Eco-Anxiety and Grief: How do we live as we die?
We are living in the Sixth Extinction (or also referred to as “the Anthropocene or Holocene extinction.)
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) recently came out with their sixth assessment on Climate Change.
What is the IPCC? Set up in 1988 by the World Meteorological Organization and United Nations Environment Programs, the IPCC”s purpose is to provide policymakers with regular assessments of the scientific basis of climate change, its impacts and future risks, and options for adaptation and mitigation.
So what did this newest assessment report say about climate?
Not such great news… Matter of fact, very very bad news. I am about to share a summary of the bleak news. You might notice your desire to skim over it, saying to your self, “I already know this” or you might completely stop reading. Instead, see if you could stay with it and instead of getting distracted, stay with yourself and notice what arises within you as you read. Here we go:
The report shared new estimates of the chances of crossing the global warming level of 1.5°C in the next decades, and finds that unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.
Every region of the planet is facing increasing changes, and people will experience this differently throughout the globe. For example, warming over land is larger than the global average, and it is more than twice as high in the Arctic. Currently, climate change is amplifying permafrost thawing, the loss of seasonal snow cover, melting of glaciers and ice sheets and loss of Arctic sea ice.
The summer sea ice is thinning faster than every climate projection and unfortunately, scientists predict a largely ice-free Arctic Ocean in years, not decades.
Further warming brings in intense rainfall, flooding, intense droughts. Coastal areas are seeing continued sea level rise and coastal erosion.
Extreme sea level events that previously occurred once in 100 years could happen every year by the end of this century.
Changes to the ocean, including warming, more frequent marine heatwaves, ocean acidification, and reduced oxygen levels have been clearly linked to human influence. Nothing can live in acidification. Where there is acidification, oceans become vacant.
It is predicted that by 2050, the majority of sea life will be extinct and the oceans will be full of plastic instead.
The report projects there will be increasing heat waves, longer warm seasons and shorter cold seasons. At 2°C of global warming, heat extremes will create agriculture and health challenges.
Human activity is changing the climate in unprecedented and irreversible ways. The report addresses how the role of human influence on the climate system is undisputed.
“Code red for Humanity,” said the article about the recent IPCC report.
But its not just code red for humans — but rather, for all living beings. Literally. All living beings. All forms of life.
“Mass extinction is when more than fifty percent of the world’s species die in a geologically short period… The environment changes so fast that most species can’t adapt or evolve, so they go extinct. It occurs over 150 years to 200,000 years”.
A new report from the World Wildlife Fund states that sixty percent of the world’s wildlife has been wiped out since 1970.
Over half the world’s population of vertebrates, from fish to birds to mammals, have been wiped out in the past four decades.
It goes on to say, “The current extinction crisis is entirely of our own making. More than a century of habitat destruction, pollution, the spread of invasive species, over-harvest of the wild, climate change, population growth and other human activities have pushed nature to the brink.”
By 2050, more than one million species will be lost. The results are described as “terrifying” by Chris Thomas, professor of conservation biology at Leeds University, who is lead author of environmental research from four continents.
In the last half-billion years, life on Earth has been nearly wiped out five times —by such things as climate change, an intense ice age, volcanoes, and that space rock that smashed into the Gulf of Mexico 65 million years ago, obliterating the dinosaurs and a bunch of other species.
Phase two of the Sixth Extinction began around 10,000 years ago with the invention of agriculture.
Elizabeth Kolbert, in her book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, emphasizes that whether meaning to or not, we humans are deciding which evolutionary pathways will be shut off forever, and which can be left open to flourish.
We know this is happening. We know it doesn’t appear very promising as we, our global community, experience daily occurrences of climate catastrophes and death.
