The window in my house has just broken, the effect of the blazing Cyclone Tauktae in my hometown Mumbai. In the last couple of years, the once unimaginable cyclones have now become increasingly regular in my city. The reason? Mumbai’s adjacent waterbody, the Arabian Sea, is warming. Climate change has now taken a step closer to my home. So, as the city and subsequently the world grapples with coronavirus and its miseries, I find myself staring at the now broken window and asking myself: Even if we make it through the heartbreaking pandemic, will climate change let us live our best lives? I snap out of my thoughts as I hear another thud. Water is now gushing through the punctured window. The impending sense of doom must wait, I decide. I rush and get the mop.
This is one of the many faces of eco-anxiety. Our modern world is filled with uncertainty, and a deep fear of decline, destruction, decay and death. The guilt we feel for not living up to our own ideals of sustainability places us at an existential crossroads. Eco-anxiety is a state of being overwhelmed or anxious while trying to consider the impacts and implications to our planet and society, today and in the future.
We speak to Newcastle-based Dr. Nick Hartley works as a clinical psychologist in the NHS, and also campaigns for the Green Party. He gives us helpful information around eco-anxiety and also discusses tips on dealing with it. Read on.
Ayushi Shah (AS): What is eco-anxiety?
Dr. Nick Hartley: When we talk about climate anxiety or eco anxiety, we’re not saying that this is a pathological response to the climate crisis we see around us, but rather that it’s an understandable response to the threats that we see. So when we hear facts like we’re putting carbon into the atmosphere a hundred times faster than any time in the last 800,000 years, or when we hear the World Bank saying that in the next 30 years, we expect to see 150 million people being displaced, then of course, it is going to lead us to experience distress. So often it might be called eco-distress and it can present itself in all sorts of ways. But what I’m making very clear is that the feelings themselves are not pathological. They’re telling us something about what’s gone wrong with our world, what’s going wrong with our environment. If we notice and turn to those feelings, it can lead to action and call for the change that we need.
AS: How does climate anxiety affect us in our everyday lives?
Dr NH: There’s actually a link there between how we respond to end of life and how we respond to the climate crisis. Basically, anything that brings us up against the limitations of our existence, and brings in contact with the fact that ultimately we’re mortal and that we will die. It can feel like we’re on our own and so we have this sense of isolation. I think climate anxiety brings out all of those issues. We’ll start to feel very disconnected from people around us and at times we feel that we can’t really trust that action can happen. There was a survey on BBC’s Newsround, it showed that about 20% of children were saying that the climate crisis was having an impact on their ability to sleep and on their appetites. And that’s what you would expect to see as a consequence of anxiety. But I wonder as well, whether there’s something about young people, especially young people who are coming together and joining things like the youth climate strikes and groups like Extinction Rebellion. Their ability to speak and take action about climate change means that it becomes a more salient issue. It doesn’t mean that they’re therefore more likely to be struggling with the anxiety around this. Actually might mean they’re coping better by engaging in it in a healthy response by talking about it and taking action.
AS: When is it a good idea to seek professional help?
Dr NH: I think we need to be careful here that there might be times where anxiety really gets in the way of us living the life that we want to live. And when that happens, accessing therapy, accessing support from a GP and health services is really important. But most of the time when we think about eco anxiety, we’re thinking about what those feelings and thoughts tell us about the world. And so really, it’s only by starting to talk, connect and discuss this with other people that we can start to make changes.
AS: Have you personally faced similar anxiety or worry around climate change?
Dr NH: I’m human, you know. So we all will experience anxiety. The kind of therapy that I’m most versed in is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is the third wave cognitive therapy. Through my ACT training, I really started to think about what matters to me because I was noticing that I was getting more and more frustrated by working in an environment where I was offering one-to-one support for people, but was actually seeing that the cause of people’s distress was broader and more systemic. And I wanted to think about how we take action on those issues. And that’s what led me to join the Green Party. But people reading this can take action in so many different ways – from joining party politics to thinking about joining other community groups. That’s the really important lesson here – if we are in distress and struggling, We can start to open up and think about what we connect to. So that we’re not trying to get rid of these feelings. Instead, we’re trying to use those feelings to help us live the life that is right for us.
AS: Generally, there is this stigma around mental health. What would you say to those who do not take climate anxiety seriously and think of it as a passing issue?
Dr NH: It’s often the case that when people aren’t taking climate anxiety seriously, what they mean is they aren’t taking climate change seriously. What we’re seeing at the moment is a lot of warm words about the need to take action. But I worry that words are becoming a substitute for taking action. We need to start investing in public transport, change the way we heat our homes, the way we work, eat, and live.
AS: You are a mental health practitioner as well as a politician. In your opinion, what can policymakers and governments do to address climate anxiety better?
