Ecogrief is on the rise

It’ll come as no surprise to anyone that strong emotions are evoked by climate change. And with every piece of bad news, more people are “infected.” Too often, people are suffering alone. But they’re also going to their doctors, seeking ways to cope. Mental health professionals are developing specialized workshops to help ecogrief sufferers with anxiety and the loss that feels unbearable. Believe it or not, this is all natural and adaptive. As one psychologist says, “climate anxiety – like climate depression or climate rage – isn’t a pathology. It’s a reasonable and healthy response to [this] threat.”

What’s NOT adaptive is the avoidance and/or repression of climate change-related feelings. Although it IS understandable, this sort of denial is counter-productive in the longer term. “ ‘When we’re scared, we can freeze,’ points out Susan M Koger… who teaches and writes about psychology for sustainability. ‘We can become paralyzed by fear, or just tune out. We use various kinds of defence mechanisms to distract, to deflect, to numb out.’ This kind of “psychic numbing” is unhelpful, both in dealing with the climate crisis and more generally.”

Avoiding the pain of climate change may keep a person functioning in the short-term. But it’s become clear that most of us need to find a way through our fear and pain if we’re to have a good shot at limiting the damage and suffering caused by climate change. “ ‘As we become aware of the impacts of climate change on the planet… it will trigger those anxieties and that depression. [People] often get exhausted, burnt out, despairing and full of rage,’ [Caroline Hickman] says. ‘But if you’ve moved through the despair… you can psychologically move to an acceptance, and then you can take action from a very different place.’”

As I describe in this post, I worked through my intense ecogrief by reaching out to others I believed likely to share my feelings. This is a common thread in the ecogrief literature: connecting with other people is a healthy impulse, and we should listen to it. An easy way to do this is to search for environment groups in your city or town.

Of course, not everyone is a joiner, leaning towards the “extravert” side of the spectrum. And that’s ok! ” ‘You don’t have to be the one standing out there with a protest sign,’ [says Penn State psychology Professor Janet Swim]. That may work for extroverts, but for the introverts or those people who don’t like to march, you can also get a group together to write your representatives and ask them to act. Movements also need people to coordinate activities or to help nurture those who are on the front lines.

‘Feeling connected to people and knowing you can count on them matters,’ [says College of Wooster psychologist Susan Claymore].” It’s the lesson you teach yourself when you connect/join/help that’s critical: “I’m NOT alone in this. I CAN do stuff! I can act in ways that contribute to the overall effort. I have efficacy. And there’s strength in numbers.” With each small achievement, you gain confidence. It’s amazing how much connection can energize and rejuvenate a sad human!

At the same time, there are lots of things you can do on your own. There’s a plethora of advice online with suggestions for any person experiencing stress, burnout, or emotions related to trauma or relational or work-related issues. These are perfectly appropriate for ecogrief too. There are tons of relaxation and visualization videos online. I especially like the ones that give you positive affirmations to use as needed to combat stress and uncertainty.

There’s also ASMR videos. That stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, which is that tingly/shivery feeling some people get from experiences that at first glance appear oddly intimate! But it all makes sense if you can recall a time you kind of shivered and enjoyed the touch of a hair stylist or someone lightly tickling your back. ASMR is accompanied by a release of endorphins, and all the pleasurable/relaxing feelings that accompany such a release. For a time, I listened to favorite ASMR videos while going off to sleep. They really help, but make sure you use a good pair of headphones.

Physical exercise is one of the most advised stress-management activities. And often it’s specified that it’s particularly helpful if people do that exercise outside, thereby enhancing exercise’s beneficial effects with the proven benefits of spending time in nature. Now it’s possible that for people suffering ecogrief, immersing oneself in the beauty and complexity of nature may be bittersweet. Yet a deep connection to nature is one of the biggest predictors of climate change action. Let your feelings be your guide: if too intense, build your resilience with other stress-management techniques first.

It may sound silly, but distraction can be a particularly helpful stress-management tool. Get lost in a library, watch a favorite movie, go out for coffee with friends. 9 times out of 10, when it’s time to go home, you’ll think to yourself, “I actually forgot my worries for awhile.” Taking a break from strong emotions is always advisable. With something as “heavy” as ecogrief, you’ll want to build distraction right into your routine.

I learned about an interesting distraction technique researching this post. Dr. Aaron Beck found that giving people an “assignment” before they embarked on an activity they typically found anxiety-provoking worked wonders. He said it not only distracted them, it also gave them an increased feeling of control. Free-floating anxiety, or an intense, general feeling of being unsafe, is not a rational reaction, because we’re not in imminent danger when that awful panic hits. But try telling that to your body! Forcing your mind to concentrate on a task, like a simple game or maze or a crossword puzzle can do wonders for quickly taking that anxiety level down a notch or two.

Journalling is another valuable emotions-management tool. In fact, journalling is so often advised for coping with stress that it’s become somewhat cliché to hear, “write your feelings down.” Don’t think about anyone reading them… the point is to vent and to get the feelings on paper where they can be examined when you’re calmer. Or not! Maybe you won’t look at them again. Or maybe you’ll need them when you’re famous and are trying to writing your memoir!

