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A Personal Essay on Climate Anxiety

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A Personal Essay on Climate Anxiety

Please note: this blog post may include some anxiety inducing topics and themes and could be triggering for some readers

Please also note: this is a personal essay and for entertainment purposes only. You should consult a medical professional if you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression and I am not a medical professional. Mental health should be treated as any other physical ailment despite the complication of mental health issues that have one believe there is no help and no one is there and there's nothing to be done (those are just more red-flag symptoms!). Please get help if you're reading this and are feeling anxious or depressed.

 

It is the wildfires that do it for me.

Summer used to be my favourite season, and now it is squarely the cool-down of fall.

The heat triggers me; it starts the cycle. Plus 30 degree days in May aren't normal, my brain starts to whisper. By June, the heat is a constant reminder of the oppression that I see in my head for the future; downed electrical grids, living in our basement for relief, plants wilting, water contaminated, fires forcing us out into the sun. 

I slowly ascend into this anxious person that wants to shriek at anyone I perceive to be a "head in the sand-er" that is just living life, no thought to the consequences of their actions. 

I'll focus on reading some '90s memes to cheer me up. But inevitably, my mind will begin to wander to reminding myself that my sons will not get to experience the carefree teenage years and twenties like I did that these memes remind me of. Numbness begins to spread out in my chest, telling me to lay down and rest and never get back up.

I'll start to notice this is a problem.

So, I try to do the things that ground me. I get outside, bare foot, and walk in the woods. But then it turns into a grief walk, me mourning the space around me and everything in it that has nothing to do with the big machines of human ambition. It's the odd way the wildfire tinged sunlight filters through the trees that makes it unforgettable in my self-prescribed nature time. The red shadows are an ugly doppelgänger for what should be there - an overcast filter applied to the sunny spots that only shows up when something big is burning.

Our lungs are on fire.

I used to have a lot of reasons to be anxious or depressed; I've lived through some very sideways things. In my thirties now, I enjoy doing inner work, and I prefer To Be Magnetic to help me work through things in my own way. I like getting to the root, the feeling of clearing the space and creating new neural pathways. It is always a lot of messy work, but it could be done, and I like to do hard things. I'm used to the cycles of not feeling well to the point that I can now identify triggers and process the things and move forward properly. But there is no solution to climate change. There is nothing I can do that will ever be enough. I have no root to dig up that will make any difference.

I have people apologize to me now, now that I have this very public business that deals with the stuff that it does. I go to children's birthday parties or my son's skating show or a Halloween event and someone realizes how wasteful x, y, or z is in the moment just because I'm standing there. And they apologize. Like I am an Earth Policewoman or a Garbage Citation Officer or Green Peace with some kind of judgemental look on my face, which I know I don't. I don't truly believe their one action is the end of the world. I'm getting pretty used to that alienation; the feeling of being a weirdo, singled out for what I care about. But it's not so bad. I remind myself that maybe they will change it once I leave or the next time around, I don't know. But when I am in the cycle of climate anxiety? I want to deadpan ask them to apologize to the kids running around underfoot, because it is them that will face the worst of the landslide of bad choices made for short term happiness, convenience, or appearances. Not me. 

I am a sensitive girl; I always have been. But when there's a fire? I can't understand anyone around me. I can't understand why no one else is prioritizing things. I can't understand parents with little kids right now, not feeling any need to do anything and thinking saving money for their schooling and their pensions is all they need to do for a bright future. I become too fragile for the world, my skin is so easily burned, my anger a pinprick away and deepening exhaustion threatening to make me sleep until eternity.

The hard thing about this type of worry is that if you do the normal things they tell you to do - the turning off the news, the shutting off of the input - and take a breather... it doesn't ease. I love the work that I do now. But I am never away from it, and I think probably we all need to be in the space of no relief for anything real and meaningful at this point in the game to actually happen. I cannot get away from it; and yet, if I tried, it would only make things worse because then I would be running away, I would be giving up. 

