How understanding climate anxiety can help us with coronavirus.
Tense, unable to focus for more than a few minutes, struggling to handle simple tasks at your normal speed, finding it hard to find the words you want and losing your temper when asked a routine question in the middle of having another thought?
Our brains are noisy and distracted right now and with good reason. But acting out of our fears won’t serve us or the challenge we face.
I have found myself feeling all of these things in the past couple of weeks, and I’m hearing the same from clients, who almost apologise for not wanting our coaching sessions to be about climate change right now. Instead they want to talk about how to be with this feeling of planlessness, how to guide others through it, and fundamentally how to find any kind of motivation to do anything when almost all endeavour feels pointless.
I’ve been here before, and possibly you have too, more than once. When the Amazon was burning last summer a friend told me she’d never seen me looking so tired, so distracted and absent from the sunny pub garden that my body was in but my mind was miles from.
It first happened a few years earlier when I read David Wallace Wells New York article on climate change – the forerunner to his book The Uninhabitable Earth – I was sitting on a pebbly beach in my beloved Dorset and felt for the first time I felt that I had the potential to be homeless, and not from a house or a country, but from our very planet. My solid world seemed to have all along been built on quicksand, that could give way at any moment. It was like someone had just pulled the rug out from under me, making me question everything I thought I knew about the world and the future. The feeling was real, unbearably sad and confusing, and deeply threatening. My instant response was to try to manage my fear by sharing it with my loved ones and frightening the hell out of them too. Unsurprisingly, my family didn’t take too well to that, and both changed the subject and banned me from any more reading. The analogy I use for that time was that it was like being invited backstage at the theatre, leaving behind the most amazing show, to discover that the staff were being tortured and the building was on fire, and then returning to the auditorium to be met with confusion and reassurances from people who hadn’t seen the flames and thought I was making it up. My terrified expression also made it much easier to believe that I was exaggerating. “If it really was on fire the management would have evacuated us” they suggested. It felt like I was living in a parallel universe, with the old world rules still operating while a new awareness was opening up inside of me. It was very lonely.
Existential dread isn’t new of course. Trawl through fiction and you’ll find plenty of characters questioning the way we have constructed our lives and economies. That was especially true around the 80s and 90s when we signed up to full-fat capitalism, and in which films like Fight Club and books like Don Delillo’s White Noise emerged, but way back in 1854 Henry Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ spoke to the same, and you could argue that Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice was questioning the hypocrisy of our economies too.
However, even making this point is to make this an intellectual discussion, which for some in relation to climate change and for very many in relation to coronavirus, it no longer is.
There has been a shift from an intellectual engagement with the subject to an emotional engagement with it. We have moved from seeing coronavirus something we should be concerned about as citizens in respect of ‘other people’ to recognising that it is our own survival that we are fighting for, and that of our families. This is what started from me on that beach in Dorset, and what I see happening with coronavirus.
What is different now perhaps is the speed of change, the level of threat and the globalised sense of uncertainty that surrounds us. In the analogy of the frog in the pot of boiling water, climate change has been building slowly to a boil until it was only recently that we really experienced the heat. Coronavirus on the other hand has been a bit like being hurled into a rolling boil and expected to keep swimming.
In the last four years I have coached many people who have experienced that shift and the discombobulation that goes with it, and who ask how they’re supposed to be in the world now that they feel this way. I found a centred, grounded place to stand on as I worked with them, and I’m grateful that I know how to get back their now. Indeed coaching is one of the few places right now that I feel stable and sure-footed. It is no coincidence that many of us are helping each other, it is because helping helps us too, and makes us feel that we are at least partially in control of an out-of-control situation.
There are plenty of places to tell you what to do to help right now. However the question of how to be in this situation is a good one too, not least now that a quarter of the world’s population are locked down and not able to do very much.
So who do we want to be right now? I can only tell you what has helped my clients, and what we in the Climate Change Coaches see as the building blocks of overcoming climate anxiety. This is not an exhaustive list, or a prescription. Take from it what you will.
1) Get present.
What you are experiencing is a kind of grief, either for a misspent past in which we could have spent our time differently, or for a future that was all mapped out and has suddenly dematerialised. We may also be grieving our old operating principles that no longer seem relevant, such as ‘work hard and you’ll be secure’.
2) Be kind to yourself.
Self-compassion just means is cutting yourself some slack, and we all need that right now. You are doing your best in a very difficult situation.
3) Recognise that the world around you has shifted and that it’s ok to shift with it.
Your ‘life as usual’ shouldn’t be expected to function when entire countries aren’t. For those of us with children, the pressure to mimic school structures is enormous, but we shouldn’t be doing that at the expense of being a family. A stressed, tense household that runs with military precision is surely less desirable than an unstructured one in which people are calm and enjoying being together.
4) Normalise the situation for yourself and others.