Sometimes humanity seems like a psychopathic adolescent kid who is full of himself, cocky, arrogant and not believing that his destructive actions will catch up to him. He smokes a shit load of cigarettes, does cocaine, crack and heroin, alcohol and junk food, every day and night without stopping, or even pausing. And then, what? Code red! The body deteriorates. Disease eats up his body. He is anxious and depressed and psychotic. He eventually crashes. Self-destructs. Somehow, he looks shocked and pitiful and with a desperate screeching plea, he calls out with urgent need. But, he is too far gone and despite the obvious crisis he is in, he rejects whatever attempts are made to help him change his ways and save himself.
This is the underbelly of the human race. Self-destructing with dangerous behaviors and then screaming out in need. The house is on fire! We don’t have drinking water! The floods are drowning our homes! The fires are scorching our earth and the smoke is eating up the air so nothing can breathe.
We are desperately in need. What do we do?
Humans. Not all humans but still too many. Turn away. Drink themselves into more denial. Here, have another glass — and another, until we are nothing but blinding justifications and too numb to care.
This is heavy duty stuff, right?
With climate awareness growing, so is “climate anxiety,” also called, “eco-anxiety.”
This is the experience of an increased sense of hopelessness and intense emotional contraction about the planet’s changes. Other potential symptoms include: anger and rage, fatalistic thinking, depression and an obsessive endless loop of negative prediction thinking patterns.
“Climate anxiety” is becoming more and more prevalent. In my opinion, it comes down to — If you are awake, if you are aware, to any degree, you will probably have at least some climate anxiety. A friend put it this way — “If you aren’t feeling it, are you dead?”
My experience as a psychotherapist, is that I have more clients than ever in my practice talking about intense anxiety, feelings of powerlessness, despair and deep grief about climate crisis and what is happening on our planet.
As awareness grows and the implications of climate change continue to be undeniable, eco-anxiety will only become more and more common and the fear will be the prevailing societal baseline.
Eco-anxiety arises from awareness and knowledge of scientific information and actual perpetual life experiences.
In low income and minority areas of living including our indigenous populations, environmental challenges, climate crisis and eco-anxiety is a constant. It’s not a concept or something to be read about but rather, it is life being lived with horrific impact.
Our society’s general failure to recognize and respond to the needs of low-income and people of color intensifies environmental injustices. When it comes to race and class, government is slower to respond to climate-related disasters while they are occurring, and their aftermath, and future impacts of climate change.
The close relationship of many indigenous peoples with their natural environments makes them especially sensitive to the effects of global warming. In some cases, peoples’ ways of life and even their very existence are being threatened by climate change.
Research suggests that people of color are more concerned than white people about climate change because they are often more exposed and vulnerable to environmental hazards and extreme weather events. Eco-anxiety is a constant.
The Environmental Justice movement is committed to addressing this inequality. Seventy five percent of the leadership in the Environmental Justice are women, because they see their children and families being slammed by the unjust ways of handling human waste, landfills, chemical wastes. The Environmental Justice group has redefined environment to mean both the natural world and the places where we live. Most waste facilities are located in rural poor areas which are usually unincorporated so fighting for change is made even more difficult. Minority and poor areas are where we stick our toxic facilities and landfills so the rich white people don’t see it. These toxic facilities and landfills cause major health issues from the water, earth, and air quality problems.
A few examples of this include the 85 mile stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans that is called “Cancer Alley” — but most people in our country don’t know or care about this. In the black communities in New Orleans, since Katrina, the levees have been fixed to be two to six inches taller than they were before Katrina. In white communities, the height of the levees has increased by as much as six feet.
Not everything involves race. In West Virginia, low income white communities are experiencing intense pollution created by mountaintop removal coal mining.
Everyone, regardless of class or race, produces waste, which is a huge environmental hazard and contributes to climate issues. These facilities are placed in low-income and minority areas, often near schools. That’s part of the reason why zip codes and neighborhoods are consistent, powerful predictors of health issues. Rich people do not have to see the impact of their waste. They don’t live in the presence of rotting garbage.
Eco-anxiety is rampant and ever so real in our disadvantaged communities.
Eco-anxiety is thus a by-product of where we live and also, being woke to what is true. It is the result of not hiding, not denying, not refuting reality.
