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It's Hard To Think About Climate Change During A Pandemic. Here's How To Stay Engaged

Leonardo Santamaria for NPR

Updated Friday, 6:45 p.m. ET

This past Wednesday marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Instead of feeling gratitude and oneness with the planet you may have experienced darker emotions as we weather the pandemic: a fear that more disruptive events are on the horizon due to climate change.

For some, feelings of sadness about the state of the planet aren't new — they're constant and at times debilitating. This experience goes by many names, among them eco-anxiety, climate grief and climate despair.

A movement has begun to help people face these feelings — and build resilience so they can stay engaged with the work of fighting the climate crisis.

We spoke to psychologists and climate activists about their approaches to processing climate grief — it turns out these tools are useful for dealing with any kind of wide scale upheaval, including life during a pandemic. Here's a road map to facing your fears — and our planet's future.

Observe your resistance

Before you can process grief, you have to open up the protective shell many of us encase ourselves in, says Craig Chalquist, a psychologist and professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

"The resistance is understandable because the news is so catastrophic," Chalquist says. "The human mind is built such that it protects itself by defending itself against intolerable information," Chalquist says.

Such defenses may include burying yourself in distraction like "surfing away from the bad news," says Chalquist. Or you may scapegoat the messengers who share this news, or regress to a childlike state and expect someone else — scientists or the government — to take care of the issue.

Another classic: denying that the problem is happening or believing that a silver-bullet solution will save us all. In the case of the climate crisis, these fantasies most often one involve new technology.

Chalquist says that not all defenses are bad, and for those entrenched in climate change work, it's important to take breaks. It is a problem, however, to use the defenses to block out our own feelings.

Accept uncertainty

Part of facing the problem is getting comfortable with uncertainty, say Aimee Lewis-Reau and LaUra Schmidt, co-founders of The Good Grief Network, a nonprofit focusing on building "personal resilience" in the face of climate change.

Lewis-Reau and Schmidt developed a 10-Step program, modeled in part on Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where people come together in-person and online to build community and their own capacity to deal with their climate grief.

One of the steps of their program, Schmidt says, is "sitting with the paradox and the tension of uncertainty and realizing that we don't know what the future holds." She says it's easy to dwell on a bleak view of the future. "But the future isn't set and so for us to spend significant amounts of time in a future that hasn't unfolded yet does us injustice in the present," Schmidt says.

Instead, she says, ask yourself: "What can we do now to develop relationships and personal resilience so that if times get darker or as they get darker, we're more prepared, more nimble for these changes that are occurring?"

Schmidt says many Good Grief participants report this resilience is helping them face the current pandemic. They feel "better able to cope with the experiences of COVID-19 and its impact" after having gone through the program, Schmidt says.

Feel the emotions

Nearly all experts agree the next step is to let yourself feel the feelings that come up. Chalquist says some people may question this, "'Just sitting in a room and talking about it is going to help?' Actually, yeah," he says.

Schmidt and Lewis-Reau agree, adding that processing feelings also helps people work through past trauma, so they are better ready to deal with the worsening impacts of climate change. For instance, if someone needed to evacuate due to a fire, processing that can free you from the "extra weights that are tethering you from being [a] nimble actor."

This can be done individually or in a group — though right now, you'd want to seek out an online meeting.

Schmidt and Lewis-Reau have practiced guiding others to get in touch with their own feelings, which they say is not easy. "I've seen this sort of feelings-resistance manifest," Lewis-Reau says, "almost a sense of feelings illiteracy."

Connect with your body — and nature

One way to help tap into your feelings is to connect to your physical body, say Schmidt and Lewis-Reau.

Lewis-Reau worries this may come off as too "hippie" sounding, but she says it's essential for people to be in touch with their own bodies. "We live in this no pain, no gain, work at all costs culture until a lot of people have disconnected from their bodies to survive," she says.

To reignite that connection, dive into any form of exercise that you enjoy, like walking, running, yoga or swimming. Lewis-Reau says she finds dancing to be particularly effective in connecting with her emotions. Schmidt suggests meditation or relaxation practices like a body scan meditation.

"Body movement is essential because our feelings tend to get locked up in our body causing tension," Schmidt says. Exercising releases endorphins that help relieve stress, she says, and "these activities also keep us in the present moment."

Another way to tune in is to connect with nature, says environmental psychologist Renee Lertzman. Getting out in nature is both calming and "reminds me of why we're doing this. And I'm just continually amazed by how incredible life is," she says.

Connect with climate community

This could happen on a one-on-one level, like through talking to a counselor. Therapists report an uptick in clients with concerns about the environment and the changing climate. They even have guides and groups to help them help clients.

This could also happen on a communal level, even online. "It can be just rounding up some friends who have the same fears and talking it through with them," psychologist Craig Chalquist explains. The group can also take a more formal shape, through organizations like The Good Grief Network. The feelings can feel isolating, so a space to share them is crucial for many.

For some, processing their anxiety and sadness can take the form of group grief. Psychologist Francis Weller says processing grief together is not actually sad. Instead, it allows people to open their hearts and feel more alive. Like a funeral for a human who has passed away, people have gathered in places like Iceland and Switzerland to memorialize glaciers. Though such gatherings aren't possible presently with social distancing guidelines, it's something to consider organizing in the future.

Gain perspective — and courage — from the past

Climate writer Mary Annaïse Heglar and Michigan State University professor Kyle Whyte point to the past for inspiration.

Heglar writes that her family members survived slavery and the Jim Crow south. "Black people of the not-too-distant past trembled for every baby born into that world. Sound familiar?" she writes.

She draws inspiration from how her family faced their own existential threat in America: with courage.

"I want you to understand how overwhelming, how insurmountable it must have felt," she writes. "You don't fight something like that because you think you will win. You fight it because you have to. Because surrendering dooms so much more than yourself, but everything that comes after you."

Kyle Whyte is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a tribe that was forced from their native land in the Great Lakes in the midwest to the Great Plains of Oklahoma today.

He sees parallels between that complete shift in environment with the changes occurring today.

"What we've really learned," Whyte says, is "that it's not just what you know about the environment, but it's what you know about how to keep a cohesive community."

Whyte says a big part of this is having "reverence for knowledge-holders in our communities, whether it's elderly people, whether it's people of diverse genders, whether it's children."

(Re)engage in the work

Once people process some emotions (and therapists say this work is ongoing), "then they fairly quickly move from that phase into 'what can I do,'" says Chalquist.

That work, experts agree, is entirely up to the individual.

"We're really careful not to prescribe action," says Schmidt of The Good Grief Network. "It's actually really powerful if we can empower individuals to find their own unique action."

Schmidt and Lewis-Reau say that doesn't have to be traditional activism — it could simply be to focus on what you're good at, and plug in that way.

For writer Mary Annaïse Heglar, her action takes the form of writing essays. The blog she started with the intention of processing her own climate grief is now cited in several mainstream publications.

Whatever form getting active takes, experts recommend working in groups, even if that means, right now, coming together through video calls. Other people make the battle feel more doable.

We've all experienced that these past few months, as people across the world have come together to fight a largely invisible challenge. Perhaps this pandemic will help shape how we address another often invisible and far more existential threat.

Confronting global warming "requires a cultural shift, a paradigm shift," says LaUra Schmidt. To make such a transition, she says, "it's absolutely essential that we have a community backing us."

Copyright 2020 KQED

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