Innovating StudyPublished in the last year The Lancet, a group of nine researchers including psychologists, environmental scientists and psychiatrists surveyed 10,000 individuals ages 16 to 25 about climate anxiety and its relation to government action. Seventy five percent of the participants, ten from different countries, believed that the future was scary. Nearly half of respondents said that climate change had negatively affected their daily lives, including their ability focus, eat, sleep, study, and relationships.
“Climate anxiety is not in itself a problem,” says Britt WrayStanford researcher, who specializes in climate change research and mental health. “It’s actually a very healthy and normal response to have when one understands the escalating civilizational threat that we’re dealing with when it comes to the climate crisis. However, it can become a huge problem if the feelings become so severe that a person starts to lose their ability to function and access wellbeing and get through the day.”
Wray co-authored that novel 2021 study, “Young People’s Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon,” as she met with therapists, activists and epidemiologists while researching a book about eco-anxiety. The new book contains the following: Generation DreadWray shares strategies for dealing with mental health problems that often arise when dealing with climate crises. Smithsonian spoke to Wray to find out what she’s learned and get her advice.
Your book Generation DreadClimate anxiety is discussed in this article. How would you describe this term to others?
Climate anxiety refers to a range of emotions that can be experienced when one wakes up to the full impact of climate change and other ecological crises. While anxiety is definitely a component of it, mental health professionals and researchers believe that there are other aspects to climate anxiety. These include grief, anger, helplessness and hopelessness, as well as sorrow and other challenging feelings that highlight our concern about the world.
What is your relationship to ecoanxiety and what sparked your interest in studying the effects of climate changes on mental health?
When I witnessed a powerful and memorable moment, I was drawn to the subject. My partner and I began to think about trying for a baby in 2017. Instead of jumping into the decision and making it, I had to pause. I was a science communicator and was constantly absorbing information about the climate crisis. I was looking at the political actions that weren’t being taken and the solutions that were not being upheld by our leaders but rather ignored as fossil fuel companies continued to be subsidized. It all didn’t add up to a situation in which I felt comfortable trying to get pregnant.
I felt really deviant for thinking this, I wasn’t sure if I was crazy by questioning whether or not it was okay to have kids in a crisis. It was a difficult dilemma that I had the to resolve myself. I had to process new emotions that were much more existential than the ones I had considered before—even though I had studied biology with a focus on conservation in my undergrad and been part of climate marches and environmental groups.
If I’ve now seen the psychological impact in my life, how might other people be similarly affected on an emotional, mental, even spiritual level by what’s going on? And that’s what then got me to say, well, perhaps my next project can be about getting to the bottom of this.
How did this “project” develop into what became your book?
I’m a radio producer, so I started by doing a one-hour feature documentary about the question of whether to have kids in the climate crisis for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. After doing that, I realized that I was only scratching the surface of the psychological implications of the climate crisis. I thought, now I’d like to find out as much as I can about the issue and create a project. And that’s how Generation DreadIt all happened. It was driven by my own personal turmoil and need to find ways of coping and moving towards more nourishing and radically helpful narratives about the future, rather than committing to these fearful ideas about what’s happening and where this is all headed.
How did you launch a massive psychological study about climate anxiety?
After doing some research and writing my book, it became obvious to me that I wanted my entire energy and work hours to support mental health in climate crisis. People are becoming increasingly concerned by the consequences of the problem and the lack thereof. Many communities are already suffering from acute trauma from climate events, as well as other forms of oppression and marginalization which have a psychological toll. I thought, there’s so much work to be done. Perhaps I could help to make sense of it. I wanted to be more than just reporting on it.
I decided to leave my previous field and focus on the mental health consequences of the climate change. And I’ve made a bunch of new colleagues: climate psychologists, therapists, psychiatrists, epidemiologists, theologians and activists—all kinds of people who are contributing in a big way to the scholarship around what it means to protect mental health and the climate crisis. Through some of my collaborations I was able to become part of the study on the effects of climate anxiety on the lives of 10,000 children.
What were some of your key findings? Was there anything that surprised you?
We wanted to understand the impact of climate anxiety on young people all over the globe. We were looking at countries that are very different in terms of their income levels—low-, middle- and high-income nations—places that have a lot of exposure already to climate as well as those that are relatively protected from the worst effects of climate disaster. We were shocked at how dire and severe the results were.