I am not the first to encounter this. I think anyone working in anything environmental is treading water and dead tired, over and over. You cannot quit, but it is hard to go on, at times. I remind myself that people have been through unprecedented times, like world wars. People grew food on their lawns, gave up their lives for the greater good, sheltered oppressed peoples under threat of death, and stepped out of their social standings and safety to really do the right thing. But I don't feel we have any real leadership for that, our governments are too beholden to industries making horrifying impacts and our people are becoming more focused on their individual rights and wants more than ever before. We don't even have to look at things we don't like anymore; distraction from the real issues is easier than ever before.

But watching my boys sleep in the evening, I know that's not all there is to this. They will know that I tried and I did not give up.

And so, I will try to stand firm and let the waves hit me through this as the summer heats up and the wildfires come. 

Maybe you're hoping for a turning point here where I get into the solutions. And they do come. This bout has really come from the Alberta fires. That, and the poor choice of watching an environmental documentary the day after seeing the odd sunlight and finally peeling back the news curtain to understand what's happening and seeing an "peak less" wildfire in our heartland. I will crest this wave, but I always seem to find myself underwater for a little while, paralyzed and feeling the feelings. And that's okay.

I realize eventually that this is what it is - climate anxiety. And then once I really admit what's going on, I can see the triggers. And then I do the work.

First, Get it Out

Yesterday, I talked to one person about where I am at that gets it. I found previously talking to people that hadn't experienced it before, tend to think you're really unwell and that makes you feel so much more alienated and alone. So I sought out the person that I know is probably not doing well with this either, and we had a discussion about it. I checked on her, and she checked on me. And we vented. And I didn't feel alone in this anymore, I felt validated and not crazy at all. It is funny how our brains try to paint us backwards into boxes of aloneness, the little sticky tape reel of messaging scrolling at all times that has us believing that we are the only one suffering, that no one understands, that there is nothing to be done. Breaking that tape is my first step. If you let it out and it turns out to be to the wrong person to share with, that doesn't mean you're wrong in feeling down. Your feelings are really real; try again. You are not alone, there are many worrying about this.

There are also therapists that are helpful for this, and probably know better what to say to you, especially if they are practicing "climate aware therapy." Turns out, climate anxiety is *not* a mental illness or necessarily only catastrophic thinking, it is a very valid fear that exists for many people, especially teens and young ones. 

Reflecting: Move out of Paralysis

The next thing I do is make a list of all the things that I have done and am doing that I wasn't doing a year ago that is either decreasing my impact or helping me live in a more harmonious way with the earth. The Earth is hurting and still has so much to offer and give to us; beautiful moments and miracles everywhere. I can be hurting too, and still have so much to continue to offer. I need to take a moment here and do some reflecting on how far I have come and try to create an idea of some of the small ripples it has made in my own family and friends and realize that if I had never of tried, it wouldn't be even that bit budged forward.

The reflecting doesn't just sit with this though, I have to go back to the beginning.

I think I have mentioned many times that the "why" for the whole lifestyle change will be very helpful when things get bleak and the changes feel hard. My why is always my sons; I never want to have them look at me and ask me why I didn't do the harder things to keep them safe. I never want to tell them it was just "too hard" or "too inconvenient." It's the worst kind of mirror to hold up to yourself. And even though sometimes my mind has me believing that the day that question is asked is apocalyptic, it doesn't mean that it will be. My four year old learned about the dump at school in JK this year for Earth Day and took me to task for still having a collection of granola bars in packaging for when we are travelling. He was right about that waste that we didn't really need to be creating, and I worked harder. I will not stop working until I feel I am in a place that I can say that I have done what I can, and be what my boys will feel proud of. I have to meditate on that (or perhaps write a blog post) and get back to that root of motivation, because it is the thing that can pull me forward.  

Taking Action: Get out from Under

And then - action. 

Action is the only thing that matters at the end of any kind of self and internal work. You can chat about things with other people round and around, you can reflect and journal and do the thinking about why it happened and how things need to be, but it doesn't end a cycle until action enters the picture.

It is changing your own behaviour; setting a boundary; ending a relationship; taking a big high step out of the old cycle that you used to perpetuate. You don't need to be hard on yourself for the past rounds on that unfortunate merry-go-round, but if you keep sitting pretty in the same dumpster fire after awareness hits, then that's on you, choosing the same thing over and again. 

I am not going to be in the same spot as I am now, the next time I fall down these stairs into fire-apocalypse-anxiety-world.

