first tactic people can take is to find others who get it and who can give you permission to feel your feelings. Believe it or not, we're still living in a time when the climate crisis is not generally acknowledged in a meaningful way. A really common thing for people who are living with eco-anxiety is feeling alienated and isolated, because they don't have the tools at their disposal to talk about it. But as soon as you have a safe container in which you can talk about it with other people, it becomes much easier to live with.
So, finding a community is step one. You can do that through climate activism groups, sure, but there are also programs such as the Good Grief Network that are set up explicitly to create a space where people can come together from all over and talk about their feelings of eco-anxiety. A key thing with these groups is that there’s no expectation for action attached. You're not supposed to go there to figure out how you're going to activate yourself towards changing things; instead, you're just going there to talk and be in the company of people who are feeling those things, too. And through bonding over that, a lot of tolerance for the feelings can be found.
There is also a blossoming field of climate-aware therapists who understand that what's going on with the climate crisis it's a kind of trauma. Many of us are in a state of disavowal around our climate anxiety. I was also like this for many years. It’s the feeling of having one eye open to the truth and severity of it, and the other eye closed to it at the same time. You know the climate crisis is bad and we should solve it, but you haven’t yet reached the point where this dread has fully hit you on an emotional level. But when you do break through disavowal, often people end up with an intense eco-anxiety onslaught, or a wave of eco-distress that is super intense. When this happens, you really need support to develop ways of finding authentic courage and hope.
There's a construct in mental health called the “Window of Tolerance,” which psychologist Dan Siegel came up with. The general idea is that you can function optimally when you're not overstressed or under-stressed. When we’re in this window, we have the best connection with our prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that allows us to be compassionate, reasonable, and balanced. This is the state we ideally need to be in in order to make complex judgments and decisions about the future. But when we're pushed outside of this window by anxiety or other difficult emotions, we’re in danger of acting in ways that are not helpful.
And so, self-care in the face of eco-anxiety is about finding ways to get ourselves back into that window. When you're in a moment of high intensity, using mindfulness and other somatic entryways to calm the body can be helpful. It really comes down to feeling your feet planted firmly on the floor, and bringing your body and awareness into the present moment. Also, naming each of your anxious feelings individually can help keep them from spinning out of control, and bring you back into the window where you're present, calm, and focused.
As somebody who struggles with worst-case-scenario anxiety myself, the climate crisis is tricky to reckon with, because it’s basically the worst-case scenario to end all worst-case scenarios. And to make matters worse, it's something that is actually happening. How do you reconcile the mindfulness strategy of “living in the present moment” with the actual doomsday future scenario of our planet losing its viability to support life?
Mindfulness is super helpful when you're experiencing a moment of high emotional drama. It's not a tool to make the problem go away, but rather to reorient yourself to your suffering by facing it, and creating some space for calmer and more compassionate responses.
A big problem with eco-anxiety is that we're afraid of how we feel. Overall, our species tends to have a lot of resistance to feeling “difficult” or “negative” emotions. We need to move away from thinking of emotions as either positive or negative, and see that they all have real value because they're pointing important things out for us. When we can allow ourselves to deeply feel the difficult stuff, and get acquainted with the anxiety, grief, sadness, and fear, we have the chance to cycle through it. There are many theories about the different stages of grief, but most of them agree that by processing your emotions, you eventually will come to a place of acceptance. And through this process, you reorient yourself to the world.
Moving through grief is a strengthening process. It builds resilience, and makes us realize that what at first felt unbearable is actually bearable, because it’s something we can learn from. In the climate crisis, there will be no easy solutions. We know it's going to get harder, so we have to strengthen ourselves to be able to bear witness to the suffering of the world and its people and species and wild places.
One more thing worth noting is that a lot of people dealing with eco-anxiety are very self-critical. They have this kind of inner environmentalist critic that tells them they're not doing enough, because they're driving a car and their house has the wrong kind of light bulbs or whatever. But we all have to stop judging ourselves in this way, because 1) this crisis will never be solved by individual actions alone, and 2) you can’t blame yourself for being caught up in a system that’s beyond your control. We're all victims to the power plays and misinformation of the corporate malfeasance of the past 40-odd years.
Instead of focusing on our individual actions, we all need to find our own ways to push for broad structural change. We need to work towards restructuring the economy and creating new policies, and fighting for other foundational changes that will protect life into the future.
As an example of what this can look like, I was just reading an article about an accountant who had opened up to their eco-anxiety. Now, they’re working to make their field more climate-aware in terms of how they provide their services, who they partner with, and how they can all divest from fossil fuels as an industry. This is the kind of collective organizing that can actually make a big impact.
That is a good point: We all have our own points of leverage. Instead of seeing climate work as something you need to add to your life, maybe it’s about discovering ways where it can become integrated into what you’re already doing, and the communities you’re already involved with.
