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Action is not the Antidote to Climate Anxiety

Photo by Marc St. Gil. “ Atlas Chemical Company belches smoke across pasture land in foreground. The plant is referred to as "Old Darky" in the community because black soot from the plant covers everything nearby. One farmer claims he lost several cows due to soot and chemicals from Atlas."

The most common advice for addressing one’s climate anxiety, or eco-distress, is to participate in meaningful action. “Worried about climate change? Go do something!” The touted benefits are twofold: 1) regain a sense of agency and 2) build community with like-minded folks. These are great outcomes and I’ve given this exact advice when the time is right.

However, climate change does not noticeably respond to individual action. Climate change is here to stay, and its effects will outlive all of us. Somedays you will feel hopeful about climate change, and it feels like your actions will contribute to an improved world. Other days you feel devastated and that your actions are pointless. These emotional valleys, the uncomfortable times, are the difficult and unavoidable phases of ecological distress. When we try to deny or suppress these feelings, they break though, ready to overwhelm and prevent us from taking meaningful action.

If, on the other hand, we are familiar with these feelings and develop some comfort in their presence, we will not be overwhelmed but appreciate them as a regular part of an ongoing process. “Oh this feeling again? It will come, and it will go.”

An analogy to make the point:

Let’s imagine that you feel anxious about your own death. It keeps you up at night. It haunts your dreams. You invest less into school, or work, or relationships because “why does it even matter?” In this situation, what do you do?

Some health-focused tik-tok’er[1] might promise that if you go yoga and eat sea-moss that you’ll outlive Methuselah. This advice may be well intentioned and even relieve you temporarily of your fear of death, but when you roll up your mat and wash down that oh-so-delectable sea-moss, you remain left with the reality that everyone eventually dies. You can’t fool or distract yourself forever—and so with time, you skip yoga class and stop sprinkling moss on your morning cereal.[2]

The same is true for action on climate change. All the public transit and vegetarianism and heat pumps in your individual life may help—but they won’t eliminate—the terrible effects of climate change. To rush into climate action is like jumping into a new fitness program without reckoning with how difficult it will be—such impatience leads to empty treadmills.

This isn’t to say that action doesn’t matter. There are many ways to make the effects of a changing climate better or worse, especially for those most disadvantaged (though none of us completely escape the effects). When I work with someone in distress about the climate, finding value-congruent action that one can take is an important part of the process—but it’s not the first step.

The first step then, is to remain uncomfortable. To get comfy with being uncomfy. Make friends with your despair, get curious and explicit about what pains you, grieve what you have lost and what you fear you will lose. Apologize to your yet-to-be born children or grandchildren—literally write them a letter. Visualize having to move, or not being able to ski, or enduring wildfire smoke every summer. A climate-aware therapist can be a useful resource to help guide you through these feelings, but not everyone will have access or need of one. Take this process at your own pace and ensure that you feel uncomfortable rather than overwhelmed.

The trick is to develop a deeper sense of acceptance with your loss, your grief, and your anger. It will not do to avoid or delude yourself into a superficial feeling of “being fine” with it. Nor will it do if you find yourself mindlessly doom scrolling,[3] worried about other people, or compelled to convince others how bad things are—this is about you. If you begin to have panic attacks, shut down, dissociate, or have thoughts of hurting yourself, these may be a sign to contact a therapist to help you move through something particularly challenging. We cannot make use of emotional experience as long as we are overwhelms our ability to reflect on it.

If you are distressed about the climate—call it eco-distress, eco-anxiety, eco-depression, or whatever term you fancy—those feelings will not disappear any faster than the effects of climate change. If you remain aware of the state of the world (and I hope that you do), there will be days of stress and feelings of defeat. Taking action too fast—without being prepared for the days/months/years in which you feel defeated—only leads to inaction and more despair.

So, buckle in and get comfortable with discomfort first. Then take action—there will be much to do tomorrow.

[1] Tik-token? Tik-tokalete? [2] Blending into your coffee? Spreading it on toast? How do you eat this stuff? [3] Skipping over the surface of grief and anger, but not truly feeling it.

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