And I hope you won't be, either.

My plan isn't really elegant, I just fish around and grab the next right thing to do and just make it my next thing to work on. I haven't really fully reclaimed my motivation, but I am ready to pull myself out of the negative pool, as slow as I need to go into a new better habit or change. For depression, I have found that the worst thing I can do is give into that beautiful urge to crawl back into my covers, and the best thing I can do is go out into the too-bright world and find some hope. If you're looking for a really step-by-step way to get started with finding something you can change, you can try an online carbon footprint calculator (usually they give you tips that are specific to the lifestyle questions you've answered at the end) or check out my blog post/Insta highlights on how to do waste audits.

Summer 2022: Actions from Peaks of Anxiety 

Last year this cycle started with the derecho storm (a big storm in Ontario that I haven't witnessed anything similar to, and then a tornado with nearby damage that is also nothing I've ever seen before) and after sitting in anxiety, I started vermicomposting. I finally got the worm composter I had been hemming and hawing over and some worms and I tended to a little bitty ecosystem. I didn't care about them at first and reading about setting up the layers felt like way too much at the time. But then one day, I realized I was setting scraps aside "they would just love" and enjoyed needing to be checking on my little friends. I felt hope every time I saw them doing well, baby worms appearing and bundles of them on an apple core. I saw the food waste turn into the rich earth, things from my shop that were at the end of their life breaking down as they are supposed to (like a wood and sisal brush rather than a plastic version) and it was like seeing what I already knew to be better happen in front of my eyes. It felt like magic when I felt like an old dishrag. And then in a little bit, I had too many worms, and I shared with friends, and now there are worm cousins making magic in seven other homes. 

Was it crummy at first? Oh God, yes. But is it helping me right now in this space I'm in to recall this? Yes. 

When the wildfires started in Ontario last summer and Doug Ford was reelected? The wave pushed me backwards again. I laid underwater for a little while, had several breakdowns in front of my kids on the day of the election results (like crying while serving noodles and vacuuming kind of thing, and I'm no cryer, believe me), and started the whole thing over. I started reading our labels in our kitchen and the bulk shop, hunting out all the sources of palm oil. We used up what we had of those items, while I slowly researched what to use for that thing instead. This also didn't feel good at the time, and it was work to start this project. But then it started to take meaning, I started to have small wins, I felt hopeful because it was moving forward, and I started to feel stronger. Now, when we read our library book about Indonesia, I could confidently say that we were not eating palm oil to my four year old, when we read about the endangered tigers and monkeys in the book that are affected by it.

It will never be about not feeling the feelings. Believe me, the feelings are getting very felt, the fear is real. I can take some time to sit in them and feel some of it, but I won't fall into cycles that keep me under the surface. The waves are never going to end. But I can move forward and help myself better the next time one comes, because I cannot stop.

I am just getting started with my haphazard way of casting about for a new project, but I am already simmering on baking our breads, bagels and wraps myself (as this is a plastic heavy space in our kitchen these days compared with other items) or having a home inspection done for the Canadian federal grants for upgrades for energy efficiency. I don't really have a lot of space in my life to do these things, so either of these options are going to feel really grating. Like cheese grater on the cheek, if we needed to put a very specific level on it. 

The boot doesn't have to be comfy right now, if just has to take another step forward. 

Resources + Research

After writing my personal struggles out in the realm on climate anxiety, I realized that in order to put this out there for any kind of value to others, I needed to find some research and resources in order to take it from anecdotal to actionable one step further.

It was a bit baffling, to see that mostly what I had wrote about and found in my own practice, to have been right there all along. And so, I needed to share. There's now a sustainable living story living on our social highlights you can refer back to, but I also pulled some additional resources and findings below for reference. 

 

If you've made it this far, please know that everything you're working on matters. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, feel free to try my suggestions, but please also get help if you are experiencing anxiety and depression. There are a lot of books out there and therapists that specifically work with climate anxiety and hopelessness, so if my personal way of dealing with things left you feeling hopeless, that doesn't mean anything about how your mental health can improve with assistance. I just wanted to share a topic that is on my heart a lot lately this time of year, and wish you peace and hope and some joy, too.

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