Climate grief: What climate change is doing to our psyche

climate grief
What the growing threat of climate change is doing to our psyche

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Rising temperatures, environmental disasters and the like: we all know about the consequences of the climate catastrophe. The lurking danger looms over us like the sword of Damocles, and that can be a real drain on our mental health.

In this exceptionally hot summer, we were bombarded with reports of water shortages, drought and forest fires almost every day. For many of us, this does not go unnoticed, the constant terrible news coupled with great fear of an uncertain future burden our psyche. The psychologists Ashlee Consuelo and Neville R. Ellis defined a term for this feeling back in 2018: climate grief.

Climate grief: New horror reports every day do not leave us unaffected

Climate grief describes a mixture of sadness for the world as we know it, anger at the system for not doing something fast enough to address the obvious problems, and fear for the future – for ourselves, but even more so for the generations of our children and grandchildren. The last part is also sometimes detached referred to as environmental fear. But ultimately, the phenomena are closely intertwined. Because fear, insecurity and sadness or grief are often mutually dependent.

Grief and loss are well-researched emotions. Usually we mourn something from the past, a relationship or a loved one. There is also a special component to climate grief, because this type of grief is forward-looking or anticipatory: the world is in transition, and we are already noticing many of the effects of the changing climate and other environmental problems. For example, the rising temperatures, the lack of precipitation in many hot places and environmental disasters.

However, researchers are certain that all this is just a foretaste of what lies ahead in the coming decades – especially if we do not intervene quickly enough and make massive adjustments to our way of life and, above all, to our growth-driven economic system.

We have to get used to a future that we don’t yet know exactly what it will look like

We know about these impending consequences – but how exactly they will look like cannot be predicted 100 percent. So we mourn something that is partly over (carelessness, security, livable temperatures in many parts of the world), but partly still to come. We are in a period of transition that, while we’re not sure exactly where it’s going, it’s clear that the future isn’t getting any brighter. This new dimension of grief coupled with the feeling of powerlessness, hopelessness and fear make up climate grief and environmental anxiety.

One aspect of grief is adjusting to a new reality, a new environment. And that is exactly what is happening with the fears that we have to endure in connection with climate change. It’s just that we don’t know exactly what the new world we’ll have to adapt to will look like. And this uncertainty increases the fear – a vicious circle.

Climate grief: 3 tips for dealing with environmental fear and Co.

So what can we do to not let the fear of the future overwhelm us? These tips can help:

1. Be mindful of your feelings

The first and perhaps most important step is accepting your emotions about climate change and the consequences for humanity. Be careful with yourself and notice exactly what you are feeling: Does the feeling of fear, sadness for times gone by, anger at the powerful or the powerlessness of not being able to do enough prevail? Accept the feelings and just let them be there, that’s the only way you can process them. As a next step, you may be able to talk to someone about it, whether it’s a good friend or a therapist. That too can help to take the brunt of climate grief.

2. News break

If the doom scrolling becomes too much due to the daily news about climate change and the like, you can take a conscious break from it. It might help to set daily maximum usage times for messaging apps on your smartphone. Or you treat yourself to a digital detox for a certain period of time and consciously consume little or no media. It’s not about not listening to the news at all or closing your eyes to the world – in the end, suppressing it doesn’t help you any further and is just as unhealthy as long-term consumption. But taking conscious breaks when things get too much is an important form of self-care.

3. Get active

Doing something yourself can help against the feeling of powerlessness. This can be on a small scale – maybe you make a resolution to develop less environmentally harmful habits, such as flying less or not, or eating no or less meat. Or you become active, take part in demonstrations or even get involved politically or on another major level for environmental issues. Because even if every veggie schnitzel and every train journey is important instead of a short-haul flight – real change can only take place if something changes in politics and in our system.

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