These ARE extraordinary times, and it is normal to feel unsettled and distracted. It is easy to feel frightened by a spouse tumbling into tears or flying off the handle, but a hand on the shoulder and a simple acknowledgement that ‘this is really hard isn’t it?’ will go a lot further than denying them their emotions (‘Why are you stressed, you’ve not done anything all day!’) or trying to fix them (‘Have you tried..?’) Clients with climate anxiety constantly complain of family telling them to calm down and stop obsessing. I can categorically tell you, it doesn’t help! What helps is acknowledging how we’re feeling and making it ok.
5) Resist the temptation to try to diminish your fear by sharing it around.
While it might make you feel less alone, frightening each other with the latest statistics just heightens everyone’s threat responses, from which place we’re all more likely to be defensive, stressed and angry. Not great generally, but worse when you’re stuck in a house together. Disempowering others so that we feel less alone in our own fears doesn’t make us feel powerful or secure. If you feel frightened, say so and tell your loved ones what you need them to do to feel safe again. Cut to the chase. If in doubt, just ask for a hug. Now’s the time to be vulnerable, not a know-it-all.
6) Recognise the scarcity you may be feeling and observe what that does to the way you perceive the world and others.
When we feel gripped by the throat with feelings of ‘not enough’ (time, money, people caring… or perhaps staple goods or ventilators) we make small-minded, self-serving decisions that further entrench our insecurity and don’t help the world. None of us wants to feel this way, but boy can it be hard to trust in your own and others’ resilience when all of your income is wiped out, or you’re worried for the survival of your loved ones. Our vision narrows and small actions take on enormous significance. While climate scarcity may not feel as immediate to many, for the people I’ve helped to detrigger their scarcity, the feeling of threat is palpable and present. Clients have told me, aghast, at how much visceral anger they have felt at something as innocent as someone with a disposable coffee cup. Perhaps that’s the way you now feel about seeing someone carrying more than one pack of toilet roll? Everyday things become imbued with enormous significance when our survival feels at stake. Yet behind every angry, blaming person who wants to shout at people in Starbucks, there has always been a kind, deeply caring individual wanting to help in a bigger way and feeling unable to. When we’re cornered we make crappy decisions. So get out of the corner. Ask yourself what really matters to you about that loo roll. Is it citizenship? Responsibility? Equality? Step it back to the level of your values and feel the oxygen return to your lungs.
7) Get outside into nature, or just focus on what you can see through a window.
As much as I’d like to believe that I’m a good coach, I will always have to accept that nature is a better one. And it’s such a good coach that you don’t even have to be outside to experience it. Look out of your window, choose some piece of nature and focus on it. Really notice it, from the way it moves to its colours and shape. Observe what you notice in yourself as you focus on it. And if you want to, ask it what advice it might have for you right now. It won’t be the tree telling you what to do of course, but you will be accessing a different voice inside yourself that possibly hasn’t had much air time lately. The natural world can help us drop out of our noisy heads and into our bodies, which can feel an enormous relief and a place of new information. If you find closed-eyes meditation just makes you fidget, focussing on some nature can give you that same meditative moment with something to visually investigate.
Last summer, burnt out and losing my voice at a conference in the Alps, I took myself off into the fields and sat still for a few hours to have a conversation with the mountains as much as with myself. I had never done that before, and can credit my team-mate Hamish Mackay-Lewis with giving me the courage to try it, but for the first time I recognised that I needed help, and that that help had to come from something much, much bigger than me. Exhausted from building a start-up that also involved absorbing other people’s anxiety, I asked the mountains to help me and was shocked by the rebuke of an answer I got in return ‘Well bloody well let us then!’ they said back. I realised that I’d been being a tough little cookie, not allowing myself to ask for help. I share that in case you’re thinking that this is all woo-woo hearts and flowers stuff. Sometimes nature can give us a good talking to! The timing however will always be just right.
8) If you can, start to work on acceptance
… of where we are right now, of the role you and I played in it, of the actions of others around you and of not knowing where we might be heading or what the coming years will bring. Acceptance doesn’t mean hopelessness, but it does mean giving up attachment to specific hopes. Those tightly-held hopes are the other side of the coin from our fears. To give up fear, we have to give up attachment to specific outcomes.
I don’t know about you, but I am having to recognise how much I enjoy and need ‘a plan’, and how at sea I feel when that it is futile to make any. Yet in the absence of plans we can have guiding principles, and we are seeing these emerge culturally and nationally as people set new operating standards for how to be in community with each other, and prioritise kindness over self-preservation.
Fundamentally it is about mindset. The mindset we choose to adopt right now will determine the way that we behave and the outcomes we achieve. Lack of ventilators may still be a problem, but if we can approach those same problems with a more expansive, possible mindset, we can make more values-based decisions that make us feel proud and capable at the same time.
What are your guiding principles for how you want to be through this crisis? Perhaps like me, you’ve valued what you do more than who you are being. Yet most likely people already rely on you to be something important to them. Now’s the time to lean back into that, and be together in this.
All that we have is the present moment, together with our loved ones. We can make this time count. Perhaps this is actually all that we have ever had?
Charly Cox, Oxford, UK, 26th March 2020