It is an anxiety triggered by real “situational circumstances” — rather biochemical/physiological causes.
“Situational” refers to real triggers/situations that can cause stress.
The compounding factor that makes it especially hard in addressing eco-anxiety is that this specific situational circumstance — climate crisis — is not going away.
Rather, the opposite — it will only be getting worse every year.
Dr. Lise Van Susteren, an expert on the physical and mental health effects of climate change, says, “Unless it’s really in your face, you can continue to repress that anxiety because it’s so uncomfortable. And now, we can’t repress it anymore. It’s right there in our face.”
The anxiety is unavoidable. It is in response to the climate catastrophes that have already occurred, the massive devastation that is currently happening, and scientific predictions of what will happen in the future.
Climate realities are real and terribly sobering — and scary. Fear and a sense of hopelessness is a real thing and a natural response to climate impact and global suffering and dying.
When there is no resolve, but rather, a devastatingly bleak outlook unless radical changes are made (which we have been calling for over decades), there is even more necessity to learn how to consciously cope with our reactions to climate realities and find ways to still enjoy our lives.
It’s not easy. Not only is anxiety a natural fear response to our global climate crisis, it also serves to protect us from feeling heart gripping grief. The sensations of energy in our bodies that we call “anxiety” are often so uncomfortable that they can override the experience of grief.
Although anxiety feels anything but good inside, it may still be easier than feeling the the heart wrenching grief of witnessing the destruction humans are responsible for.
We as humans bear living with knowing that we are going to die one day — and so will every one we love. Somehow we manage to live every day knowing that the experience of immense loss awaits us — and somehow most of us find ways to be productive human beings and even enjoy our lives. How do we do this? How do we go about having an enjoyable day?
Whatever defense mechanisms we utilize to live with this reality of our deaths are the same mechanisms we need to draw upon in knowing that we are living in an extinction time.
Let’s take a look at the power of defense mechanisms. A defense mechanism is a tactic developed by the ego to protect against anxiety and other difficult feelings. Defense mechanisms are thought to safeguard the mind against feelings and thoughts that are too difficult for the conscious mind to cope with.
When it comes to climate crisis, the defense mechanism of denial is a necessity to some degree. If we are going to function and enjoy our lives at all, we find ways to dim awareness of the intensity of continual global pain, suffering and negative predictions.
Denial often shows itself in distractions and busy-ness. We immerse ourselves in daily routine and problem-solving day to day issues. We give our attention bountifully to social media avenues. We engage in tons of chores, projects, extra things to do, caregiving, work, addictions, you name it — we are busy and distracted and simultaneously convinced that its all important.
Besides denial, many of us also practice being present to the moment, gratitude, noticing the positive and finding meaningful avenues to channel our attention.
We call upon the awareness of our mortality to live more fully each moment.
And when we feel fearful or we are in the experience of anticipatory grief, (anticipating future losses) we learn to give space to it and ride the waves of grief. Because they aren’t going away.
Living with the awareness and heartache of the sixth extinction calls upon the same emotional and spiritual muscles we have already developed in order to tolerate living with our mortality.
It’s a lot of intense grief.
The classic (and really good) recommendations of how to be with climate anxiety include:
~~ talk to kindred folks about climate crisis and your feelings so you know you are not alone,
~~ take part in as many social and political actions that you can in an effort to channel and transmute your sense of hopelessness and despair
~~ educate yourself and others about the scientific information
~~ take time for self-care
~~ commit to taking breaks from the news
~~ exercise daily and move your body
~~ practice mindfulness (learn to witness all that is arises within you)
What would I like to add?
When it comes to action, you gotta believe that every action counts. Every animal counts. Every kind deed counts. Become a Environmental Justice Activist. Become a Climate Warrior. Take Action. Do something with your anxiety!
But truth be told, these actions don’t necessarily free us from the pain….
How to tolerate the pain?
It is really quite unbearable.
Our nervous systems are not made to tolerate intense grief every moment of our waking conscious lives.
