December 3, 2021

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Do You Experience Climate Anxiety?

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Do you experience anxiety, grief or fear about climate change? What has that felt like? How have you coped with it?

Do you think that this type of distress can be channeled into action?

In “Got Climate Anxiety? These People Are Doing Something About It,” Susan Shain writes about the formal and informal support networks that exist for those anxious about climate change:

After Britt Wray married in 2017, she and her husband began discussing whether or not they were going to have children. The conversation quickly turned to climate change and to the planet those children might inherit.

“It was very, very heavy,” said Dr. Wray, now a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “I wasn’t expecting it.” She said she became sad and stressed, crying when she read new climate reports or heard activists speak.

Jennifer Atkinson, an associate professor of environmental humanities at the University of Washington Bothell, became depressed after students told her they couldn’t sleep because they feared social collapse or mass extinction.

There are different terms for what the two women experienced, including eco-anxiety and climate grief, and Dr. Wray calls it eco-distress. “It’s not just anxiety that shows up when we’re waking up to the climate crisis,” she said. “It’s dread, it’s grief, it’s fear.”

It’s also not unusual. Over the past five years, according to researchers at Yale University and George Mason University, the number of Americans who are “very worried” about climate change has more than doubled, to 26 percent. In 2020, an American Psychiatric Association poll found that more than half of Americans are concerned about climate change’s effect on their mental health.

Dr. Kritee, a senior climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, counsels people who are experiencing climate distress:

Dr. Kritee, who has a doctorate in biochemistry and microbiology, said she believed people of all backgrounds should process their feelings about climate change. She makes her services affordable through scholarships, scaled payments and donation-based classes. Some of her sessions are open only to people of color, who are often on the front lines of climate change, and whose ecological grief, she said, is often compounded by racial trauma.

Regarding the white and affluent, who most likely will not feel climate change’s worst effects, Dr. Kritee said it was crucial they confront their grief, too. In doing so, she said, they can begin to contemplate questions like, “If I am hurting so much, what is happening to people who are less privileged?”

Some of her past workshop participants have been inspired to make lifestyle changes or volunteer for environmental campaigns, choices that could, when undertaken collectively, benefit the planet as a whole. “We cannot encourage people to take radical action without giving them tools to express their anger and grief and fear,” Dr. Kritee said.

Sherrie Bedonie, a social worker and co-founder of the Native American Counseling and Healing Collective, a group practice owned by four Native American women, shared that view. While her clients don’t use terms like eco-anxiety, Ms. Bedonie said Native people were “always grieving” the loss of their land and culture and encourages her clients to face their feelings. “If people aren’t ready or they run from grief, it’ll continue to haunt them,” she said.

As for non-Native people, Ms. Bedonie said she hoped part of their grieving process would be acknowledging past and present traumas inflicted upon Indigenous communities. Then, she said, we’ll be able to “come together” and “start the healing process of Mother Earth.”

Students, read the entire article, then tell us:

  • Have you ever experienced anxiety or grief related to climate change? What did it look like for you? How did you cope with it?

  • According to a poll cited in the article, about 26 percent of Americans are “very worried” about climate change. Does this number surprise you? What percentage of your generation do you think is “very worried” about climate change?

  • The article provides examples of ways that people have tried to alleviate their eco-distress. Which of these strategies seems most effective to you? Are there any that you plan to try?

  • How do you think climate anxiety differs between people who are on the front lines of climate change and those who are not? Do you agree with Dr. Kritee that it is important for people in both situations to process their climate grief?

  • Dr. Atkinson believes that climate grief can be a motivation to fight climate change, even “a superpower.” Do you agree? Has climate anxiety ever moved you to action?

Want more writing prompts? You can find all of our questions in our Student Opinion column. Teachers, check out this guide to learn how you can incorporate them into your classroom.

Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public.

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