Why activism isn’t *really* the cure for eco-anxiety and eco-grief

It can certainly help tame difficult emotions but we need to go deeper than activism to build up resilience for the long haul

“Action is the antidote to despair” the old saying goes, which was first spoken by folk music legend Joan Baez. It’s true that when we act on our values, we put our core beliefs about how we ought to be in the world into practice, which can bring relief. Climate psychologist Renée Lertzman argues that enormous swathes of the population now feel considerable psychic pain because of how large the gap is between our environmental values and our actions. In other words, as we continue to work jobs that pollute, buy food that’s unsustainably produced, or benefit from policies that privilege the health of some communities while stomping on others, we are living out of alignment, and we suffer -- often unconsciously -- for it. Narrowing that gap through action such as activism is an effective way to feel more at ease.  

As eco-anxiety and eco-grief have taken hold of society in new ways over the last few years, the tendency to prescribe action as a tool to beat the feelings back has grown. But climate-aware psychotherapist Caroline Hickman argues there’s a danger lurking in that sentiment. It’s a shortcut -- a too-quick move from pain to action -- and it threatens to leave people far less resilient and capable of facing the ecological crisis than they ought to be. 

Hickman is a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance and has worked extensively with children, young people, and parents in places like the Maldives and the UK who are dealing with overwhelmingly dark emotions about the ecological crisis. Part of what makes her practice “climate-aware” is its core principle that says there is nothing pathological about experiencing eco-anxiety or any of the dark emotions that often accompany it. Rather, the dread, malaise, grief, and fear that so many of us feel are reasonable stress responses to a real existential threat that is unfolding. On the contrary, if an eco-anxious person happens to speak with a therapist who is not “climate-aware”, they risk being told that they’re overreacting or catastrophizing, and will go home feeling many times worse.  

Last Tuesday I attended a course Hickman led for therapists on how to help their clients with eco-anxiety and eco-grief. The participants were all in the UK or Ireland, and I live in California, so I was up for 8 hours in the middle of the night on Zoom trying to absorb concepts like “the climate (trauma) lens”. Fortunately I managed to stay awake by napping in the coffee breaks. I think I made it the whole way through without drooling on my keyboard.

Hickman has developed a scale of eco-anxiety, which she made through clinical observation of the people she works with. After all, though eco-anxiety should not be seen as an illness, the degree to which it manifests can present serious problems. 


Eco-anxiety: range of feelings

Mild - feelings of upset are transient and can respond to reassurance, focus on optimism and hope in others (maybe ungrounded)

Medium - upset more frequently, doubt in “others’” capacity to take action, making some changes in lifestyle 

Significant - minimal defences against anxiety, harder to mitigate distress, guilt and shame, little faith in others to take action, significant impact on relationships 

Severe - intrusive thoughts, sleep affected, struggle to get any respite, anticipation of human extinction, no belief in others’ ability to care, may be unable to work, suicidal. Loss of personal security.


Do you see yourself on that spectrum? Let me know at hello@brittwray.com or leave a comment below. Personally, I have spent a lot of time at the “significant” level. 

What makes eco-anxiety so much worse is that those feeling it are living in a world where we often feel we can’t talk about it. If we’re kids, the adults at school and at home generally aren’t bringing it up. If we’re adults, it is still too taboo to discuss in front of colleagues and friends. The grief that comes with this crisis is more than just disenfranchised. It is disallowed and interrupted every time a comment is made like “don’t be so dire, you’re fine”, “they’re just koalas”, or “Greta is crazy”. The cognitive disconnect then is that eco-anxious people often feel we have to hold onto immense existential pressure all alone, without seeing our feelings reflected back. Therefore, the job of the climate-aware therapist (and I’d argue, climate-aware human) is to create spaces where it becomes possible to talk about these difficult and complex feelings without falling apart.  

To do this, we must move away from the positivist psychological framing that sees some feelings as bad and some feelings as good. Despair and fear are not inherently bad. Hope and optimism are not inherently good. Hickman noted that there are times to be cowardly and recognize that it takes courage to do so. We must move from an either/or to a both/and model. There is meaning in every emotion.

Hickman says we need to not only grow up in the climate crisis by cultivating our imaginative, creative, determined and hopeful capacities, we also need to grow down by building our tolerance for guilt, shame, anxiety and depression. After all, life in an ecological emergency is not a straight linear progression. There are uplifting wins and more often, crushing losses. We need to be able to flexibly bear both by growing up and growing down, so that as we move forward in life, we become deeper human beings. 

Notice how in the diagram below, the person who sees that “this can work and be good” is moving forward with more strength only after having been afraid, guilty, depressed, and so on. The next time they feel a huge hit of loss, they’ll descend again. But it will be into a familiar place that lacks the power to swallow them whole, as they’ll know from experience that they’ll be able to rise again. 

And herein lies why it is unhelpful to say that activism is the cure for eco-anxiety and eco-grief. When we’re looking for an antidote to pain, we’re looking for “happiness” or what we think of as strength. But that impetus tries to cut straight across the process of transition from the moment we feel fear encroaching to the place of moving forwards. It refuses the painful process of integrating dark emotions into our life that emotional intelligence requires. It is a flimsy kind of security that bounces back and forth between the onset of fear and the ideal of being a despair-free activist. Eventually, that elastic path will become less flexible and snap or burn out.

We all need to process some of the anxiety, grief and depression that come with our life-threatening ecological reality, and learn how to fold them into our lives. This is what Hickman calls “internal activism”, and it is just as important as “external activism” -- the more conventional kind. The trick is to not get lost in the dark places that internal activism brings us to - - to keep moving* - - and to welcome the idea that we’ll cycle through the trenches again...because:

But not as adorable
March 3, 2020

*My forthcoming book deals with how to integrate dark emotions as well as keep moving through the cycle of internal activism. More of Caroline Hickman’s sage climate-aware therapy advice will be explored in future Gen Dread editions.