We must take breaks from focusing on the blazing destruction. It is a necessity to take time to gaze in other directions, to focus on something of beauty and pleasure. This moment. Right here. What is something beautiful?
Anxiety is anxiety. It is a thief to the quality of our lives.
Whether you are on the frontline of climate destruction, or you are reading about it, and feeling sick about it, anxiety sucks.
Anxiety inhibits the frontal lobe from normal functioning and the stress triggers the primal brain into flight, flight, freeze. No matter what your situation is, we all need tools on how to cope with anxiety.
When you are aware of experiencing anxiety, the first step is to check in and ask yourself if this experience is serving you at all. Feelings are messengers. Is there anything you need to do right now with what your mind is saying to you? If the answers is yes, do it. Move the anxious energy into action. If the answer is no, the practice of mindfulness is helpful so that you watch the sensations in your body, drop out of the story and practice allowing the feelings and sensations to be there without fueling the story or trying to make them go away.
We must activate the inner warrior to protect ourselves so we don’t get too overwhelmed and we can still have a life that we love. Imagine having a remote control and turning down the volume on global awareness. Just take a much needed break. Every day. Or, call upon a shield. Silver is the best conduit for protection. Visualize a shimmering glittering glistening shield surrounding you and all that you love. If you are too wide open and feel everything, shield your psyche every day, just like you brush your teeth daily. Wrap yourself, so you are not so exposed. Intentionally protect yourself. Just like you would do for a child who is scared of the storms that are coming or happening somewhere in the world. You would re-direct your child’s attention to the here and now (if the here and now is a safe place). You would encourage your child to pay attention to nature, to toys, to whatever magic you could find in the moment that would captivate your child’s attention. I call it “narrowing the lens.” Bringing your attention way inward… As you do this, your inner child’s fear would calm down and move to the back burner as the oxytocin, dopamine and endorphins increase with play. Wake up to Nature’s embrace. Walk barefoot in the moss. Truly smell the flowers. Find a rosemary bush and get her smell all over the palms of your hands. Notice the sun set shadows and lighting. Look up into the vast starry night skies. Breathe as full and deep as you can and exhale as fully and shamelessly as you can. And as you do all this, your brain will be healthier and happier.
One mindfulness tool to calm your nervous system with the four-seven-eight breath practice. Inhale to four counts, hold the breath for seven counts and exhale for eight counts. Again and again. Just notice what happens.
Also, you can practice the 3–3–3 rule.rule. This is another tool to come into the present moment. Name three things you see. Then, name three sounds you hear. And following this, move three parts of your body and name them out loud as you move them.
These are just two of many, many mindful practice tools. Explore the different ones and see what really works for you. Also, energy medicine exercises are so helpful. You can find one to three minute videos of energy medicine movements under healing exercises on my website, https://healingheartcommunications.com.
Without a miracle to truly help slow down climate crisis, we are on a sinking ship along with all other inhabitants on planet Earth.
How are you going to spend your time while aware of being on this sinking ship?
It is sinking slow enough for you to try on various approaches — you can express and create and sing and move your body, you can commune with Nature and practice being in the present moment, you can study how to slow down climate crisis and prioritize contributing to the wake up call to humanity, you can commiserate with a ton of people who also know its going down, you can scream “Nooooooo!” and rage at humans in power who haven’t listened, you can be depressed and bury yourself under the covers, you can work with others for a change in climate policy, and you can love and love some more as you show up the best you can.
Give permission to all of your feelings.
Allow safe ways to express these feelings.
It’s okay to curl up into a ball and shake and cry.
But just visit. You can’t stay there.
Just visit. Or it can kill you.
Bring your attention firmly but gently back
into this moment. Breathe. Deep. Long.
Find beauty to focus on.
Breathe and receive it’s vibration into your being.
The beauty will vibrationally elevate your energy.
Beauty lifts us.
Grow to be spacious enough to include it all.
The pain and devastation, the compassion and beauty…
and the love…
And bring our love into action.
Because, really, what else is there to do?