Coping with climate loss: advice from an environmental psychologist

This story was originally published by Greenpeace Australia Pacific

The crisis in Ukraine, the floods on one side of the country and the record heat on the other, it’s understandable if you’re feeling a little stressed or sad.

When you feel helpless in the face of threats, everything gets worse.

We release stress hormones in our body.

We feel hopeless, anxious, angry, guilty.

We are looking for people or things to blame. Our thinking can become less compassionate, less creative, and less flexible. In this state, it is very difficult to know how to respond to complex problems.

Desperation, however, is not a strategy.

As a psychologist who has worked for years on the environmental and climate-related impacts of grief and anxiety, I find that an approach known as “Acceptance and Commitment Therapy” can help people deal with how they feel and think in response to difficult times, without fully disengaging from the problem.

Aerial view of the remote Millstream National Park, Western Australia, near the Woodside Burrup gas hub area. Woodside Petroleum plans to drill gas nearby in what would be the most climate-polluting project Australia has ever had. © Luke Sweet / Conservation Council Western Australia / Greenpeace

Part 1: Open

“Opening up” is about noticing, naming, and making space for painful feelings and thoughts. It involves locating a sensation within our body – observing its size, shape, texture, temperature, movement; giving it a name – for example, “it’s fear” or “it’s heartbreak”, and being willing to make space for it, acknowledge its presence, and accept that painful feelings are a part (tricky !) of the human being.

Our uncomfortable feelings about existential threats are appropriate, and there for a reason. They compel us to process our losses, to face the reality of our endangered world, and they motivate us to do something.

A migrating humpback whale crosses the Whitsunday Islands. © Michael Amendolia / Greenpeace

Then we can do things to allow our feelings to move. Emily Nagoski reminds us that feelings are “travellers, not residents”. They get up, stay a while, then leave. Good practices to help complete the stress cycle include things like moving your body, crying, having a stress-reducing conversation, being in nature, or having a hug.

Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone in Active Hope remind us that it can be invigorating to go with, rather than against, the flow of our deepest reactions to the world, and that when we touch our depths, we find, in fact, that the abyss is not bottomless.

Part 2: Be present

Being in the moment is another particularly useful strategy when we feel overwhelmed.

Learning to “drop anchor” in the midst of an “emotional storm” can help us stay stable in the present moment while the storm blows. An anchor is anything that is part of the present moment other than the storm itself. A simple grounding exercise can be: Notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can to listen, 3 things you can feel2 things you can smell or taste, and end by noticing what you are doing right now, in the present moment.

The Daintree River, Queensland.
The Daintree River, Queensland. © Ella Colley / Greenpeace

Part 3: Do what matters

What we do, Questions. When we act in accordance with our core values, we are more likely to feel engaged and fulfilled. Values ​​are like guiding principles, helping us choose where to focus our energies. One way to help identify the type of action you would like to take is to ask yourself, “What do I want to stand up for in the face of this crisis, or in the face of this great pain that I am feeling?

Doing things is also an example of problem-focused coping – the things you do to reduce the problem (like the climate crisis) that is causing the stress. Any action we take to reduce Australia’s reliance on fossil fuels, for example, has a double effect as it lifts us out of helplessness and despair PLUS it helps restore a safer climate.

Hope is a strategy

The pain we feel about the climate crisis invites us to ask ourselves what is our place in the climate crisis. Solutions to climate change are already readily available. When we raise our expectations of what is possible, build our inner strength muscles, and do what matters, we can have personal and collective impact. Cultivating hope is a strategy.

Cathedral Rocks Wind Farm is a wind farm
Cathedral Rocks Wind Farm is a wind farm located approximately 30 km west of Port Lincoln in South Australia, near the southern tip of the Eyre Peninsula. © Michaela Skovranova / Greenpeace

Dr. Susie Burke is a psychologist, researcher, writer and climate change activist.

Guest authors work with Greenpeace International to share their personal experiences and views and are responsible for their own content.

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