After Britt Wray married in 2017, she and her husband began discussing whether or not they were going to have children. The conversation quickly turned to climate change and to the planet those children might inherit.
“It was very, very heavy,” said Dr. Wray, now a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “I wasn’t expecting it.” She said she became sad and stressed, crying when she read new climate reports or heard activists speak.
Jennifer Atkinson, an associate professor of environmental humanities at the University of Washington, Bothell, became depressed after students told her they couldn’t sleep because they feared social collapse or mass extinction.
There are different terms for what the two women experienced, including eco-anxiety and climate grief, and Dr. Wray calls it eco-distress. “It’s not just anxiety that shows up when we’re waking up to the climate crisis,” she said. “It’s dread, it’s grief, it’s fear.”
It’s also not unusual. Over the past five years, according to researchers at Yale University and George Mason University, the number of Americans who are “very worried” about climate change has more than doubled, to 26 percent. In 2020, an American Psychiatric Association poll found that more than half of Americans are concerned about climate change’s effect on their mental health.
Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist based in Washington, D.C., and co-founder of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, an organization building a directory of climate-aware therapists, said she had “absolutely” seen a surge in patients seeking help with climate anxiety in recent years.
But as the prevalence of climate anxiety has grown, so has the number of people working to alleviate it, both for themselves and those around them.
Dr. Wray, for example, who holds a Ph.D. in science communication, began reading everything she could about anxiety and climate change, eventually shifting her own research to focus on it entirely. She shares her findings and coping techniques in a weekly newsletter, Gen Dread, with more than 2,000 subscribers. In the spring of 2022, she plans to publish a book on the topic.
“My overall goal is to help people feel less alone,” Dr. Wray said. “We need to restore ourselves so we don’t burn out and know how to be in this crisis for the long haul that it is.”
Dr. Atkinson, in hopes of assuaging her feelings and those of her students, designed a seminar on eco-grief and climate anxiety.
Eco-distress can manifest in a range of ways, from anguish over what the future will hold to extreme guilt over individual purchases and behaviors, according to Dr. Van Susteren. Though its symptoms sometimes mirror those of clinical anxiety, she said she saw eco-distress as a reasonable reaction to scientific facts — one that, in mild cases, should be addressed but not pathologized. (In cases of extreme anxiety, Dr. Van Susteren said it was important to seek professional help.)
For many Americans, counseling for climate distress is relatively accessible. In some communities, however, especially in less wealthy countries, it may seem more like a rare privilege.
Kritee, a senior climate scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund, has feet in both worlds. Based in Boulder, Colo., Dr. Kritee (she has a single name) leads workshops and retreats for people experiencing climate grief. She also works with farmers in India whose livelihoods are directly threatened by the extreme droughts and floods that come with climate change.
Dr. Kritee, who has a doctorate in biochemistry and microbiology, said she believed people of all backgrounds should process their feelings about climate change. She makes her services affordable through scholarships, scaled payments and donation-based classes. Some of her sessions are open only to people of color, who are often on the front lines of climate change, and whose ecological grief, she said, is often compounded by racial trauma.
Regarding the white and affluent, who most likely will not feel climate change’s worst effects, Dr. Kritee said it was crucial they confront their grief, too. In doing so, she said, they can begin to contemplate questions like, “If I am hurting so much, what is happening to people who are less privileged?”
Some of her past workshop participants have been inspired to make lifestyle changes or volunteer for environmental campaigns, choices that could, when undertaken collectively, benefit the planet as a whole. “We cannot encourage people to take radical action without giving them tools to express their anger and grief and fear,” Dr. Kritee said.
Sherrie Bedonie, a social worker and co-founder of the Native American Counseling and Healing Collective, a group practice owned by four Native American women, shared that view. While her clients don’t use terms like eco-anxiety, Ms. Bedonie said Native people were “always grieving” the loss of their land and culture and encourages her clients to face their feelings. “If people aren’t ready or they run from grief, it’ll continue to haunt them,” she said.
As for non-Native people, Ms. Bedonie said she hoped part of their grieving process would be acknowledging past and present traumas inflicted upon Indigenous communities. Then, she said, we’ll be able to “come together” and “start the healing process of Mother Earth.”
And that’s what people dealing with climate grief generally underscore: that grief for the planet shouldn’t be buried. In fact, when processed communally, it might actually be a potent weapon.
“What’s really important is we start normalizing this,” Dr. Wray said. “Not only to help people who are dealing with this very reasonable distress, but also because allowing those transformations to happen is hugely energizing for actionable climate movement.”
According to Dr. Wray, the growing number of people worried about climate change could be the catalyst for its solution — so much so, that she and her husband have decided to try for a baby. “As soon as we’re not alone in these feelings anymore,” she said, “it’s not nearly as bad.”
Dr. Atkinson, too, said she thought her seminar’s greatest value has been its ability to connect like-minded people. As she put it: “Who wants to stand up and fight the system when they feel like they’re doing it alone?”
Over the years, however, her views on eco-distress have changed. “Our anger comes from a desire for justice, our grief arises from compassion,” she said. “If we got rid of those feelings, we’d lose the whole motivation to stay in this fight. So that’s been the real surprise: The thing I wanted to overcome turned out to be a kind of superpower.”