The impacts of climate change, as humans have experienced so far, can be terrifying — warming waters, multiplying wildfires, intensifying hurricanes and, in general, the transformation of the world as we once knew it.
So terrifying that for some, these fears can become overwhelming.
In a state where most people have some connection to the natural world, Maine therapists are seeing more clients reporting experiencing “climate anxiety,” a sense of foreboding about the future related to climate change. A 2020 poll conducted by the American Psychological Association showed that Americans who agree climate change is probably or definitely affecting mental health increased from 47 percent in 2019 to 68 percent in 2020.
Kathrine Butler Hepler, owner of Roots and Rise Psychotherapy in Bangor, said that she has observed climate anxiety especially in younger patients, the under-30 crowd.
“I think that it’s something for young people they’re more aware of it, they’ve grown up with this narrative, they’re seeing the more extreme weather and it can feel really frightening and vulnerable to them,” Helper said. “It’s that disempowerment along with the consistent flow of information that may predispose a young person to have this specific anxiety.”
Will Hafford, a clinical psychologist with practices in Hampden and Belfast, said that he has observed climate anxiety in his patients manifesting in different emotions, including grief, loss and anger.
“It is variable in presentation, depending on the client,” Hafford said. “As an example, working with a lobsterman who has noticed the impacts to the lobster fishery, this work involved talking about their distress over the changes as lobster move to colder waters, concern for their livelihoods, impacts to their occupational identity. What do you call a lobsterman when there are no more lobsters or when they are [no] longer able to sustain their business?”
Hafford facilitates the Bangor Area Psychological Society, a monthly gathering of doctoral level colleagues, and has informally surveyed participants about the topic of climate anxiety. He said around 63 percent report working with clients around ecological grief, anxiety or stress in their practice on a weekly or monthly basis.
At the same time, Hafford said that 77 percent of the Bangor Area Psychology Society reported personally grappling with their own climate anxiety.
“Like the pandemic, we are helping others at the same time that we are working through this ourselves,” Hafford said.
Learning how to cope with climate anxiety is essential to survive in this ever-changing world. Though climate anxiety feels specific, Holly Bean, director of recreation and leisure studies at the University of Southern Maine, said that some of the ways she treats climate anxiety in her patients is similar to how she treats anxiety in general, through techniques like breathing exercises and practicing mindfulness.
“Mindfulness [asks] how can you keep present here and now?” Bean said. “Anxiety comes from not being present.”
Like with anxiety in general, having a therapist is also helpful for managing climate anxiety.
“It’s important to have a safe space to land and someone to talk to,” Helper said. “Don’t ever be alone with your worry. That’s when it feels too big.”
Hafford said to start by grounding yourself and considering your relationship to the natural world.
“Most Mainers identify as some combination of stewards, conservationists, snowmobilers, leaf peepers, hunters, trappers, hikers, climbers, paddlers,” Hafford said. “There are many types of Mainers along these spectrums, but we are all immersed in this relationship with the natural world, so I think many of our solutions will be about our shared meaning and about building on these relationships.”
Then, once you have figured out what you value, taking action is one of the best ways to stave off the feelings of hopelessness.
“This capacity for action, capacity for empowerment, even one individual contribution does help even if it’s a drop in the bucket,” Helper said.
Taking action is going to look different for everyone because it depends on what you value, and what motivates you, Bean said. When she has clients experiencing climate anxiety, she tries to figure out what they are passionate about, and what their strengths are to guide them toward projects that will feel empowering.
“The person has to do some homework themselves,” Bean said. “I can make all the suggestions I want to but if I miss the mark nothing is going to come of it. There has to be that intrinsic motivation they have to take that responsibility and if they do they’re empowered.”
It’s also important to learn how to detach from the issues of climate change to a certain extent.
“It doesn’t mean to not be involved,” Bean said. “Detaching means that you’re not going to burn out.”
Don’t be surprised that you still feel anxious at times despite your best efforts, Helper said.
“As with all anxieties it cycles,” Helper said. “There are moments where it feels bigger, moments where it feels smaller, moments where we feel empowered and moments where we feel this means nothing.”
If the feelings of hopelessness continue to persist, Helper said you might want to consider additional steps like taking anti-anxiety medication or treatment for other underlying mental health conditions.
“If it is getting in the way of being able to live your life and function and have a meaningful experience or existence, medication is always an option,” Helper said.