Managing Eco Anxiety, Climate Grief, and Climate-Related PTSD
Author’s Note: When I first wrote this blog post, I did not realize just how much the start of this month would feel like a reminder of February two years ago. Experiencing new extreme weather events, or simply experiencing reminders of past events, can precipitate an increase in symptoms. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for help as needed in the days and weeks ahead.
This February marks the two year anniversary of Winter Storm Uri, in which millions of Texans experienced a threat to meeting their basic needs for safety and survival, and hundreds of families experienced losing a loved one. Many Texans may find they continue to experience symptoms of grief, anxiety, or PTSD following these events. For me, I grieve when I pass by the now-dead grapefruit tree that once provided fresh fruit for me and my neighbors this time of year, a reminder also of the many lives lost, and I feel anxious whenever I receive another text from ERCOT requesting that we conserve energy, hear a weather report calling for an extreme cold snap, or encounter a news story about another climate disaster.
Ecoanxiety and Climate Grief
Over the last decade, mental health experts have developed new terminology to help us understand the impacts of our changing climate on our mental health. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines ecoanxiety as a chronic fear of environmental doom–watching the effects of climate change and worrying about the future for oneself, one’s children, or future generations. Climate grief, also called ecological grief or eco-grief, is the emotional response to losses or anticipated losses due to environmental change (including, but not limited to, loss of species, loss of ecosystems, and loss of meaningful landscapes).  Younger people, including children, adolescents, and young adults, are more at risk of experiencing ecoanxiey and climate grief. Teachers, parents, individuals who work closely with the natural world, and members of Indigenous communities are also uniquely affected.
Research indicates that extreme weather events, such as Winter Storm Uri, are followed by increased rates of mental illness. By some estimates, 30% – 40% of disaster survivors develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Following Hurricane Harvey, one study found that 46% of Houston-area residents developed PTSD symptoms and more than half of the study’s participants had increased symptoms of anxiety. Individuals who have survived multiple extreme weather events are more likely to develop such symptoms.
How to Cope with a Changing Climate
Whether you’re experiencing ecoanxiety, climate grief, or climate-related PTSD, there are many steps you can take to help yourself cope:
Control what you can: work with family and community members to develop an emergency plan and take simple steps to improve your disaster preparedness.
Develop and maintain social connections: invest in your personal support network and develop community resilience by getting together with neighbors and other like-minded people.
Talking about it helps: find a place to discuss feelings and allow yourself to grieve.
Spend time in nature: allow yourself to experience the positive mental health benefits of time spent outdoors.
Take action to address climate change: becoming more informed about climate change, and finding ways to take action in your community can help mitigate the negative mental health effects.
Take care of your mental health (before and after disaster strikes): attend to your mental health needs by reaching out to a mental health care professional when you’re in need of support. SAMHSA runs a free and confidential 24-hour Disaster Distress Hotline; you can call or text 800-985-5990.
Talking to Kids about Ecoanxiety and Climate Grief
Kids pick up on what’s happening in the world around them, and young people are disproportionately affected by ecoanxiety and climate grief. If you believe your child is experiencing ecoanxiety, climate grief, or climate-related PTSD, you can help support them in the following ways:
Pay attention when your kids are worried.
Listen. Ask questions about what they already know. Try to understand what their worries are.
Don’t dismiss their feelings or worries with phrases like “everything’s fine.”
Do reassure them that you will do everything you can to keep them safe and make the world a better place.
Follow-up: take action towards disaster preparedness and to prevent climate change in your community and find developmentally appropriate ways for your child to become engaged as well.
Reach out for extra mental health support as needed.
A personal note from the author: As I was writing this piece in the aftermath of the school shooting in Uvalde, TX, the gravity of the situation at hand sat heavy on my soul. The weight of the tragedies that inspired this piece is not lost on me. Over 336,000 students have experienced gun violence at school since the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999 (source). In an average year, over 10,300 hate crimes in the US involve a firearm – more than 28 each day (source). For decades, gun violence has reached every pocket, nook, and cranny of our country, and as a result millions of lives have been irrevocably changed.
I feel called to name this as a preface to this blog: There is no amount of journaling, self-care, compassion, protesting, meditating, senator calling, donating, or volunteering that can take away or fix the deep wells of grief and despair felt by the survivors of those who have lost their lives to gun violence.
