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OPINION: Climate Anxiety Is Not a Diagnosis, It’s a New Reality

by Sarah Stuteville


“Smoke season makes for beautiful sunsets.” I remember the first time I said that — watching the sky streak a deep, gritty pink over Lake Washington. Even more vividly, I recall the hot grief that flared in my chest a moment later. And now there’s a word for that. “Blissonance” refers to the experience of enjoying the natural world alongside parallel awareness of threats to it. And even your contribution to those threats. 

In fact, there’s a lexicon rapidly emerging to help us express the complex and often horrifying experience of living through rapid climate change and its visceral impacts. “Pre-Traumatic Stress Disorder” refers to living with a constant sense of imminent and irreversible environmental damage. An “empathetic blench” is the experience of receiving a gift that contributes to environmental destruction (in my world often plastic children’s toys encased in more plastic) from a generous and well-meaning source. “Solastalgia” describes the loss of personally meaningful environments and even weather patterns. With that last one I think of my physical yearning for Seattle’s infamous “June Gloom” during the recent record-busting, and deadly, heatwave.

In the field of counseling, the more common vocabulary includes “eco-anxiety,” “eco-grief,” “climate depression,” and “eco-paralysis.” I learned about these terms at a recent training for “climate-informed” therapists — a professional competency that is, unfortunately, increasingly relevant. 

According to a 2020 poll by the American Psychiatric Association, more than two-thirds of Americans say they are “somewhat anxious” or “extremely anxious” about the impacts of climate change. Another study shows that more than half of teens and young adults are “afraid” and “angry” about climate change. I personally spent the last year as a counseling intern in my final stretch of graduate school to become a therapist. And amidst unprecedented turmoil related to the pandemic, almost all my clients also communicated deep distress about climate change.

And how could they not be distressed? The UN’s bluntly terrifying report on climate change, released last week, coincides in the Pacific Northwest with another summer of blistering temperatures and voracious wildfires. I personally now experience regular surges of eco-grief and panic. When I walk into a Target and imagine the indefensibly short life cycle of the endless aisles of products. When I install the first air-conditioner I’ve ever bought into my living room window. When I watch my children study a tide pool and project into a near future when they — rightfully — resent me for having done nothing to stop the destruction of the world they love. 

These are increasingly regular, painful, and distracting experiences and I don’t want them to go away. I don’t want them to go away for my clients either. “It’s not a disorder if you feel distressed, sad, and fearful. It means your heart is open and you are paying attention,” said Leslie Davenport, who ran the climate-informed therapists’ training, “We are experiencing a tremendous amount of loss. Worry is helpful and appropriate.”

Davenport is a local psychotherapist, “climate psychology consultant,” and author. She teaches that climate-informed therapists shouldn’t try and solve their clients’ anxiety but instead help build tolerance for it and skills for self-soothing. This way, says Davenport, we can “cultivate the ability to remain present, open-minded, and empathetic in the face of increasing grief.” 

She also encourages counselors to support clients in facing the severity of climate change. To encourage them to practice living in uncertainty and to help them access grief — even grieve the damage they have caused the environment themselves. These strategies are paired with mindfulness, grounding exercises, stress relief, and trauma-informed care to help build, as Davenport puts it, “The ability to bear witness to, and be with, more.” 

It is a skill we will undeniably need if we’re going to engage with a new way of existing with the natural world. But systems like white supremacy and capitalism actively discourage us — especially those of us with privilege inside those systems — from living with tension and complexity. This culture is quick to push us towards apathy or anger when there are no easy solutions for difficult issues and uncomfortable feelings. I see this in myself when I’m as quick to sneer at small acts of environmentalism (like going vegetarian) as I am to point out the impossibility of potentially larger-scale efforts (like dramatically restricting personal carbon consumption). I don’t want to feel afraid or sad, so I get distant and cynical. 

And I often tell myself I’m alone in experiencing these emotions — because isolation is another tool of oppressive systems in maintaining the status quo. Connecting to the collective is the most effective way for us to demand real accountability from the corporations and governments that bear the most responsibility for environmental devastation. Individual shame offers no leverage against them all. But collective anger, grief, and fear does.

 And those in power know this. They have cultivated a paralyzing sense of individual responsibility in us. As just one example, the very term “carbon footprint” was coined by British Petroleum (BP), one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world, 20 years ago. The explicit goal behind the “carbon footprint” campaign was to move responsibility for carbon emissions away from corporations (BP is one of the highest emitting companies in the world) and place it squarely on the shoulders of individuals.

Living with climate change — and all its implications — is difficult, complicated, and often just feels bad. But that complicated, bad feeling is what therapists sometimes call “the growth edge,” and I think we’re more capable of staying there than we realize. I am still a very new counselor, but my time in this profession so far has taught me that we live every day in the unknown — even when we don’t admit it. That we have an incredible capacity for experiencing heartbreak — despite all we do to avoid it. That we are wired to build meaning with our pain. And maybe leaning into those qualities is how we can resist “treating” our eco-anxiety like an individual pathology and instead transmute it — together — into a new way of living. 

 And someone should come up with a word for that.


Sarah Stuteville is a writer and therapist with a background in international journalism. She writes about feminism, social justice, mental health, media, parenting, and relationships. Sarah has reported from over a dozen and wrote a social justice issue column for the Seattle Times.

📸 Featured Image: Illustration by artiestick/Shutterstock.com.

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