As we continue to face growing instances of extreme weather events and other climate-related emergencies around the world, it is common to experience feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, or grief. Campus Wellness, the Environment Student's Society, and Climate students at the University of Waterloo has developed the resource below to help you understand eco-grief and eco-anxiety, why you may feel a certain way, and provide you with some coping strategies.
What is eco-grief and eco-anxiety?
What is anxiety?
Fear is the emotional response to real or perceived imminent threat, whereas anxiety is anticipation of future threat. The American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as “Anxiety associated with watching the irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold and fretting about the future for oneself and others".
|Physical symptoms can include:||Emotional symptoms can include:|
What is grief?
Grief is our normal reaction to anything we lose that is important to us. The US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health defines eco-grief as “The perception of the long-term impact of climate change on the environment (e.g., gradually changing weather patterns, deglaciation, deforestation) is a lived experience for more and more people. In addition to the acute and chronic impacts of direct exposure to natural disasters on mental health (e.g., stress reactions or PTSD due to wildfires), many people suffer the emotional consequences associated with anticipated or actual environmental changes by reacting with powerlessness, helplessness, despair, grief or uncertainty”.
- Denial – Avoidance, denial, confusion, fear shock
- Anger – Frustration, irritation anxiety
- Depression – Overwhelmed, helplessness, hostility, flight
- Bargaining- Struggling to find meaning, reaching out to others, telling one’s story
- Acceptance – Exploring options, new plan in place, moving on. - Kubbler ross
These stages are rarely linear. We may bounce across the spectrum and spend time in various stages. Grief, like the stories of our lives, is a series of paths.
Each of us deals with grief uniquely and all reactions are valid.
- The climate crisis prompts us to feel uncertainty as we watch the world change rapidly around us.
- We worry about an unknown future as we don’t know how the changes in our eco-system will impact us and the way we live.
Mourning and grief
- Eco-grief can be related to changes we have already seen happen, changes that are in process, and unknown changes that are coming.
- Eco-grief encompasses this complex feeling of anticipatory and transitional grief and it can continue for a long time as the changes to our planet evolve and become clearer.
- Western-society tends to make grief a private matter, which can make a person feel alone in this experience.
Why do we feel this more as time goes on?
- We experience strange, more extreme weather
- We witness ecological disasters and extreme weather phenomenon (ex. Stronger hurricanes, wildfires etc.)
- Seasons don’t feel like they did when we were younger (ex. earlier spring, flowers blooming earlier), which contradict the ways which we made meaning in the world before (ex. “April showers bring May flowers” when those flowers are now blooming in April)
Increased news coverage
- 24/7 news cycle brings us the capability to ingest news all the time
- Social media can allow us to doom scroll through a subject area constantly looking for more news on a particular subject
- You might feel like you are unable to look away from climate change news or that taking a break makes you less passionate about a subject
- But we all need time away from news and social media to focus on our day-to-day life and health
Regret for our own impacts
- We might feel guilt and shame for our own contributions from:
- Driving petrol-based vehicles
- Eating takeout with throw away utensils
- Purchasing fast-fashion clothing
- Leaving the lights on
Focus in academics
- Every academic discipline can have a focus on the impacts of climate change.
- Environment students or science students studying the effects of climate change
- Engineering and Math students building applications or coming up with new methods of building in a changed climate
- Arts students studying the language of the Anthropocene
What can we do about our eco-grief and anxiety?
1. Talk about your feelings
- Grief needs expression: Find a friend, a family member, colleagues, therapist, trusted religious advisor. This can help reduce stress and keep you from feeling the feelings over and over again by letting them out.
- From climate café: “Through allowing our eco-emotions to be awakened in us, we move through adverse emotions like eco-anxiety and transition to an empowered stance where we can make meaningful choices, commit to our communities, and take climate action.”
2. Read about how others are dealing with eco-grief
- Learning from those who have come before us or our contemporaries can help us gain perspective and skills.
- “It’s really important that we find ways of communicating the grief that we’re feeling and work together to support each other. Then we can become stronger, we can start to develop the science that takes our knowledge and turns it on its head – turns it into a solution, rather than just a negative story. I think that finding any way of fostering a love of the natural world in the next generation is critical for them to be part of the solution.” - Steve Simpson Professor of marine biology and global change at the University of Exeter
- Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jan/12/how-scientists-are-coping-with-environmental-grief
3. Take action
In your own life
- Making small, but meaningful changes to your own environmental impact can help deal with feelings of guilt and help empower you to deal with the changing future
- Examples could include eating more plant-based meals, walking instead of driving, switching to more eco-friendly products
In your community
- You could also engage in climate change communities that are advocating for change at the governmental level, which has the added benefit of introducing you to like minded people
- Look at how you could influence re-imagined futures:
- Is there a community garden group you could join to increase your community's local food production? Is there a bike group that advocates for increased bike lanes that could make not driving easier in your community? Is there a municipal citizen's engagement committee you could join to influence the local planning department to look to more sustainable modes of development?
