The Age of Eco Anxiety

February 10, 2022

I feel seen.

New York Times:

Dr. Doherty had a more conventional focus, on the physiological effects of anxiety. But he had picked up on an idea that was, at that time, novel: that people could be affected by environmental decay even if they were not physically caught in a disaster.

Recent research has left little doubt that this is happening. A 10-country survey of 10,000 people aged 16 to 25 published last month in The Lancet found startling rates of pessimism. Forty-five percent of respondents said worry about climate negatively affected their daily life. Three-quarters said they believed “the future is frightening,” and 56 percent said “humanity is doomed.”

The blow to young people’s confidence appears to be more profound than with previous threats, such as nuclear war, Dr. Clayton said. “We’ve definitely faced big problems before, but climate change is described as an existential threat,” she said. “It undermines people’s sense of security in a basic way.”

Caitlin Ecklund, 37, a Portland therapist who finished graduate school in 2016, said that nothing in her training — in subjects like buried trauma, family systems, cultural competence and attachment theory — had prepared her to help the young women who began coming to her describing hopelessness and grief over climate. She looks back on those first interactions as “misses.”

“Climate stuff is really scary, so I went more toward soothing or normalizing,” said Ms. Ecklund, who is part of a group of therapists convened by Dr. Doherty to discuss approaches to climate. It has meant, she said, “deconstructing some of that formal old-school counseling that has implicitly made things people’s individual problems.”

Many of Dr. Doherty’s clients sought him out after finding it difficult to discuss climate with a previous therapist.

Caroline Wiese, 18, described her previous therapist as “a typical New Yorker who likes to follow politics and would read The New York Times, but also really didn’t know what a Keeling Curve was,” referring to the daily record of carbon dioxide concentration.

Ms. Wiese had little interest in “Freudian B.S.” She sought out Dr. Doherty for help with a concrete problem: The data she was reading was sending her into “multiday panic episodes” that interfered with her schoolwork.

In their sessions, she has worked to carefully manage what she reads, something she says she needs to sustain herself for a lifetime of work on climate. “Obviously, it would be nice to be happy,” she said, “but my goal is more to just be able to function.”

Frank Granshaw, 69, a retired professor of geology, wanted help hanging on to what he calls “realistic hope.”

He recalls a morning, years ago, when his granddaughter crawled into his lap and fell asleep, and he found himself overwhelmed with emotion, considering the changes that would occur in her lifetime. These feelings, he said, are simply easier to unpack with a psychologist who is well versed on climate. “I appreciate the fact that he is dealing with emotions that are tied into physical events,” he said.

As for Ms. Black, she had never quite accepted her previous therapist’s vague reassurances. Once she made an appointment with Dr. Doherty, she counted the days. She had a wild hope that he would say something that would simply cause the weight to lift.

That didn’t happen. Much of their first session was devoted to her doomscrolling, especially during the nighttime hours. It felt like a baby step.

“Do I need to read this 10th article about the climate summit?” she practiced asking herself. “Probably not.”

Several sessions came and went before something really happened.

Ms. Black remembers going into an appointment feeling distraught. She had been listening to radio coverage of the international climate summit in Glasgow last fall and heard a scientist interviewed. What she perceived in his voice was flat resignation.

That summer, Portland had been trapped under a high-pressure system known as a “heat dome,” sending temperatures to 116 degrees. Looking at her own children, terrible images flashed through her head, like a field of fire. She wondered aloud: Were they doomed?

Dr. Doherty listened quietly. Then he told her, choosing his words carefully, that the rate of climate change suggested by the data was not as swift as what she was envisioning.

“In the future, even with worst-case scenarios, there will be good days,” he told her, according to his notes. “Disasters will happen in certain places. But, around the world, there will be good days. Your children will also have good days.”

At this, Ms. Black began to cry.

She is a contained person — she tends to deflect frightening thoughts with dark humor — so this was unusual. She recalled the exchange later as a threshold moment, the point when the knot in her chest began to loosen.

“I really trust that when I hear information from him, it’s coming from a deep well of knowledge,” she said. “And that gives me a lot of peace.”

Dr. Doherty recalled the conversation as “cathartic in a basic way.” It was not unusual, in his practice; many clients harbor dark fears about the future and have no way to express them. “It is a terrible place to be,” he said.

A big part of his practice is helping people manage guilt over consumption: He takes a critical view of the notion of a climate footprint, a construct he says was created by corporations in order to shift the burden to individuals.

He uses elements of cognitive behavioral therapy, like training clients to manage their news intake and look critically at their assumptions.

He also draws on logotherapy, or existential therapy, a field founded by Viktor E. Frankl, who survived German concentration camps and then wrote “Man’s Search for Meaning,” which described how prisoners in Auschwitz were able to live fulfilling lives.

“I joke, you know it’s bad when you’ve got to bring out the Viktor Frankl,” he said. “But it’s true. It is exactly right. It is of that scale. It is that consolation: that ultimately I make meaning, even in a meaningless world.”

At times, over the last few months, Ms. Black could feel some of the stress easing.

On weekends, she practices walking in the woods with her family without allowing her mind to flicker to the future. Her conversations with Dr. Doherty, she said, had “opened up my aperture to the idea that it’s not really on us as individuals to solve.”

Sometimes, though, she’s not sure that relief is what she wants. Following the news about the climate feels like an obligation, a burden she is meant to carry, at least until she is confident that elected officials are taking action.

Her goal is not to be released from her fears about the warming planet, or paralyzed by them, but something in between: She compares it to someone with a fear of flying, who learns to manage their fear well enough to fly.

“On a very personal level,” she said, “the small victory is not thinking about this all the time.”


2 Responses to “The Age of Eco Anxiety”

  1. J4Zonian Says:

    You can’t choose to not deal with feelings; you can only choose whether to deal with them consciously or unconsciously. To the extent you opt for consciousness, facing the world with courage and open eyes (and more likely, compassion), just by that simple, profoundly difficult act you’ll make the world a better place, regardless of what else you do. (Everything else you do will be changed, too.)
    To the extent you deal with them unconsciously, you’ll almost certainly make things worse, by projecting those feelings onto others (and nature, concepts, events…) and acting inappropriately to the real situation; scapegoating and getting angry at the wrong people, trusting and mistrusting the wrong people, judging every situation by your own fears and fantasies rather than what’s actually going on in the world. (Does this sound familiar?)

    For almost everyone asking What can I do? the choice to begin becoming conscious has to be the first step. After it’s taken the next steps will become clear. One of them might be to recognize that that feeling of impotence is actually an accurate assessment of the situation, but only if you’re only thinking of personal actions. The main reason it feels like the climate crisis is too big for you to deal with is because it is too big. Only by joining with others to take political action can you make a change big enough to both matter, and feel like it matters.

    • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

      An alternative to taking on climate change is to take on some other aspect of regular human need, or even animal need. Most people caught up with the daily needs at a food pantry or immigrant legal assistance or animal shelter don’t have the mental luxury to fixate on the Looming Problem.

      There are a lot of problems out there to solve, and focusing on those that engage you productively will help, especially if demands a physical effort that helps you crash asleep at night.


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