Dr NH: So I think the first thing that the government needs to do is take action and start treating climate activists with the care and compassion that they deserve. I think that needs to be at the heart of it. It’s necessarily about therapy, because as I said, we’re not trying to cure or treat the anxiety, it is about helping people connect to others who also want to take action. That’s part of why I like the idea of citizen assemblies, because this approach brings people together who may not all agree but it gives you a chance to really thrash out these issues, as well as hear from experts and learn.
AS: Are there any apps or websites or groups that you would recommend to our readers to help them deal with eco-anxiety?
Dr NH: The best site I’ve come across is the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA). Caroline Hickman is a psychotherapist who’s involved with CPA. Their website focuses on understanding what climate anxiety is, recognizing it as something that’s normal. Another thing to do is thinking about how we can take action so Extinction Rebellion has a great mailing list that they put out regularly. So if people aren’t on that, I’d encourage them to get onto that. Lastly, joining with groups, because yes, the web is useful for finding out information. But it’s only by coming together face to face, that we can really start to feel able to cope with the understandable anxiety that arises when we think about what’s happening around us.
AS: What tips would you give individuals facing climate anxiety?
Dr NH: I’d start by saying – take some time to notice what are the thoughts and feelings that come up for you. We live really busy lives and it’s easy to just try and push them to one side. But the more we try to push those feelings away, the stronger they become. So I’d encourage people to take time to really notice those thoughts and feelings, to ask themselves questions; What do I want to do? What is important to me? What is it that I value? I mentioned ACT earlier. I do think that’s a good model to think about this through. Russ Harris has written a fantastic book called The Happiness Trap. It is a self help book based on the ACT principles. It’s not specifically about climate anxiety. It’s just really about the human condition and how we live with these difficult feelings that we have as part of being human. I’d really encourage people to check his work out because I think that’s a great introduction to understanding more about how we can live with our thoughts and feelings, and take action. I would also recommend this book by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone called Active Hope. There’s a phrase in ACT from the originator Steve Hays – “In your pain you find your values, and in your values you find your pain”. And Active Hope is very much about tuning into what we’ve lost, connecting to the distress and thinking about what that means for us, and how we can live better lives as a consequence.
The most important tip, above everything though, is talk about what you’re feeling. The more people talk about this, the more understandable and acceptable it will be to say – the climate crisis gives us worries and gives us anxieties.
AS: What about those who have friends, family or acquaintances who are dealing with climate anxiety? How can they help or support them?
Dr NH: Listen. If you know someone who’s struggling with this, make time to listen. Pour a cup of tea, sit down, really find out what’s on their mind. And you know, you’ll be prepared to learn something as well. I imagine that the people reading this are going to be really involved and engaged with issues around tackling climate change. But I’m sure that the readers will also realize that by hearing someone else’s perspective, it will start to shift the way they see the problem. The benefit of more people talking about this is that we can learn different ways of responding. Hold on to that empath and that compassion. Let’s not wag our finger. Like, if people are struggling with this anxiety but are still eating lots of meat, or buying cheap clothes, and driving in cars and taking a lot of holidays on planes. It’s understandable – the system we are in makes hypocrites of all of us. We are all going to fall imperfect. I certainly do. There’s lots of things that I do day-to-day that make me cringe and bring that anxiety out in me. It’s very hard to do something about a lot of these things. For example, I have a car. If you’re looking to get something quick, it’s really hard to get something that’s ethical all the time. Between all of these issues, it’s important to hold on to that compassion and that care, especially knowing that we will fall short. But giving someone the space to talk about these things can help us think about different ways forward.
AS: Lastly, is there hope in your opinion?
Dr NH: Yes, I mean, we have to otherwise, we kind of fall into a sense of nihilism. If we listen to climate scientists, we can take action. Science allows us to say that these are the facts and these are things that we need to do. Let’s connect with each other, to push the politicians to make those changes. And that’s what can give us all hope. And that’s not hoping in a delusional sense, it is what Joanna Macy and Chris Johnston call active hope.
The interview has been edited for clarity.
. This interview was originally recorded for the 2 Minutes 2 Midnight podcast and has been reproduced with Dr Nick’s permission. Photo credits are mentioned in every picture and the cover image is courtesy of the me.me website. Eco-Spotlight doesn’t own any image copyrights. You can follow Dr Nick Hartley on Twitter and read Eco-Spotlight’s other interviews on our website.
Eco-Spotlight is a digital publication that focuses on different aspects of climate change solutions: projects and ideas focused on sustainable development, social entrepreneurship, environmental businesses, eco-friendly practices, and similar green initiatives. Through our solution-focused interviews and articles, we want to bring good news to the forefront and remind the world – without hope, there is no future. We also syndicate our content with White Print, India’s first English lifestyle magazine in Braille.