California was a refuge I always intended to return to. I grew up in the Bay Area in the 1980s and ’90s, then decamped to the East Coast for decades. In the temperate California of my childhood, air conditioners were an oddity — their Arctic chill familiar in offices and museums but rare in single-family homes. Friends in Boston and New York — where I went to school and later worked — made fun of my bellyaching when temperatures fell outside of my 72-degree ideal.
But when I moved back to the area with my family five years ago, I encountered a landscape transformed. That first year, more than 6,900 fires swept over an area of about 670,000 acres. The following year was worse — close to 9,000 fires ravaged the state, destroying 1.2 million acres. Smoke choked the air for weeks, and downtown San Francisco was a scene from a post-apocalyptic dream: Men and women in suits, faces half-obscured by masks, navigating the haze that had settled over the slopes and canyons of the city. When I visited my parents, I noticed with dismay how heat and smoke crept into the corners and crevices of my childhood home. N95, HEPA filters, AQI alerts — once foreign terms — now infiltrated my everyday vocabulary.
There are troubling signs that this year’s wildfires and heat may be the worst yet. High-temperature records continue to topple as the drought widens its reach, and last month’s heat wave killed countless marine animals, including the tide-pool creatures that were a fixture of my childhood visits to the coast. With much of the world still reeling from pandemic-related stress, the resulting anxiety stew is likely to be explosive.
I worry about air pollution’s effect on my children’s still-developing bodies as well as my parents’ overtaxed and vulnerable ones. Meanwhile, many Californians, including some of my friends, are simply leaving. But that’s a privileged, and ultimately temporary, measure; as climate change encroaches on ever-larger swaths of the planet, all havens will disappear.
Lately, it seems, more people are awakening to the dangers, whether they are directly affected or not. Andrew Bryant, a clinical social worker based in Seattle, first noticed this shift about five years ago when his patients began raising questions informed by climate anxiety: Should I have kids? Where can I move to avoid wildfires and hurricanes? How can I continue to attend to the day-to-day when a catastrophe looms on the horizon?
But it wasn’t until Seattle’s smoke season in 2017 that the emotional impact of these concerns hit home for Bryant himself. “For the first time, I realized on a visceral, existential level, what it felt like to not be in control of my environment,” he said.
Britt Wray, a human and planetary health fellow at Stanford University and author of the Gen Dread newsletter, emphasized that climate anxiety “is a natural response to something that is hugely threatening, but it can be a dangerous trap if we don’t tend to it responsibly.” Left unchecked, climate anxiety can spiral into shame, depression, stagnation or denial.
To combat this progression, Wray and other experts suggest a two-pronged plan employing internal strategies to deal with your emotions and external strategies for taking action. Wray likened this approach to the oft-cited air-travel advice about putting on your own oxygen mask before helping others. The best thing you can do is to stabilize your emotions, so that you can take effective action about what concerns you.
Internal strategies to fight climate dread
A crucial first step in this process, said Bryant, is to “just let the feelings be there, share the feelings, even if they’re contradictory and confusing.”
Leslie Davenport, a psychologist in Washington state and author of “Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change: A Clinician’s Guide,” agreed. Emotions that haven’t been acknowledged or validated, Davenport said, tend to “come out sideways,” which can lead to behaviors such as lashing out at others, overeating, or unhealthy sleep patterns.
The best outlet for these feelings differs for each person. Some may talk to friends or a therapist, while others find journaling or distilling their thoughts into art helpful. “Creative expression brings your right and left brain together, to identify what you’re most concerned about,” said Elizabeth Haase, a psychiatrist in Nevada. If you choreograph a dance about your family’s response to wildfires, for example, you might tap into the strong emotions you had as you were fleeing.
Drawing is particularly useful for children, who might have trouble verbalizing their anxieties. And studies indicate that “kids who’ve lived through a fire or had to outrun a flood need to be able to process it by expressing what their experience was,” Davenport said.
Haase finds comfort communing with nature, a form of mindfulness that inspired her cross-country move years ago. “Feeling the heaviness of your feet on the earth, your skin in relationship to the air, and the wind across your eyelashes — these are all ways to reconnect to the environment and increase your attachment to the natural world,” she said.
Practices such as yoga, mindfulness and meditation dispel unhelpful ruminating, while teaching us to control our breathing and lower our heart rate. Firefighters in California, who have had to battle unprecedented blazes in recent years, have incorporated stress-relieving yoga into their routine. For Wray, “the most dramatic impact has come from meditating, and being able to bring yourself back into the moment.” But any activity you find enjoyable — whether it’s playing music, cooking with friends or running — can regulate an overstimulated nervous system.
Davenport also advocates taking breaks when necessary. She shared a tip that she uses with her younger patients: Assign a worry hour. If there’s something that’s occupying a lot of your thoughts, set aside some time each day to think about it. “It’s not pushing the concerns away,” Davenport said, “but containing them in an intentional way.”
External strategies to fight climate dread
But self-care isn’t enough. “The specificity of this crisis requires change at a collective level,” Wray said. And taking meaningful action, whatever that might look like for you, is both empowering and motivating.
Bryant suggests reaching out to groups or communities, which helps people feel that they’re part of something bigger than themselves. Organizations such as the Good Grief Network, the Deep Adaptation Forum and others have cropped up in the past several years to offer support and education about the climate crisis, and to inspire political action.
Bryant also encourages learning from marginalized communities — such as Native Americans and the Indigenous peoples of Canada and the Amazon, whose ancestral lands have been under societal and environmental threat for centuries. For them, this struggle is nothing new.
Or start smaller and closer to home. Gather with like-minded colleagues or college buddies to discuss climate change. Just the simple act of talking can have powerful ripple effects. A 2019 report found that when people voice their concerns about the environment, attitudes in their communities start to change.
As we move from emotions to active engagement, it’s important to align our actions “with who we are, what our skills are, and what our interests are in order to not burn out,” Bryant cautioned.
Some people might lobby politicians while others feel more comfortable leading a book club. Bryant, whose expertise is in mental health, created an online resource for clinicians and patients grappling with the psychological and social effects of climate change. His young children love animals. So, he meets them where they are — encouraging their affection for sea turtles and pandas as a conduit for future environmental stewardship.
To spur action, Haase recommends drawing an analogy between the excesses that lead to climate change and personal transgressions you wouldn’t let slide. If you had a neighbor who dumped oil on your property, for example, you’d file complaints against him with your city council. “Yet with fossil fuel companies, we let them off the hook,” she said. “So, you might write your congressman and say, ‘Why aren’t you putting an end to this?” And if our political representatives aren’t willing to back sensible measures to mitigate climate change, we — as their constituents — can vote them out of office.
When I mentioned how overwhelmed I was at times by what seems to be an intractable problem and how ineffectual I judged my small efforts to be, Bryant guessed (correctly) that I had leaped into action without first addressing my anxieties. “I’m interested in people being in it for the long haul,” he said. “And that requires some understanding of where they’re coming from and what their feelings are.”
The heat waves continuing to sweep through the country are vividly illustrating the impact of climate change and the urgency of mitigating it. At the same time, covid-19 has illuminated how much we’re all connected, no matter where we live in the world. Haase sees this period of time as a potential turning point. “We’re thinking in a more collective way and appreciating our place in nature at exactly the moment that we need to learn these lessons,” she said. “And if we can grow from it, as traumatic as it is, we’ll evolve as a species.”
Connie Chang is a writer based in Silicon Valley who covers topics including health and parenting. Find her on Twitter @changcon.