This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
There were dance parties, DJ sets, drum classes and tutu-making workshops. Still, despite the buoyant mood it wasn’t just another festival tailor-made for glossy Instagram photos. Instead, Catharsis on the Mall, which was inspired by Burning Man and took place on the National Mall in May, had a different aim— healing. Not surprisingly part of the conversation included climate change and within 24 hours of a climate anxiety session being announced, all the seats were reserved. Amid laughter and ambient festival noise 30 people gathered in a hot tent and sat on rugs and lawn chairs to talk about their feelings of despair, depression, and anxiety.
Debbie Chang, a volunteer with the D.C. chapter of Citizens' Climate Lobby, led the group and said the genesis of the event came from noticing the negativity of activists around her.
“There’s not really a space, I don’t think, for people to talk about these feelings,” Chang said. “People don’t want to dwell on negative emotions, but people want to be heard and validated.”
Attendees were asked to jot down emotions they felt when thinking about climate change and elaborate within small groups. After exploring the emotions, Chang led a discussion about coping mechanisms including breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, and stretching.
As part of staying grounded in the work the group also discussed what aspects of the movement made them hopeful. In naming those hopes, they were tasked with envisioning an ideal future and to imagine the first baby step they could take towards actualizing it.
“The idea is: There’s a lot of doom-and-gloom, and it’s important to remember what it is you’re working for. I think taking a moment to envision that is motivating,” Chang said. “I think there’s a lot of research to support that visualizing that first step means people will more likely take it.”
Chang’s meetup is part of a growing movement of support spaces that have sprung up around the country. As activists seek to stay engaged they are increasingly grappling with the challenges of what has become known as climate anxiety or climate depression.
“There’s a feeling that your anxiety or your feelings are going nowhere… we’re locked in the warming, greenhouse gas will have effects for decades,” said Alex Trope, a resident physician at the University of California in San Francisco within the Department of Psychiatry. “It’s the 11th hour. People are going to feel that now.”
Trope is also a member of Climate Psychiatry Alliance, a group comprised of psychiatrists who believe that mental health is significantly impacted by the changing climate and requires more clinicians to be well-versed in the concerns of the activist community. In addition to ideas on how to take tangible and meaningful action the alliance is, working to build a list of “climate-aware therapists.”
Though Trope said professional intervention for climate anxiety might be necessary for those with “deep dysfunction,” he said finding someone who could relate could also be therapeutic.
“It’s important to find someone who can hold it with you, not crack jokes or not recognize the crisis,” he said, adding that person-to-person interaction could help counteract the “doom-and-gloom online coverage.”
Arizona-based activist Laura Schmidt said she felt like her years spent working in the environmental nonprofit space weren’t “fruitful,” because she was unable to “force people to look at the problem.”
Needing to rethink her approach to her activist work she utilized her grad school work in identifying tools that activists use to fight burnout and developed a 10-step program along with her wife, Aimee Lewis-Reau. Called the Good Grief Network, the program has a similar structure to Alcoholics Anonymous and therapy sessions.
Designed in the form of weekly meetings, the program guides participants through practicing self-care. Each week focuses on a different part of the curriculum ranging from confronting morality to practicing gratitude to clearing past trauma. Regardless of the week’s lesson there is a focus on how to properly accept, process, and act upon the feelings that the severity of climate change can bring. The 10th step is “action-oriented” and acts as a means to help express climate anxiety in a positive way while taking “the pressure off the individual to save the world.”
Lewis-Reau said creating a “clear headspace” was a priority of the program. “If someone’s internal world is chaotic, it will make them act out in destructive ways. People should not be acting out in fear and panic, despite acting towards an uncertain future. The steps are tools that you have to be reminded of and practiced. It’s a process-oriented program… Every step, you’re at a new level of understanding.”
Since Good Grief’s first meeting two years ago, the program has flourished with branches in California, New Jersey, Vermont, British Columbia and Australia.
“We created the program we needed, and we’re kind of shocked with the level of growth,” Schmidt said, referencing the over 250 people who have participated. “We’ve personally done 10 rounds of the program with participants, and more meetings are happening beyond us,” Schmidt said. “We know this is strong. It empowers people and takes away desperation.”
For Lynn Wang, a trip to Australia last year was a tipping point as she felt the “bigness of the world collapsed” after seeing the coral reefs.
“Those coral reefs took thousands of years to become what they are. Hundreds of thousands of years of work were destroyed in the blink of an eye,” she said. “It gave me a feeling that was unstoppable, that we could not stop the system destroying nature.”
During random conversations with other activists in the Sunrise Movement, where she is a hub coordinator, she noticed their climate anxiety would “come out in little spurts.”
“People would say, ‘Isn’t it great that the world is ending in 12 years?’ It’s in the back of people's minds, and it’s constantly over our heads,” she said. “There’s a real fear for the next generation. Thinking about the future, I can’t imagine planning for the future when we only have 12 years.”
The decision to host a support group was aimed and combating dueling emotions.
“The Sunrise Movement is optimistic, and that's not rhetoric that always jives with internal feelings… the climate movement is still figuring that out,” Wang said. “We’re discouraged from saying things that might cause a panic, because panic is not a good emotion to act from… We need to make room for the anxiety before it takes over the movement. If it’s driven by the panic, we won’t be able to do much.”
The movement—which shot to fame after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joined their sit-in at Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office—believes that wealthy oil and gas executives along with complicit politicians are prohibiting climate change solutions from becoming reality. They focus on political engagement, like making the Green New Deal a top issue in the 2020 election or organizing demonstrations at City Halls across the nation.
Wang’s hub plans to participate in the Global Climate Strike on September 20, kicking off a week of action demanding an end to fossil fuel use. Strikes are planned in 150 countries leading up to the United Nations Climate Summit on September 23.
Wang said organizing and participating in events like the strike was “therapeutic” in fighting climate anxiety because it allowed her to find people who shared her values. Chang concurred, and said the camaraderie is critical.
“People are asking for fellowship in this work,” Chang said. “As long as there’s other people around you, there is always hope.”