I stand by the information collected and presented in this piece. However, I am fully aware that this is not nearly encompassing enough to soothe the collective grief we are all experiencing, nor will it ever touch the amount of support needed by the families and loved ones who have lost someone to gun violence. This blog is meant to be a consideration and a supplement for those who are struggling to bear witness to the pain we are subjected to on an almost daily basis as Americans living among two simultaneous crises in this country – the gun violence crisis, and the mental health crisis. They both demand our urgent attention.
I plead with you to seek resources, gather support, and educate yourself on the subjects at hand. I plead with you to connect with your neighbors, contact your senators, and demand something be done to change the course of gun violence and mental health care in this country. Most of all, I deeply plead with you to take care of yourselves, so we can finally begin to take better care of each other. Thank you for your consideration – Sara
Self-Care in the Aftermath of Tragedy
“Every one of us needs to show how much we care for one another and, in the process, care for ourselves.”
The last several years, as a nation, we have seen unspeakable tragedy unfold. The near constant continuation of mass shootings is wreaking havoc across our society. With the rise and spread of social media, we now have a front row seat to these tragedies in a way we never have before. These events permeate our newsfeeds, our conversations, our brains, and most importantly our hearts. Feelings of hopelessness, exhaustion, and fear are running rampant between us and within us due to neurobiological responses to trauma. While tensions are at an all-time high, our need for compassion, connection, and support is greater than ever. Self-care is a valuable necessity in meeting these needs. Let’s explore how to lean into these self-care needs, and the importance of caring for ourselves so we can care for each other.
“Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them, humanity cannot survive.”
Dalai Lama XIV
The root of the word compassion comes from the Latin phrase compati, which means “suffer with”. Compassion is what drives us to see other people’s pain and deeply identify with it. Compassion holds evolutionary neurological purposes. Compassion developed as an emotion within the brain to help us to identify and bond with others, thus creating safety amongst groups of humans. As humans experience compassion, our heart rate slows, our breathing deepens, and oxytocin (the bonding/love neurotransmitter) is released. Often this is demonstrated as an outward, other-oriented experience – we give or show compassion to others who are suffering. But what would it be like to turn this inward? We are worthy of giving ourselves compassion. Our bodies and brains have gone through so much over the last few years, and yet we are often expected to maintain the same level of productivity, health, and well-being as years prior. If we practice the gift of self-compassion, we can allow for the same neurobiological response to heal and soothe ourselves in the same way it does for others.
Practice quietly speaking to yourself as you would a friend or a child – I know this is so painful for you. It is difficult to understand and comprehend. People are suffering and it is hard to watch. It is ok to be sad, angry, and fearful. You are allowed to cry, self, it is okay. You are struggling in the midst of this, and you have every right to be. Providing yourself with the permission and allowance to comfort and soothe yourself is self-care. When we develop more compassion for ourselves, we also deepen the compassion we can have for others. Self-compassion and compassion for others are woven like a braid to form the fabric of empathy.
“Get yourself grounded, and you can navigate even the stormiest roads in peace.”
As the shooting in Uvalde, Texas unfolded on May 24th, 2022, we all watched from near and far in horror. Social media has created a nearly instantaneous avenue of communication and consumption of information. Neurobiologically, our brains are simply not evolved enough to withstand this level of information. As we watch the chaos unfold through Facebook live feeds, or hear the screams of the families through TikTok, we are giving our brains a hefty dose of secondary trauma. Although logically we know we are absorbing this information second hand through a screen, our brains don’t actually know that this is a second-hand experience. Our brains are wired to react and respond to threat and danger; thus, our trauma response begins through what is commonly known as fight/flight/freeze/fawn. As we watch these videos, our brains release cortisol and adrenaline, preparing our bodies for the danger at hand. As a result, this translates to overwhelming feelings of anxiety/restlessness (fight/fight) or depressive/hopelessness (freeze/fawn). The longer we engage with the secondary trauma, the longer this neurobiological response continues.
