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Thinking About Climate Anxiety

Updated: Dec 6, 2021


While updating my website recently, I was thinking about the client issues that, as a therapist, I have worked with or am likely to encounter. It felt easy to include issues which, on one level, feel familiar, like depression or low-self-worth. However, despite wanting to, I struggled to find a way to mention working with climate anxiety. Perhaps this is because it is something that I am not able to let fully into my own consciousness. Perhaps because of this, I am hesitant to invite it into my practice. I want to try and understand this better.


As I see it, as a human experience, anxiety is a reaction to the threat to any pattern upon which one feels their safety depends (May 1950: 149). While it is clear and indisputable that the environmental damage wrought by humanity through emissions is the biggest threat to our species in its history, to me, that would elicit fear rather than anxiety. If we are able to locate, outside ourselves, the source and nature of a threat, the natural reaction is fear. Yet ‘anxiety’ seems to describe how I and many others feel about the climate crisis better than ‘fear’. Why?


Were we to fully face the reality of the climate crisis, rapid and decisive action would be the result. This truth has been demonstrated by a majority of governments and citizens through the Covid pandemic, enacting rapid changes to our daily lives in the face of imminent threat. The threat to lives, both through contracting the disease and the ensuing economic and societal ramifications was unavoidable and most governments took rapid action that conflicted with short-term economic policy.


So why is the same not true for the climate emergency, which is clearly much, much worse? The answer, I believe, was in my hesitance to mention it on my website: denial. Here is the defensive pattern that’s under threat. This is why I feel anxious rather than scared: the climate crisis is a truth too big for me to safely hold in my mind, and I feel helpless, so I push it away and pretend it isn’t happening. Maybe that’s obvious?


This is nothing new for humans. We are dasein or beings towards death and live with the knowledge of our own limited and finite existence ever present in the shadows of our mind. But the mechanism that protects us, most of the time anyway, from anxiety around our own death is also, I believe, hindering our individual and collective ability to face the climate crisis. We are simply too good at denial: fingers in the ears, la la la, business as usual.


As I write this I am starting to consider the potential link between personal death anxiety and climate-crisis anxiety and wonder about the extent to which my anxiety around the climate crisis is intertwined with my own death-anxiety. They both feel similar in that, while the facts are plain to see, I find it hard to engage fully and comprehend these truths in a way that I can hold onto. If I was more comfortable with the idea of my own death then maybe I would be more willing and able to face the climate crisis at a personal level.


I was wondering how to conclude this post when I started considering the idea of climate-privilege and how the intangibility of climate crisis to westerners, including myself, is bound up with privilege and wealth, both because we are mostly shielded from the current manifestations of the climate crisis, and because there is yet another defensive pattern that we benefit by protecting: the myth of entitlement (I’m thinking of the unbridled anxiety that we see reflected across right-wing media around migrants crossing the channel and the myriad ways people born to less opportunity are deliberately ‘othered’).


it is my observation that humans, including myself, tend to act decisively only when motivated by a tangible and urgent threat of some kind. The climate crisis still feels intangible from our privileged position, mired in denial, and that’s the problem.


There hasn’t been a decisive point in this post other than to share my thoughts as they occur, but now, after writing the above, I at least feel more motivated to push myself to face up to the truth of the climate crisis and do more. This includes being open to the topic in my counselling practice and empathising with my clients’ anxieties as I empathise with and have compassion for mine.


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