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!