One of the best ways to relieve ourselves of this cycle is grounding ourselves. Grounding refers to an increase in radical acceptance, mindfulness, and re-connection to the present. There are many ways to practice grounding, and no way is right or wrong. Sensory based grounding techniques are always a go-to in my practice simply because they are easy and reliable. Try taking deep belly breaths and exploring the following – 5 things you can see, 4 things you can feel/touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste. Reflect on the physical sensations that come up for you, as well as the feelings that arise during this exercise. I also love incorporating grounding during regular every day activities. Cooking meals, walking my dogs, playing with my crystals, taking a shower – these are all rich with sensory input that we can tune ourselves into to get back to our present body and mind.
Another great way to ground ourselves is through a creative outlet. Journaling is an amazing resource that we all have access to. Journaling helps us process our experience both internally and externally. In addition, think of all of the sensory based aspects of journaling. The smell of the paper, maybe the sound of the clicking as you type on your phone, what it looks like to see your words out in front of you. There are so many opportunities to check in with your body, mind, and soul in the midst of journaling. This also applies to other forms of creative outlets including painting, sculpting, drawing, and creating music. Anything that allows the charge of energy and emotion to move through us also provides us with an opportunity to check in with our own experience and utilize grounding to soothe ourselves. Things are treacherous in the outside world, but here in our body and mind we can create a peaceful, compassionate, and loving reprieve from what we are absorbing every day.
Grounding is important for self-care, but it is also important for a larger purpose in solving the challenges we are faced with today. The greater the activation of our trauma response, the less access we have to our prefrontal cortex. This is the part of our brain that we need for decision making, problem solving, consequential thinking, rationalization, and impulse control. These are ALL things we need to have access to in order to begin to solve the problem of mass shootings in our country. We cannot begin to solve this problem when we are all operating from a place without access to the parts of our brain needed most. Individually and collectively, grounding is becoming increasingly more of a necessity in today’s world to solve the complex problems we are faced with as a society.
“What I try to tell young people is that if you come together with a mission, and it’s grounded with love and a sense of community, you can make the impossible possible.”
Self-care is a crucial part of healing from tragedy. Although self-care can be relaxing and soothing, there are also forms of self-care that are more active and intentional. In light of large-scale events, some folks respond with a more intense drive to do something to prevent this from happening in the future. The lack of control and helplessness we feel bearing witness to these events pushes us to action. Finding a balance between grounding-based self-care and actionable steps is so crucial. One must occur alongside the other. We have to ensure we are in a healthy regulated mental space in addition to engaging with the resources available to help and create change.
One of the best ways to heal, feel connected, and process tragedy is in the company of your community. Community engagement is incredibly useful in creating a sense of togetherness, connection, and unity in the face of devastation. This large-scale form of co-regulation allows for us to think clearer, develop our compassion for others, and empowers us to seek the change we wish to see. When we all come together, strides can be made towards our end goal.
There are so many ways to get involved with the community to enact change to end gun violence and increase access to mental health care. Here are a few ideas:
Call Your Representatives – Contact your local and federal representatives to let them know you would like to see change to ensure the safety of you and your neighbors. The League of Women Voters has a great website that helps you find your elected officials and their contact information.
If you are unsure of what to say when you call or email, review this script: “Hello, my name is NAME. I’m a constituent from STATE, ZIP CODE. I don’t need a response. I am concerned about the rise of gun violence and lack of mental health care funding in our communities. I strongly encourage the senator to please vote for legislation that solves this situation. Thank you for your hard work!”
Review Volunteer Opportunities – There are so many ways to volunteer in crisis. Organize a blood drive with your colleagues, gather donations (see below) to support the families and survivors, or find organizations such as Moms Demand Action or Everytown that support policy change and provide opportunity for connection and action.
Donate – One of the best ways to assist is to provide monetary donations if you are able to. It is so important to do research on the legitimacy of donation sites to ensure your money is going to directly benefit families and survivors.
To donate to the survivors of the Uvalde, TX school shooting, please CLICK HERE
To donate to the survivors of the Buffalo, NY supermarket shooting, please CLICK HERE
Self-care comes in many forms, and it looks different for each of us. There is no right or wrong way to self-care. If you are feeling like self-care feels overwhelming, especially in a time of tragedy, that is totally normal and ok. I would like to encourage you to remember to take it one step at a time. One small decision to self-care will add up over time. Maybe that looks like putting your phone down for 10 minutes or going for a small walk to get the mail or taking 30 seconds to practice deep breathing. Any forward movement, no matter how small, is better than no forward movement. Be kind to yourself, be kind to others, and reach out to a trusted therapist if you need extra support on your journey.