Exactly. I think it's impossible to find an occupation that doesn't in some way connect to an opportunity for doing that. The thing that makes the threat of climate change so overwhelming is that it touches everything in the world. But at the same time, this also means there are opportunities to activate and improve the situation from countless different angles. We need to start seeing this as the systemic problem it is, which means that no matter where we are in the system, there’s going to be a lever we can push on.
Everything we’ve talked about so far speaks to this idea of having “emotional intelligence” in the face of the climate crisis. To get there, people need to go through the process of grieving and acceptance, which takes a lot of work and can be a big ask. How do we get more people to become emotionally intelligent around the climate crisis? Is it something that can be taught, or is it more of a personal journey that people can only tackle once they’re ready?
The most important thing we can do is talk about our climate reality and the feelings it brings up for you based on your life experience. We’re all in danger and we need to face that. Even though it's an unequal playing field, there’s no way around the fact that we're all out here in the field. By using our voices and talking about it, we can start to be part of pushing for that mass awakening.
What we’re finally realizing is that for decades, the ways we’ve been talking about the climate crisis have been counterproductive. My colleague Renee Lertzman is a climate psychologist who runs an organization called Project Inside Out, which works to build emotional intelligence at scale. She’s studied how, in the past, environmental campaigners often touted tons of scary facts to try to get people to take action. But this tactic never really worked. There's a ton of science communication research which shows that people do not just sit there like empty vessels, ready to soak up and take action on data that you give them. Instead, they interpret it through their values, emotions, and personal beliefs—which is why conservatives and liberals can look at the exact same data and come away with different conclusions about it.
So, when we come out with a moral sledgehammer and knock people down for doing things that we interpret to be immoral, this sows division because it activates people's defenses. We need to have a different way into these conversations that takes a more emotionally intelligent approach.
As someone with a PhD in science communication, what is the right way to communicate about the climate crisis? What are the most effective strategies for packaging this information in ways that help people develop emotional intelligence, and take action?
I'm not so much interested in the science of climate communication in that typical way, where it’s looking at what narratives click and make people convert into caring. The way I see it, what makes people care is getting into the crisis on a really human-to-human level. That means being real with each other, and allowing our authentic emotions to take center stage. It’s about taking this issue that is so often political, scientific or technological, and making it an issue of the heart.
Of course we need to focus on policy and the economy and technology and all that stuff. But what I'm finding to be way more moving for people is talking with them about what future they think we're moving towards, and how that vision is affecting them existentially. Through those kinds of exploratory conversations, they can get into ideas and brainstorms about how to cope better, and what kinds of actions to take, if they’re ready to start talking about capital-A actions. There's nothing wrong with trying to reclaim the emotional energy that you've lost from eco-distress into something that makes you feel more at ease with yourself. But at the end of the day, it is imperative that we have a massive awakening that inspires collective action.
As someone who's spending a lot of time researching climate change and mental health, is there anything that makes you feel optimistic about our future?
There is a radical kind of hope I get from just being part of a movement of people who are taking this seriously and doing the right thing for the present-moment rightness of it. For many of us, just doing this kind of work can be nourishing. And, when enough of us get to this place, we really do improve our situation, and we really do create the conditions of hope.
Overall, I try not to grasp too tightly onto expectations of results and outcomes, because that can lead to burnout or despair when you don’t see results right away. Rather, I focus on what is meaningful in all of this, which is helping other people explore their emotions around the climate crisis, and researching mental health supports for vulnerable communities that can improve the track that we're on. Just getting into this line of work has helped me feel a lot better—even though I’m more immersed in the severity of what’s going on, I don't feel nearly as rattled as I used to.
One strategy that is proven to protect people’s mental health during climate disasters focuses on helping them to develop strong social ties and trust within their own communities, before disaster strikes. As one example, a study that looked at PTSD in children who had experienced a cyclone found that the kids who had the highest levels of social connectedness—i.e. the most people in their lives they trusted and could talk to—made it through the disaster relatively unscathed, whereas the kids with the lowest social connectedness scored much worse for PTSD.
Developing social connectedness builds a kind of resilience within communities, reduces feelings of isolation, and builds trust and the ability to both lead and follow—which in turn allows rebuilding to happen after a hazard has hit. This means we can help ourselves prepare for the worst by really working on our relationships in the places where we live. I know this sounds a bit kumbaya, but it's actually super important and as I said, the data shows that inter-community trust makes a really big difference.
I like that all these things kind of come down to being part of a human-scaled ecosystem. I think we all do tend to think in terms of individual impact, which can be really overwhelming. But you're right—if we can all take steps in our own communities, that's often the best way to collectively make a difference.
Adrienne Maree Brown writes about how “small is all.” She talks about fractals, and how all you need to do is take really small actions, because the small actions diffract through different layers of society, and ripple out over time. Therefore, the most important action you can take is likely one that’s already accessible to you in your community. When we all activate ourselves where we already are, we shift up the system and create structural change. And that's what we're going for. But we all have to do it.
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