‘I was enjoying a life that was ruining the world’: can therapy treat climate anxiety? | Climate crisis

Pete Knapp, 36, who lives in London, has visited North Korea, travelled overland from Kenya to Cape Town, motorcycled through Japan and Cambodia and trekked by horse through China. Until a few years ago, “I felt invincible,” he says. He had never experienced anxiety, or worried about the climate crisis.

Then, in 2019, he went to Borneo. “I remember flying in one of those small planes over a part of Borneo that used to be rainforest but is now a palm oil plantation. The whole landscape was this monoculture,” he says. He spent days trying to find orangutans in the wild, and, when he finally found the primary rainforest that remained, he saw “such depth, character, colour and variety” that he felt horrified by the “quiet, dead, grey, nothingness” replacing it. “It hammered home how our lifestyles and diets had caused so much destruction to this part of the world that is so precious. When you go to a supermarket and buy food, you don’t see the cost of it. That was the first time I saw the cost.” It marked the end of his travels and feeling of invincibility, and the beginning of what he now calls climate anxiety.

This emotional state includes feelings as varied as fear and helplessness, guilt, shame, loss, betrayal and abandonment, and it can take different shapes in each individual. Anouchka Grose, a psychoanalyst and the author of A Guide to Eco-Anxiety, How to Protect the Planet and Your Mental Health, says some patients describe staying awake all night thinking of coral reefs, bush fires and ice caps melting. Some might “walk into a shop and freak out because they suddenly see it as it is,” how “all the things in front of you are in damaging forms of packaging, freighted from goodness knows where, covered in pesticides”. In her book, someone describes looking at a friend’s take-away coffee: “It makes me sad and alarmed, imagining millions of people out there, just like him, with one throwaway plastic cup, millions of times over every day.”

For Knapp, it was the feeling of having “the rug pulled from under my feet; that I was enjoying a life that was ruining the world”. For Natasha James, 33, a training manager in Portsmouth, it was reading article after article in a paralysing spiral: “It would get to the stage where I would freeze.” Their climate anxiety began at 12, when their science teacher spoke about the hole in the ozone layer and global heating. “I remember my stomach dropped, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God! I’ve never heard about this before; why are people not talking about it? Why are we not doing anything about it?’”.

Molecular biologist Abi Perrin, 32, describes the physical sensations she experienced after reading the 2018 report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC): “My heart was pounding. My chest felt tight every time I thought about it – and I couldn’t not think about it. I’d often burst into tears because it felt overwhelming. It’s like a pit in your stomach – you feel weirdly empty. It’s not always the same, but it sometimes takes the form of feeling very sad, hopeless and alone.”

The biggest ever scientific study on climate anxiety and young people, published last year in the Lancet, found that nearly six in 10 people aged 16 to 25 were very or extremely worried about climate breakdown, nearly half of them reported climate distress or anxiety affecting their daily lives, and three-quarters agreed that “the future is frightening”. All the therapists I spoke to reported seeing a significant increase in climate anxiety in their consulting rooms. So, can therapy help?

‘You feel weirdly empty’ … Abi Perrin. Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

There is a danger, in suggesting that therapy might help, of pathologising climate anxiety; turning it into a mental health problem that needs to be cured – medicated or spirited away with mindfulness or talking therapy . Many people I interviewed were faced with such reactions from friends, family, colleagues, GPs, and, occasionally, even therapists.

This is not how the author of Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis Sally Weintrobe thinks. “It is important to say that anxiety is a signal that there is something wrong. It’s a perfectly normal healthy reaction to a worrying situation. We mustn’t pathologise climate anxiety. Obviously it can get very extreme – but I would say that government inaction on the climate crisis is pretty extreme, so it’s hardly surprising that people are very worried.” What Knapp, James and Perrin said helped them most was having their emotions validated in therapy – and understanding that their feelings were meaningful and valuable.

Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist, climate psychology researcher and board member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, says, “I would worry about people who aren’t distressed – given that this is what is happening, how come?” She believes that people are using psychological defences such as denial “as a way of coping and reducing the fear that they feel”. This can leave the climate-anxious with a sense of isolation, frustration and abandonment, as others tell themselves, “Oh, well, the government will save us; technology will save us; if it was that bad, somebody would have done something,” she says. “Those are all rationalisations against existential terror of annihilation – and that’s the reality of what we’re potentially looking at.”

To face this reality is to come out of what Weintrobe calls “the climate bubble”, which, she says, “has been supported by a culture of uncare, a culture that actively seeks to keep us in a state of denial about the severity of the climate crisis”. She explains: “The bubble protects you from reality, and when you start seeing the reality, it’s hardly surprising that you’re going to experience a whole series of shocks.” She prefers the term climate trauma over anxiety because “it is traumatising to see that you are caught up in a way of living, whether you like it or not, that makes you a victim and a perpetrator of damaging the Earth, which is what keeps us all alive”. We are living, she says, “in a political system that generates a mental health crisis, because it places burdens on people that are too much to bear, as well as burdens on the Earth”.

The thing about trauma is that it can reignite earlier, individual trauma. That experience of coming out of the climate bubble and having your worries dismissed, of realising that you have been abandoned by people who were supposed to look after you, can be particularly triggering. For Weintrobe, this is where therapy can have a role to play, “in helping people to disentangle what is personal to them and their own individual histories, from what is hitting them from the outside”.