Fall is often associated with grief. Celtic tradition has built rituals around the recognition that the veil is thinner this time of year. There is a cultural multiple-discovery of rituals during this specific season, one chosen to honor the dead and ancestors’ past, as well as to pay homage to grief itself. The Aztecs had a ritual that pre-dated and inspired Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, and the holiday continues to include Catholic influence around All Saints Day. Celts had Samhain, the Romans, Feralia; South Koreans celebrate in September during Paju. The Hungry Ghost Festival occurs a bit earlier in China, in August.
This varied, yet overlapping ritual space that both honors and mourns is generally aligned during a time of the season where leaves die, fall, and reintegrate back into the earth’s biosphere. This fall, of 2021, grief seems particularly potent, with many of us either deeply exhaling, or holding our breath, after a long 20 months of pandemic living of varying scales. Many have experienced losses of magnitude and cadence that are out of the ordinary for this last eon. Grief has been experienced in both direct and indirect ways, as shared worry, depression, anxiety, insomnia, even studied as collective shifts in dreamlife.
It is this time of year where clients cite dreams that feel vibrant and potent, some report wanting to sleep more (daylight savings weirdness does not help this, does it?) And seasonally, grief seems more at the surface than in other months. Grief is often described by those experiencing it as a fog, a film, a visible haze that separates or delineates. CS Lewis defined grief as “a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me” after the death of his wife. Somatically, grief can show up in the head, gut, and chest. Grief can physically feel heavy. This is even noted in our idiomatic expressions of the blues, depression, sadness, loss. I feel down, it reduced me to tears, I have a lump in my throat, I am holding my breath. Unprocessed grief can compound and show up as a malaise, a depression, at times it can mirror PTSD symptomology. The DSM 5-TR has created a new diagnostic path for prolonged grief (Prolonged Grief Disorder) to give credence to the impacts an elongated, or multiple-event grief process, has on the brain and body, including sleep disturbance, substance use, and immune functioning. This addition is timely, and necessary, to witness the incredibly demanding time in which we are living.
James Hollis has described grief, or one of the giftcurses of it, as a “mythological disorientation.” At times when we encounter a loss, an earthquake in our senses of selves, the narratives we have built or lived under without question can be aptly rocked by grief and its preceding events. A false self, born under the desires of the family of origin, untapped unconscious material, or just the waves of societal norming might now be proven as outmoded based on what the more concrete situation of grief has unveiled. Therein lies the opportunity. Rather than attach yourself to the other common idiomatic mechanism we humans tend to pursue with grief: get over it; this invitation is instead to sit in it, move through it, let yourself be rocked, create some room for the ferns that grow from the char.
Here are some meditations and considerations on how you might sit with, experience, honor, express, or otherwise cool down from grief:
Stay With It
I adore Tara Brach and have gotten the chance to experience her silent meditation retreats. I often use one of my favorite tools of hers, RAIN, with clients and with myself- here is a 20-minute meditation that features this tool.
Breathe With and Through It
Try alternating nostril breathing (hold left nostril closed, inhale through the right; clamp right nostril and exhale through the left; switch/repeat) which can calm the mind and reduce stress.
Or box breathing which activates the parasympathetic nervous system – exhale for 4 seconds, pause at the bottom for 4 seconds holding your lungs empty, inhaling for 4 seconds, pause at the top, holding the air in your lungs before repeating the pattern.
Create a Ritual Space
Take a page from the aforementioned ritual book and create a space for offering. This could be a section of a table, a shelf, truly anywhere you’d like to place objects, visual reminders, remnants, and notes to a person, a pet, a part of self, a season in your life that has passed.
Open Your Chest
When we are cold we tend to turn inward, when we are grief-stricken we do the same. Doing chest- and heart-opening stretches and poses can help regulate breathing and offer a somatic pull of energy into a space we may be unconsciously holding or tightening.
Stimulate the Vagus Nerve
If you work with me you know I am obsessed with this wild gut-to-brain neural circuit. Here’s a video from the @the.holistic.psychologist demonstrating just one vagal stimulation pressure point.
Cool Off From It
Distraction can be a defense, but it can also be a great tool when grief turns to overwhelm. Get grounded and go for a walk, listen to a favorite album, draw, paint, dance the feeling out of your body.