I’m a Climate Psychologist, and These Are My Top 6 Tips for Coping With Tough Emotions About the Environment

Photo: Getty Images/Henrik Sellin
Are you struggling with tricky climate emotions? It would hardly be shocking if so. That’s just part of being alive in 2023. Grappling with the climate emergency and its implications is the core challenge of our time: politically, emotionally, and even spiritually.

As a clinical psychologist turned climate activist, it's a primary focus of my career to consider such tricky emotions and help folks charge forward. (It's also the very topic of my book Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth, a new edition of which is out next month.)

Yes, the climate disaster holds bleak effects if we do nothing. But the truth is that we're not without options, hope, or a path forward. Below, find my top climate anxiety tips for processing and channeling your emotions into effective action and mindful optimism.

6 climate anxiety tips to feel better and make a difference

1. Treat yourself with self-compassion

It's a common tendency to be harshly self-critical, and that inclination extends to climate emotions. Think: “What am I, pathetic?” or “I have no right to feel this way when others are so much worse off?”

One of my top climate anxiety tips is to cut negative self-talk that only complicates things further. This kind of self-criticism shuts down emotional processing and exploration. It will not serve you.

Welcome your self-critical feelings as a means of building “emotional muscle.” Approach your pain with an attitude of curiosity and self-compassion.

Instead, welcome your self-critical feelings as a means of building “emotional muscle.” Approach your pain with an attitude of curiosity and self-compassion. An effective litmus test to gauge whether you are doing this is to ask yourself whether you would treat a beloved friend the way you are yourself.

You likely wouldn’t tell them to ignore their pain or call them a bad person. You would listen to their feelings with interest and respond to them with compassion and empathy. Don't treat yourself worse than you would treat a loved one.

2. Welcome fear, grief, and other difficult feelings about climate anxiety

You are right to be upset! Your feelings are valid—all of them. Feeling fear is a healthy response to the climate emergency. It helps us protect ourselves, mediates between perceiving danger and taking defensive action, and launches us into action.

We can only fully process our pain, honor our loss, and enable ourselves to engage in reality by grieving what we're losing.

Grief is also healthy in this time of mass deaths and extinctions. People grieve because they love humanity and the living world. We must decide that losses deserve to be remembered, felt, and mourned. We can only fully process our pain, honor our loss, and enable ourselves to engage in reality by grieving what we're losing.

3. Get comfortable with crying

This can be challenging, especially for those who believe crying is a sign of weakness or that it signals an inability to cope. In actuality, crying is a specific act of emotional recognition and response that provides an outlet for all the grief and pain inside you. Its benefits include linking the emotional and physiological—and can even help you feel better, in some cases.

4. Rethink your life story: Maybe you have a mission?

The climate emergency will drastically affect your life and your future. Have you taken that in, and really thought it through? And even more deeply, have you considered why you are alive at this time of tremendous import? What if everything in your life, including its most painful challenges, has prepared you to help humanity protect itself from the climate emergency?

Many people who become activists have gone through this kind of identity rethinking in the context of the climate emergency. By viewing yourself as a potential activist or change-maker, you empower yourself and also place a great responsibility on your shoulders.

5. Share your feelings with others

The most common emotional experience with regard to the climate emergency I hear from people is alienation. “No one understands how bad it is” or “I can’t talk to anyone about it.”

Dealing with the truth is hard enough. No one should have to do it alone. It's too hard, and totally unnecessary, as everyone in the world is dealing with the same issues.Some are doing so unconsciously, others are using defenses such as denial to protect themselves from painful reality. But remember that many of your friends and family are also worried, and they will be relieved and appreciative when you bring up your feelings, especially if you can listen and offer them support as well. Be personal, emotional, authentic, and empathetic.

A great way to get started is to join a Climate Emotions Conversation, and have a chance to share your feelings and hear the feelings of people, often from all over the world, who understand.

6. Join the climate emergency movement and disrupt normalcy

If you have tapped into your feelings, welcomed them, talked with others about them, and rethought your life story, you may wonder, What’s next? Am I just supposed to carry around almost unbearable pain? Or is there something to be done?

I recommend that you join or support a campaign that is disrupting normalcy, likely one using nonviolent civil disobedience. “Normal” channels for change have failed. Our institutions are not keeping pace with the accelerating emergency. It's time to get outside of your comfort zone.

According to a 2021 Yale study, 8.6 million adults are “definitely” willing to personally participate in nonviolent civil disobedience for climate. Are you one of these willing Americans? If so, it's time to activate.

Figuring out how to join the movement in a way that works well for you can be complicated. Only you can decide where you can be most effective. But know that any and every role is better than none.

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