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Feeling distressed about climate change? Here’s how to manage it

by Ace Damon
Feeling distressed about climate change? Here's how to manage it

Climate change is often framed as a scientific or technical issue. But for many, it is also emotional.

It can be almost unbearable to witness entire cities destroyed by forest fires and storm-leveled islands. To see photos of koala bears scorched by flames and dead seabirds washing ashore in the thousands. Or to read the latest confirmation that nations are unfortunately with poor performance promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"It hits your heart before it hits your head," he said. Jennifer Atkinson, senior professor of environmental humanities at the University of Washington at Bothell.

Our reactions to these dark facts take many forms, including sadness, despair, hopelessness, anger, and anxiety.

Often these are manifestations of a deeper grief caused by climate change. Experts say the phenomenon is growing and is something we need to address.

"We don't want to be stuck in the pain space forever," Atkinson said. But "the ability to move forward is based on the ability to recognize losses and suffer openly."

The first step, she said, is to allow yourself to feel what you are feeling, even if it sounds silly or exaggerated, and to honor it.

"The message we get is that our pain is somehow deviant," she said. But grief is a normal, healthy response to loss, examples of which are easy to find in a warming world.

Dealing with climate sadness can also mean accepting that everyone – whether consciously or not – contributes to the problem, he said. Rosemary randall, a UK-based psychotherapist specializing in climate change.

"We keep doing things we shouldn't do for decades," Randall said. "Guilt can't be mitigated by someone saying," No, no, no, it's not your fault. "

From there, experts say, it's a matter of learning how to manage the various sides of grief.

As anyone who has lost a loved one knows, suffering ebbs and flows, taking on strange shapes and raising their heads at unexpected times. This is particularly true for climate suffering as losses are ongoing, he said. Ashlee Cunsolo, specialist in ecological change and mental health at Memorial University's Labrador Institute in Canada.

In some cases, people experience the classic five stages of grieffrom denial to acceptance. Other times, it's more complicated and nonlinear process to deal with feelings as they arise and to continually adapt to the changing world.

Regardless, it is important to find support.

Being around other people who share similar concerns helps dispel the impression that everyone is doing well and you're the most extravagant, Atkinson said. "There really is a sense of comfort and validation to discovering this is not true – that many others are suffering these losses and experiencing anxiety about the future."

Some people may find safe places to express their concerns with friends and family.

Others may also resort to places like Good Mourning Network, an online resource for people suffering ecological mourning. The network coordinates meetings in various US cities and offers a manual for starting a support group in other communities.

Another organization called The dinner It facilitates dinners for young people who have suffered losses and recently started hosting events centered on environmental suffering. (Carla Fernandez, co-founder of the Dinner Party, said the idea it occurred to him after the sovereign fire in 2016 threatened a favorite gorge in Big Sur.)

Whenever possible, Randall recommends that people go offline and connect in person.

"Talks about sadness are often full of silence, hesitation and uncertainty," she said. "And social media communications are usually fast and fast."

For some, seeking professional help may be the best option.

Andrew Bryant, a Seattle-based therapist, maintains the site climateandmind.org, which provides advice on how to find a doctor. It also contains detailed descriptions of scholars' growing understanding of ecological suffering and references to books and articles on climate and mental health.

Ultimately, people need to create habits that allow them to recognize and process their pain but not stifle it, Atkinson said. That could mean going out, making art or reading literature.

Atkinson teaches an environmental grief class in which his students develop an emotional survival kit to help them cope. After attracting coverage by Seattle Times Last year, the class was ridiculed by some as more spoiled by millennial snowflakes.

But Atkinson said facing the grief it takes more courage than look away, which is the predominant social response to climate change.

And buried beneath this pain is something hopeful.

"We just regret what we love," said Cunsolo. "If we didn't like something, we wouldn't be sad to lose it."

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