Photo of prescribed burn at Blodgett Forest Research Station courtesy Bay Area artist and pre-doctoral candidate Neem Jitendra Patel
An interview with East Bay psychotherapist Kathy Grayson conducted by Erin Heath, 350 Bay Area Contributing Writer and Content Manager
What is climate change anxiety?
People who understand climate change often feel anxious about the future. People who realize that the severe weather conditions that are happening such as ocean rise flooding, fires, storms, crop failures are a result of rising temperature and drought can become anxious about future weather conditions. Some people experience fear, panic, and anxiety about the safety of family, friends, and possessions.
Climate anxiety is less about a person’s immediate experience and more about the sense of threat that people have when they realize what is happening to the environment as a result of climate change. When people experience a threat that will not go away, combined with feelings of helplessness and lack of control, anxiety can be particularly acute.
During the California drought, many people were anxious about how much food California farmers would be able to produce. Now that California is no longer in a drought, some people will forget about water issues, but others may get extremely anxious that drought could recur. This latter group is experiencing climate anxiety.
Who, in your opinion, are the most vulnerable populations for climate change anxiety?
The people who are most educated about our environment are vulnerable because they are aware of what is happening. Children who learn about climate change are the most vulnerable because of the timeline for global warming. It is not clear whether today’s children will have a healthy, safe environment to live in. Why some people who grasp the severity of the problem and are genuinely concerned do not fall into anxiety, while others will experience fear or panic, is a research question.
Do you experience climate change anxiety? If so, what do your symptoms look like, and how are they triggered?
If I dwell on thinking about global warming, I can begin to experience fear and worry. I prefer to think about it only enough to motivate me to take actions that support the environment and to join groups like 350.org. In the last election, I was disappointed that the issue of climate change was not discussed, and it is relieving to hear climate change in the current discourse.
Have you noticed a climate change-related anxiety increase in your clients? How does it manifest?
For the last two years we have had large fires in Northern California that heavily impacted the air quality in the Bay Area. Most clients I saw during the fires felt anxiety and worry about the air. Many found it difficult to sleep or were unable to exercise, and as a result their anxiety increased significantly.
As the air quality improved, some people no longer thought about the larger issue of climate change, while others are still thinking about global warming and have some form of climate anxiety. Some people are better than others about compartmentalizing their lives and therefore are able to not worry that these extreme weather conditions will recur.
A therapist in Santa Rosa told me that the issue of ongoing climate anxiety grew significantly after the Paradise Fire. People were able to move on after the Tubbs fire (2017), but when the Paradise Fire happened the next year (2018), many people were retraumatized. Now with all the rain we’ve received this winter, people are feeling relieved about potential fires, but it is unclear how people will feel come dry, hot weather. My guess is that many of the people that were retraumatized by the Paradise fire will develop climate anxiety over the summer when things get dry again.
Climate anxiety can be a local response to actual weather occurrences, but for other people climate anxiety comes less from personal experience and more from an informed awareness of the science of climate change.
Do you think denial is a form of climate change anxiety? What about climate change denial?
Denial can be a way to cope with climate change anxiety, but there are some people who do not believe climate change, or the potential dangers, are real. They are not in denial in the sense they refuse to acknowledge their experience, but, rather, honestly believe the dire warnings associated with global warming are overblown or are a hoax.
What do you think the antidotes to climate change anxiety are? How can we support and manifest these in our communities and healthcare systems?
Any kind of action a person can take, whether small or large or working together with others to have a positive impact on the environment will help. It is best not to have catastrophic thinking about the future because we really do not know what is going to happen to the environment. Thinking that the worst will happen is not useful because it can cause anxiety to spiral out of control. It is better to know that there are a range of possibilities and to put energy into improving the situation. So when climate activists get together, it is better to connect with and act on their positive intentions rather than focusing on how bad the situation is going to be.
Myself, I am guilty of not participating in climate activism as much as I feel I want to, or feel I should, because I experience such high climate anxiety that I think, no matter what I do, it’s not enough. I’m just one person. I suspect I am not alone in this feeling. What would you say to people like me, who don’t participate in the climate movement because of crippling climate anxiety and stress?
Many people have fantasies of wanting to save the world. But we need to look at how change has happened in different movements in history. For example, individuals working together have pressured the government to create laws around racism, women’s rights and same sex marriage. Some worked legislatively, some through the courts, while others worked on the personal level. All these actions matter. I think taking some kind of action channels the anxiety into productive activity that we can feel good about. I also practice and teach Ren Xue Qi Gong which is a mind body practice that includes gentle movement. Ren Xue Qi Gong helps to calm the body and mind and create a state of well being. Practicing Qi Gong helps me channel my energy into productive action rather than to experience negative emotions.
About Kathy Grayson, MFT
Kathy Grayson is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Berkeley and Oakland, CA. She is a somatic psychotherapist specializing in treating anxiety, depression, and trauma. Somatic therapy recognizes that strong emotions and trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse or neglect, impacts and is stored in the body. This stored energy may manifest as anxiety, depression, or other emotions. Emotional healing needs to include and attend to physical patterns in the body so that the stored energy can be transformed. Grayson studied many somatic modalities and am a somatic experiencing practitioner and a certified sensorimotor psychotherapist.