A staggering 50 percent of 16- and 25-year-olds believe humanity is doomed. This is a heartbreaking statistic. Also, 50 percent said that they won’t have access to the same opportunities that their parents had, and that the things that they value most in life will be destroyed. These are scary thoughts. They urge us to seriously consider this and to understand how we can support young people dealing with the existential stress caused by the climate crisis.
Additionally, 39 percent of these global respondents said that they’re hesitant to have children because of the climate crisis, which of course directly links to what got me to pay attention to this field in the first place. The findings show that it’s not just that young people are feeling distressed because the environment isn’t doing well, but specifically that it’s significantly correlated with perceptions of government betrayal and being lied to by leaders. So, there’s even aspects of institutional betrayal that we’re getting at here in terms of young people being left with a really complex set of problems to deal with as they grow up.
There are many ways that people have attempted to alleviate their anxiety about climate change. Which strategies do YOU think are most effective?
It’s crucial that people have a place in which these feelings can be expressed and that they will be met with validation and support. I have hundreds of people reach out and tell me that their anxiety is made so much worse by the fact that if they try to talk about the concerns in their circles of friends and family and those people aren’t ready to hear their concerns and legitimize them, they can end up feeling many times worse. This makes it difficult to cope with these emotions. This is why it is so important to find support and others who understand your feelings. We can then start to explore our emotions and integrate them in a way that allows us to live with them, harness them and use them as fuel for the changes we want to see in the world.
This type of internal processing is essential to be more effective in the technical and hard skills required for change-making in the global world. Research has shown this. We are dealing with major challenges, because our culture is not emotionally intelligent, and it’s not easy for us to acknowledge our emotions or feel our feelings. We try to turn away from things that make us feel uncomfortable, and that’s not a viable way of relating to our emotions in a climate crisis that is escalating and in its intensity.
Increasingly, people are despairing and they’re talking with an overcoat of doom and saying that it’s basically too late to make a difference, which is absolutely not true. It’s a pervasive lie that is being told about the climate crisis and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So when people start telling themselves that it’s too late to make a difference—I might as well find a way to just enjoy myself rather than help be part of the collective action-taking—that becomes as dangerous as denial.
This conversation must be advanced in order to break down the inaccurate binary and allow people explore their emotions and understand how they could be harnessed for pro-environmental or pro-social change. It is important to start with a basic foundation, which is having honest conversations with people. It’s really hard to get to that place of empowerment if you’re sitting with these feelings alone.
Did the pandemic affect your motivations?
I was actually in a residency for writing (Mesa Refuge) working on this book when the World Health Organization called [the spread of the novel coronavirus]There was a pandemic. Because the world was going into lockdown, I had to leave Point Reyes Station (California) early to return home. Although it was disorienting, I realized that there were huge parallels between the mental effects of the climate crisis on mental health and those of Covid-19. What we’re dealing with is a planetary health crisis, not just a climate crisis. The problem stems from how humans interact with nature. Instead of learning healthy ways to integrate into nature, humans try to dominate it.
It was generative to be writing about a pandemic, as mental health had never been discussed publicly with the same urgency, interest, or collective bandwidth. The need to talk about climate change’s mental impact on mental health was directly tied to the new attention that mental health received from the pandemic.
What are your top three takeaways for readers after reading the book?
It is healthy and normal to feel upset about the climate crisis. It’s not a pathology. It’s not a mental health disorder. It’s a sign that you care and are attached to what’s going on in the world and aren’t numbed by unconscious defenses that are just trying to protect you from anxiety and pain.
Second, it’s important to know that activism is not only external in terms of science and policy and technology. It’s internal too. We can do more to cope with it. We need to find ways that we can have the strength and resilience to take collective pairing actions on both the external activism side.
Third, it’s really important to find a container. And by that, I mean a safe space with others in which to share these feelings, speak authentically, dwell in whatever you’re feeling without judgment or shame and having people legitimize and validate all of that. It is important to find people who have the emotional maturity to share the tough stuff. From there, some opportunities can be created.
Fourth, there are lots of things that we can do to help ourselves cope on the nervous system level if we’re finding ourselves really worked up or anxious or feeling like the world is ending. These are all covered in the book. However, we can also expand our tolerance by using mindfulness, meditation, and other self-care methods that are relevant to climate distress.
It is also important to learn how to reinvest energy when we are feeling uncertain. These difficult emotions can be transformed into meaningful actions that add purpose to our life. We must be able to look at this crisis every day and show up when it’s so much easier to look away. To contribute to the collective change-making that billions around the globe are trying to achieve, we must be fully present with our purposeful selves.
This interview has been edited for clarity.