‘It would get to the stage where I would freeze’ … Natasha James.
‘It would get to the stage where I would freeze’ … Natasha James. Photograph: Peter Flude/The Guardian

Perrin describes how speaking to her therapist helped in ways she didn’t expect. She says: “Having that space to have those conversations and be honest about how I felt was really valuable. I went into it thinking I wanted practical advice about how to solve this, but that was not what I got and not what I needed. It helped me to understand that what I was feeling was not wrong.” It also helped her to get a better sense of her anxiety: “I think it might come from feeling lots of things and not actually understanding what they are.” She still experiences anxiety, but it doesn’t escalate in the way it did before. “I know that it’s rooted in something real, and that even if the situation doesn’t change, the intensity of that feeling can, and will, pass.”

As a climate-anxious pupil at school, James was told that this feeling was “irrational” by the therapist they saw at the time. It was while reading article after article late at night that James landed on one about climate anxiety, and recognised their own experience. They decided to try treatment again, and contacted Patrick Kennedy-Williams. First, they say, he told them their fears were valid and rational. Then they discussed how to get a better balance of climate news by also reading positive stories about people who are taking action, as well as limiting internet access on their phone.

This brings to mind how, in her climate-aware therapeutic work, Hickman draws on her experience, in the 1990s, of treating young people, who were HIV positive, with about a year to live. A significant number were, through therapy, “able to change their relationship with their diagnosis and not just live in fear of death, but learn to live their lives wholeheartedly, with death as part of it,” she says. They left relationships that were unsatisfactory, left jobs that they hated, and “they learned to live their lives fully and with meaning, not in denial that their lives might be shorter, but that that didn’t have to define their lives – it was just part of it”.

It is perhaps surprising to hear Weintrobe – a psychoanalyst – say that while there is a role for therapy in addressing climate anxiety, it is limited. We need to normalise this distress, she says, but not by pretending it’s not there, or shouldn’t be. “It’s very perverse that normalising has come to mean getting rid of anything that’s disturbing. Can we make it normal that we are very disturbed and bothered by what is going on, and help each other?” She recommends meeting to talk in groups about climate anxiety, such as at the climate cafes run by the Climate Psychology Alliance. Hickman runs psycho-educational groups with youth activists to address the impact of the climate crisis on mental health, where they discuss ways to support themselves and each other.

Biodiversity is important because the more complex an ecosystem is, the more stable it is … Elouise Mayall.
Biodiversity is important because the more complex an ecosystem is, the more stable it is … Elouise Mayall. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Elouise Mayall, 24, and living in Canterbury, is a master’s student in ecology and a climate activist with the UK Youth Climate Coalition who has taken part in Hickman’s groups and workshops. Her climate anxiety began when she left university and realised how unconcerned others were – what she calls leaving the “green bubble”. In her 20s, she felt intense pressure, guilt, shame and anxiety to produce less and do everything to make up for what others were not doing. After joining UKYCC, her anxiety started to improve, through being part of a community. She says that Hickman’s workshops have helped her and her colleagues to recognise “the emotional strain” of the work they do, and to learn to rest. They are now far more “mindful of each other’s mental health”, and people don’t feel guilty when they need a break, so are less likely to “crash and burnout”.

Mayall has also developed a different relationship with her climate anxiety. Previously, she says, “I was very dismissive and grumpy about having it. I wanted to suppress it or get rid of it – I thought it was an indulgence because people are dying, so why was I fussing around with feelings?” She felt she should be happy all the time. Now, she recognises that “it isn’t bad, wrong, or inconvenient for me to have climate anxiety, because it ultimately means that I care about the climate crisis”. She uses an ecological metaphor to describe how she relates to her feelings now: “Biodiversity is important because the more complex an ecosystem is, the more stable it is, and the more resilient it is to any disturbances or damage that comes along”. A monoculture, such as the one Knapp saw from that plane in Borneo, makes for a very fragile ecosystem; the same is true of an emotional monoculture. Allowing herself to experience whatever emotions she is feeling, including guilt and shame, has brought her a kind of emotional biodiversity, and a more sustainable way of life.

Since starting therapy James has attended a climate cafe, signed up to workshops, written to their local MP and published articles online to spread awareness.

Perrin says therapy has helped her support herself and other activists. She is now researching microscopic algae, and their potential to help us live more sustainably.

After what he saw in Borneo, and his research into the apocalyptic impact of climate breakdown, Knapp’s view of the world and of his future collapsed. He felt betrayed by the government, and despairing of the inaction of those around him. He became increasingly isolated and, for a time, suicidal. He found a way out of this by joining Extinction Rebellion, where friends recommended a therapist. He has since changed his life, becoming a researcher in air quality and a climate activist, giving up his beloved Mini, going vegan and making a podcast with fellow activists about how they cope with climate anxiety and what inspires them . He hasn’t been on a plane since.

These stories recall a comment from Grose, that the word “anxious” has two definitions: one can feel anxious due to a nebulous fear, or one can be anxious to do something – to be willing to act, with urgency.

As I researched this article, I noticed an intensifying feeling of unease and tension. Last week, the IPCC reported that it is “now or never” if we are to stave off climate disaster, and the UN secretary general, António Guterres, warned: “Some government and business leaders are saying one thing – but doing another. Simply put, they are lying. And the results will be catastrophic.” I know I need to read the report, to see the scientific reality of where we are, but I am not, yet, able to. I am frightened to leave the climate bubble. I tell Weintrobe about my anxious feelings, and she says reporters often phone her and say, “I feel overwhelmed, being a climate journalist.” I find her next words strangely hopeful. “I feel overwhelmed, too. Sometimes, I find myself lying on the sofa, unable to move because it’s all so worrying. But you get out of it, and you carry on.”

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