A popular creativity book recommends starting each day with what author Julia Cameron calls “AM pages.” You simply write down whatever comes to mind first thing in the morning. It’s a technique she swears by; she says it kind of flushes out the more routine or mundane worries and peeves from the active part of your brain, allowing access to the deeper, more meaningful, universal, and suppressed ideas, imaginings, dreams, symbolism, archetype, and narrative. Sounds intriguing right? It almost makes journalling sound mystical!

Which segues right into my last suggestion here. I came across an article on ecogrief management strategies designed by a rather famous environmental activist named Joanna Macy. Macy has been doing what she calls “the work that reconnects” for many decades. Her work is grounded in Buddhism, which she learned about personally as she worked with Tibetan refugees in India, from 1965. But it was the frightening nuclear arms race that catalyzed her life’s work in deep ecology, the belief that people are an integral part of the Earth, and that we allow ourselves to be distanced from our planet at our peril.

It’s sad to know that Macy is now 90, and is at the twilight of her life while climate change looms over her beloved planet. However, undoubtedly things would be worse if not for all of the courageous Earth protectors like this great leader and matriarch. I’m going to tell you about one of Macy’s ecogrief management tools, which take on more than a hint of sacred ritual when infused by a great teacher’s heart. This one makes use of a powerful tool: gratitude (also called “appreciation”). The article was so good, I’ve quoted it at length:

“evidence that links appreciation with good mental health is now stronger than ever. Gratitude can lift moodlower stress levelsimprove social connections and strengthen immune systems… [Macy] makes the case that practicing gratitude before confronting anxiety grounds us. Chris Johnstone [Macy’s co-author]… concurs. ‘Sometimes people can feel a little bit impatient with gratitude,’ says Johnstone. ‘They can feel like: ‘I’ve got all this pain about the world. I want to get in there [or at least feel better fast]. Gratitude is not how I’m feeling.’ But when you give attention to gratitude, it gives you a stronger starting point to face what’s difficult.’

The article goes on to outline three more steps in Macy’s exercise. But it is such a spiritual and sacred process that I’ve decided to explain it in another post devoted to RITUALS people can do to manage ecogrief while also deeply connecting to our planet.

Just a final note about gratitude before I close, from the wise folks of Psychology Today: “Realizing that other people are worse off than you is not gratitude. Gratitude requires an appreciation of the positive aspects of your situation. It is not a comparison. Sometimes noticing what other people don’t have may help you see what you can be grateful for, but you have to take that next step. You actually have to show appreciation for what you have, for it to have an effect.”

I’m grateful for you, reader! And I’m thankful we live on a beautiful, generous planet. ‘Til next time!

Ecogrief: my story

It’s hard to feel capable and empowered when you’re experiencing intense fear, anger, grief, or hopelessness because of climate change. Threats evoke the fight/flight reflex in us. I like to add one more “F” to that list: “freeze.” When threatened, a stress response floods our bodies with chemicals so we can rapidly assess the danger and then evade it by escaping or fighting. Or we get overwhelmed and freeze!

Climate change is not the kind of threat we can run from or engage in mortal combat. Nor can we stay frozen. We need to, above all else, THINK our way out of this danger.

To think, we have to be calm. To be calm, we need to learn how to cope with climate change-related feelings. They’re myriad, but we can call them, collectively, “ecogrief.” I’ve written two posts on managing them. The first, below, is my own story. The second is based on advice found on the net.

About three years ago, I went through a long period of paralysis due to climate change. I couldn’t listen to climate change-related news, or read anything about it, or face the concept of it at all! My mind did this weird flip-trick when I was exposed to climate change news, and presented to me the image of a mountain. An impenetrable mountain like in the Lord of the Rings. This was my brain’s idea of climate change: colossal, nasty, brutish, unapproachable, and dangerous. No doorway in, no craggy places to put in a climber’s hook, and no nice tour guide waiting to provide direction! Meanwhile my heart would race, my eyes spun, my mouth got dry, and I felt the urge to flee. Or vomit… the classic signs of panic.

My brain was telling me: you’re powerless in the face of this danger. BUT. One tiny part of me thought, “there HAS to be a way. I can’t be the only person feeling like this. There has to be a way to find someone else to freak out with!” I looked for environment groups online. I found two. The first one never got back to me! The second said, “we meet at the library next Tuesday at 7 PM.”

I went to that meeting and plunked myself down. I said, “Hi! I’m freaking out about climate change.” They said, “we get it.” I joined the group that evening. It wasn’t instant massive relief… the members were college instructors, and they were really busy. I wanted them to just tell me what to do! I learned that sometimes the “perfect” teachers don’t materialize. AND, to learn about something while developing resilience and competence, you have to drive yourself a bit, develop self-discipline. This is immensely difficult when you’re very afraid. BUT. (Another big but). Just knowing you’re not the only person scared is strengthening. Search until you find people to search with.

