climate anxiety scene from Scotland

It is time to grieve – climate anxiety’s underlying feeling

If there is one word I would use to describe the themes that have surfaced with me and my clients lately, it’s “existential angst” and “climate anxiety.” Those two words sum up the sensation that our world is rapidly changing around us, and we don’t know how to adjust.

And the world has changed – dramatically. Globally, we have all suffered from the same malady, albeit different strains (you know to what I refer..COVID). This one global catastrophe finally highlighted to us that large-scale global catastrophes are not only possible but happen. As this information has settled into our collective unconscious, other threats we’ve ignored for years begin to loom in our minds.

I’m talking about climate change and the rapid loss of biodiversity within my lifetime. I was born in the early 80s, and up to 69% of biodiversity has disappeared. That is two-thirds of all species that have disappeared from our planet. This is staggering; this is devastating. It is such a disastrous fact that our minds and souls have difficulty comprehending it; we shy away from it and shut it out of our hearts. Whether you are an environmentalist or a nature lover, this loss is enormous and impacts all human beings.

Our human systems are intricately linked with nature. We perceive the world through our senses – what we see, smell, hear and touch. We are designed to be sensitive instruments of our environment. Our nervous systems are hardwired into perception. When someone frowns or smiles at you, a series of chemical reactions impact your feelings. Being in nature bathes our systems with chemical and energetic information that decreases our stress response and has a physical impact on our bodies.

Humans are part of the natural world

To separate the human from the natural world is a fallacy and one of the great modern crimes of our generation.

How can we wonder at our decreasing levels of human well-being? Increased instances of depression, anxiety, addiction and burnout dominate our news media and personal experience. I believe that underneath this ballooning problem and our collective unease lies a much more insidious problem. That feeling – it’s grief. And also shame and guilt at our own acquiescence.

Can’t you feel it every time you go shopping, get on an airplane for a holiday, drive to work when you could take the train, or throw out something you bought only a few months ago, and you know it’s going to a landfill?

That unease you feel is, perhaps, shame. Because we all could have done more. But the reality was it was too hard. It is too hard to live outside of societal pressures and dress in used clothing that isn’t stylish. It was too hard not to buy into the consumerism that drives our society. It was too hard for politicians to make the necessary laws to save the world, but would cost them their jobs and their power as they set limits on the population we seem unwilling to put on ourselves.

It was too hard for corporations to give up profit and competitive advantage to make products that last longer and decrease the environmental load. It was too hard for shareholders to give up their share of the profits and demand change. It was too hard, and in the absolute most enormous crime against humanity and future generations (including our own children alive today), it continues to be ‘too hard.’

It was much easier for us all to stick our heads in the sand and pretend. We pretended climate change wasn’t happening for a long time. We pretended that our own daily actions didn’t have enough impact on the collective whole. We pretended that only a small group of evil people’s lack of action caused the problem. We sat comfortably around and blamed other people – anything to avoid the chasm of shame that lives within, knowing we are all a part of the problem.

After we were done pretending, we got distracted. We were distracted by social media, which encouraged us to focus on getting skinnier, richer, or more beautiful and creating more exciting lives. We are still distracted.

But the reality is that the world, as we know it, is dying.

And it is dying at such an alarming that we can no longer ignore it. We are beginning to feel it. I feel that every time I go hiking in the mountains, I can’t find very many birds. I know I’m not crazy because when I read the nature signs erected back in the 90s, they invite you to listen to the sounds of songbirds all around you. I look up, hopefully, and a single bird chirps.

If this fact doesn’t terrify you, you aren’t paying attention. Perhaps it’s time we started talking about what is happening rather than pretending or distracting ourselves. The reality is that our generation—I’m talking to you Millennials and Gen Z and below—however we got here, it’s going to be our job to fix it.

And because I’m a therapist, and that is the realm of influence I work within, I believe it is time to start talking seriously with clients about how they feel about the changing climate. How much fear do you feel? How much of that is what drives your underlying anxiety?

Feelings that are not acknowledged and felt, simmer and torment and wreak havoc on our own wellbeing. When we let ourselves get in touch with our deep grief at the enormous planetary loss we have lived through, we might summon the energy and passion to change our collective destiny.

climate anxiety scene from Scotland