2021 Supercharged My Climate Anxiety

As if the never-ending pandemic weren't enough, this summer's heat dome ratcheted my anxiety to a whole new level.

Ominous, dark grey stormclouds hang over green farmland dotted with trees.
Photo courtesy of the UDSA via Flickr

A storm gathering

This summer, I went from being afraid of other people’s germs to being afraid of the sun. Within a week of my second vaccination, my part of the world, the Pacific Northwest, suffered an unprecedented heat wave due to a heat dome — an area of high pressure that stays over a region for several days, trapping the heat like a lid on a boiling pot. My apartment reached over 40°C (105°F). I know because I put my oven thermometer on the counter at 9 pm one evening. Hours later, I booked myself into a hotel for the next two nights.

I regret not going to the hotel right away, because by the time the sun rose I was experiencing symptoms of heat exhaustion. This was despite having done all the things I was supposed to do: black out my windows, mist myself with water, take cool baths, put ice packs in my bed and bowls of ice in front of my fans (only to have them melt in 5 minutes).

I thought about what I’d do when record-breaking climate catastrophes became more frequent. Get an air conditioner, for one.

In Vancouver, 570 people died because of the heat dome, along with hundreds of more excess deaths in Washington and Oregon. It was horribly hot for our coastal rainforest ecosystem: sea creatures were literally cooked to death in their natural habitat. As I lay on the hotel bed soaking up air conditioning, I thought, “This is only a degree of what climate refugees experience.” But maybe it’s more accurate to think of this as how that experience begins.

When the sun set at 10 pm, I raised my middle finger to the sky and said, “Fuck you, sun!” That night I thought about what I’d do when record-breaking climate catastrophes like this became more frequent. Get an air conditioner, for one.

But my thoughts also got very dark, “If things get like this more often and for longer periods of time, maybe I won’t want to live anymore.” I couldn’t imagine how much worse it was for people who couldn’t afford to book themselves in a hotel, or lived in housing with worse insulation than my nearly 100-year-old building.

For a while, I’ve had a vision of my retirement: being an 80-year-old woman who teaches fitness classes and wears flowy dresses with loud statement jewelry. That dream feels like a fantasy now. Especially as someone who worked in arts and events in the “before times.” Those industries are a long way from recovering, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to retire. My expectations for the future are getting bleaker.

“I plan on dying in the water wars.” It’s a joke, but it’s not.

I have a 35-year-old friend who has a stock response when the subject of retirement comes up: “I plan on dying in the water wars.” It’s a joke, but it’s not. I know I’m not alone in these feelings of despair.

In early 2019, Asparagus published a piece by Glynis Ratcliffe about climate anxiety. In it, she spoke with Dr. Paul DePompo, a clinical psychologist in southern California, who has noticed an increase of eco-anxiety in his practice. DePompo suggests that people focus on being in the present, preparing for the future, and cultivating a mindset that will deal with troubles when they arise. He suggests that worrying about “what-if’s” isn’t productive. Instead one should take actions to prepare for the future so they become “then-whats.”

When I’m in the depths of climate anxiety and depression, it can be hard to read these suggestions — it seems like he’s advising folks to put their heads in the sand. But a more clear headed-person might see that he’s saying don’t conflate going to a hotel to get air-conditioning with being a climate refugee, when there are people actually leaving their countries because of climate devastation.

At the same time, I wonder why I’m not doing more to help save the planet. Why am I not jumping on a ferry and making my way to Fairy Creek on Vancouver Island to protest the logging of old-growth forests. Honestly, I think I’m not there because I’m not brave enough and too anxious to help. And that’s depressing, too.

Photo courtesy of the UDSA via Flickr

The American Psychiatric Association sees climate change as a growing mental health concern, and its members feel ill-equipped to manage these anxieties. My own therapist told me they find it hard to treat because a lot of their job is to point out flaws in their clients’ logic, and there is nothing to critique here: climate change is real and a real threat.

Through the Substack email newsletter Gen Dread, I recently became aware of the eco-anxiety scale developed by climate-aware psychotherapist Caroline Hickman. I fall somewhere between Significant and Severe on the scale (whose lower levels are Mild and Medium). I have “guilt and shame, little faith in others to take action” (symptoms of Significant climate anxiety), and if I see a particularly bad climate news story, it can affect my sleep and lead to intrusive thoughts (Severe symptoms).

It feels like there are a lot of us struggling with climate anxiety. CBC interviewed people in BC just over a week after the horrific heat dome, during which the village of Lytton was devastated by fire one day after reaching the hottest temperature ever recorded in Canada. That article quotes an email written by Lanika Yule, who wrote, “It feels absolutely silly to be worrying about work emails when hundreds of people just died during the heat wave and an entire town was burned to the ground in minutes.”

The village of Lytton was devastated by fire one day after reaching the hottest temperature ever recorded in Canada.

I reached out to people I know to see how they were doing, and most who responded felt similar hopelessness and despair.

My friend Victoria Spooner said, “There have been times where I’ve thought if things get this bad again I will just tap out. I don’t know how it’s possible to live through this.” She called the heat dome “excruciating” and “horrendous.”

“When I see these fucking billionaires getting up in their dick-shapped rockets, going up to space,” she told me, “you think, ‘The money that you just spent on that, you could have solved or made a huge dent or a huge impact on this planet that we’re living on right now.’ I don’t understand why people don’t seem to care.” Spooner is moving back to the UK, partially because she doesn’t want to take a transatlantic flight every year to see family.

One actor/teacher I know took the heat dome as a wake-up call. Even though he’s in his 50s, he’s signed up for a life coach program so that he can keep up with the needs of his students in this changing world. I wish the heat wave had inspired me to do better for others instead of magnifying my depression.

So what am I doing about my anxiety, now that autumn is upon us and the threat of heat has subsided? (Even though there still are fires burning throughout BC and hurricane season is picking up further south.) I’ve started to decrease my news consumption. I took Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter off my phone so that I can only look at them at home. Since I’m still home most of the time, I’m also trying not to look at social media during the day. And I got an air conditioner, which helped during the less-intense heat waves in July and August.

Joy can be an antidote to burnout and an act of resistance.

I know this addiction to the news cycle and doom-scrolling will be hard to break. I want to be informed, but I’m also a sensitive empath and it’s hard not to carry the weight of the world if I’m constantly reading about it.

My despair isn’t helping. But ignoring the problem doesn’t help me or the situation, either. I’m examining how to maintain a beautiful, happy, bright outlook while the world is on fire and getting hotter. I know joy can be an antidote to burnout and an act of resistance. Depression is a liar and clouds one’s heart with darkness and hopelessness. I’m not sure how to drag myself out of this pit, but at least I’m not alone.

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