Then, after a year on a waiting list, I got a community garden plot. This was to be the beginning of a food and health renaissance. Growing my own food changed my life more than anything else. Find that post soon!

So I was learning from my “instructors,” and from my garden. I attended an ecogrief workshop. It was awesome. I did yoga for the first time. We were outside, and it started to rain lightly. A robin serenaded us. I took that as a sign of approval from the universe!

I joined Toastmasters. I figured one day, I might need public speaking skills- perhaps to educate people about climate change. I shared my passion for the environment and became my club’s only ecogrief sufferer! But they respected my view and feelings. Their acceptance helped me realize that I was carrying wounds from someone who had ridiculed my love for our planet. He’d humiliated me, calling me a “Gaia-worshipper.” I was learning that there can be hidden sides to climate change-related pain. That ecogrief is complex, and can include shame and grief from past events. I began telling myself over and over that it’s NATURAL to love our planet. To believe people are just PART of a miraculous web of life. To cherish our connection to our beautiful home.

I found myself brainstorming how I could educate the public and make taking care of our environment appealing and important to people. I started to see where the environment and politics intersect, and recognizing the importance of city governments to mitigation and adaptation. In just three years, I’d learned so much! I’d become part of a network of like-minded people. I’d started growing my own veggies and learning to preserve them. We were composting our food scraps, and going meatless a few times a week. We’d reduced our “wants” consumption considerably, and were trying to become “zero waste.” And I’d reclaimed my love for the earth.

And climate change had only gotten worse. BUT! (Last big but 🙂 )

The difference now was that I didn’t feel alone anymore. I KNEW I wasn’t alone. And I’d learned that transitioning to a green economy was not only possible, much of the work was done! Researchers have drawn up plans for our energy needs, and the technology exists. What stands in our way? The government! Only now I had some insights into WHY our governments are paralyzed. And I decided to do everything I could to break the deadlock.

I’d become a climate change activist! I bought a domain and wrestled with blog-related knowledge deficits and internet-avoidance syndrome! My domain went undeveloped for 8 months because I was so scared to invest a bunch of time and effort only to have the internet eat my work!

Long story short, what did I do to cope with my ecogrief? I reached out to other human beings. I connected, or semi-connected! But I kept showing up. I found compadres. And I armed myself with knowledge. Now I’m energized for the fight, knowing that we can adapt to climate change in a way that creates good jobs and a happier, healthier world.

A word for the introverts! I know some people are not joiners, and a lot of social time is draining. But it can get easier over time. I DO preserve my me-time; without it, I’m no good to anyone. Self-care, soul-care, time out of the fight… these are critical, and I WILL be posting about them.

So, although I do feel better, I know there’s sad times ahead. Our governments have screwed around for far too long. They have not even tried to counter the denial movement. So there are going to be problems, and the suffering will be borne disproportionately by the poor, elderly, young, and powerless. And that is NOT fair. But I can work in my small sphere of influence. I can work to increase my platform and use it for good. I can publicize what I know and do, and pray that those who need it will find it and use it. I can keep reaching out to people, now via digital tools that have a global reach.

And I can say to you: you are NOT alone. Find people who will listen to you and witness your pain and acknowledge it. Your feelings are natural and appropriate and necessary: they’re a message whose meaning is clear. I encourage you to be gentle with yourself, but listen to your emotions, heed their call. Climate change is a problem that requires input from all of us. No one person can beat it, but together we’re unstoppable. Together we can build communities that feed, house, and clothe everyone, and that are fair and just and healthy.

And you know what? We deserve that.

3 Questions

It’s hard, when starting a brand new blog, to know what to post first. This conundrum is made worse when the subject of the blog has controversy baked right in! What do I start with? How do I avoid overwhelming or offending people from moment one? How can I build an informative platform?

I finally settled on this approach: if I knew very little about climate change- as I did just three years ago- what would I have wanted to learn first? I settled on these three things:

  1. how do I deal with my fear, anger, and grief related to climate change?
  2. what are the critical things I need to know and do in order to protect myself, my friends and family, and everyone else I care about?
  3. what do we have to look forward to i.e. what might a green economy look like?

These three questions, it seems to me, are the essential, nitty-gritty foundation upon which all other climate change discussion sits. People are grappling, if not in complete denial, with the threat climate change poses. And that grappling is completely appropriate. It’s what we SHOULD be doing. Governments are not taking climate change seriously, but that is NOT rational behavior. They’re failing us. So it’s critical that we, regular people, learn all we can, and do what we can. We aren’t powerless, as I’ll show you.

Not powerless, but maybe scared, sad, and angry. I’ve written a post on how I learned to manage my ecogrief (a catch-all term for all those crappy climate-change related feelings.) But please right now take a minute to remind yourself that in this moment, you’re safe. We have time to learn apart, then pull together. I don’t know you, but the Creator made you, and I know you’re loved (I am a person of faith). In the effort to mitigate and adapt to climate change, we all have a place, and a space, and I welcome you to mine!