4. Take a news or social media break
5. Practice worry reduction strategies
- Everyone worries about things sometimes, but anxious people tend to have a lot of worry thoughts.
- Some worries are helpful (e.g. for planning, motivating action, or considering others’ feelings) and we call these productive worries, but many worries are unproductive (e.g. worries that generate “what ifs” that do not lead to concrete, practical actions).
- Even when we know our worries are unproductive we can still find ourselves stuck worrying about them.
Unproductive worry is based on three beliefs:
- "If I have worry, then it is important and I should dwell on it"
- "If I have worry, then I need to identify all the possible solutions"
- "I cannot accept uncertainty"
Productive worry involves:
- Identifying a problem that is plausible or reasonable: Ask yourself “Would someone else worry about this? Is it likely to happen?"
- Decide if it’s a problem that you can do something about right now (or very soon): Ask yourself “Is there anything I can do right now?” Productive worries become productive solutions almost immediately.
- Quickly move from worry about the problem to finding solutions to it: Consider if there are plausible and reasonable actions to take
What to do with worry
- No one can just stop worrying. Trying to do so can actually increase your thinking about your worrying. Instead, you can find some ways to worry more effectively.
- Evaluating your thoughts to figure out if your worries are productive or unproductive is a good first step. Once you’ve distinguished what type of worrying you are having, try to let go of unproductive thinking as best you can, using mindfulness or thought redirection.
- Ask yourself, what would I tell a friend who was having this worry?
- If you find your worries are productive worries, then set aside some time to turn your worries into problem-solving as soon as you can.
7. Practice self-kindness and self-compassion
- General self-care: We all need to sleep, eat healthy food, and exercise in a way that feels right for ourselves and our abilities
- Use your creativity to express your emotions: Write about your emotions in a journal or blog, express your creative self through photography, journalling, music, or art therapy
- Social connections: Make time for yourself to connect with people away from the topic of climate change and your work
- Spend time in nature: Appreciate the planet instead of simply mourning it’s changes by hiking, gardening, bird watching, or forest bathing
- Forgive yourself: However many disposable utensils you’ve used in the past, forgive your past self and don’t keep feeling guilt for those choices. We can only change what happens in our future, not what happened in our past.
8. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is the process of being present-focused (which means attending to the moment and not being pulled away by worries or regrets), non-judgmental (observing and describing our experiences), and accepting (not actively struggling against your experience). The great news is that you don’t need to spend a lot of time to practice mindfulness.
Benefits of mindfulness
Research shows that there are many benefits to practicing mindfulness, including:
- Giving yourself a moment to pause before reacting (having a greater awareness and ability to step back from your thoughts)
- Reduced activity in your amygdala, which contributes to decreased stress
- A calmer mind, which can help you process emotions differently and can change your attitudes toward stress
- Greater sense of care and compassion toward yourself and others
- Increased muscle relaxation, slower heart rate, improved immune functioning and more
- Better memory and improved focus
9. Meditation: Standing meditation
- Falling leaf: Stare at a point on the wall across from you. Visualize a leaf on this spot. With each breath, count backwards from 20 to 1 as you watch the leaf slowly drifting to the ground. At 1, the leaf reaches the ground and you are deeply relaxed.
- Ten candles: Close your eyes and imagine a row of ten lit candles in front of you, any style or colour. As you exhale, imagine yourself blowing out one of the candles. With each successive breath, blow out each candle. Let yourself become more deeply relaxed with each one. When all the candles are out, let yourself enjoy the peace and quiet of the room.
- Try an app: There are many mobile applications that can help you with guided meditation. Try some of our favourites, like Calm; My Life; Insight Timer; or Headspace.
- Is it too late (to stop dangerous climate change)?
- Learn about the positive ways communities are responding to social problems on yes! Solutions Journalism
- Subscribe to The Impact by Waterloo's SDG Student Hub - Impact Alliance
- The Impossible Project: Acknowledging Eco-Grief & Anxiety
- Exploring Climate Change and Mental Health educational toolkit
Download the Climate Grief Journaling Activity (.pdf) to reflect on your own feelings.
Dealing with feelings of anxiety and grief can be quite complex and hard. If you feel like you need support, contact one of these available resources.
- Counselling Services - 519-888-4096
- UWMATES Peer Support - Start a live chat session
- EmpowerMe – to access create an account on the Dialogue mobile app or on the web at www.studentcare.ca/dialogue
- Good2Talk – 1-866-925-5454
- Here 24/7 – 1-844-437-3247
- Employee and Family Assistance Plan - 1-800-663-1142
- Here 24/7 – 1-844-437-3247
We invite you to provide feedback on the content provided and let us know what additional resources will be helpful to you through our Eco-grief feedback form.