A group of nine researchers, including psychologists and environmental scientists, conducted a survey of 10,000 people between the ages of 16 and 25 to assess their anxiety about climate change and how it relates to government action. The study was published in The Lancet last year. Seventy-five per cent of young participants from ten countries said the future was frightening. Nearly half of respondents said that climate change had negatively affected their daily lives. This included their ability to focus, eat, sleep and have fun with their friends and family.
Britt Wray, a Stanford researcher specializing in climate change research and mental health, says that "climate anxiety is not an inherently dangerous problem." It's a normal and healthy response when you understand the increasing civilizational threat we face in the climate crisis. It can be a problem if these feelings are so intense that it affects one's ability to function, access well-being, and get through the day.
Wray co-authored the 2021 novel study "Young People’s Voices on Climate Betrayal, Moral Injury and Climate Anxiety: A Global Phenomenon." Wray met with epidemiologists, therapists and activists while she was researching a book on eco-anxiety. Generation Dread is Wray's new book. She shares strategies to deal with the mental health problems that can often arise in dealing with climate crises. Smithsonian interviewed Wray to learn more about her experiences and get her advice.
Generation Dread is your book on climate anxiety. What would you call this?
Climate anxiety refers to a range of emotions that can be experienced when one wakes up to the severity of the climate crisis and other environmental crises. Although anxiety is a part of climate anxiety, there are many other emotions that can accompany it. Mental health professionals and scholars think these are all aspects of what it means. You can feel helplessness, anger, sadness, helplessness, despair, and other difficult feelings that show concern for the world.
How do you relate to eco-anxiety? Did it inspire you to research the impacts of climate change on your mental health?
After experiencing a moment of dramatic and profound interest, I decided to pursue the subject. My partner and I began to think about getting pregnant in 2017. I could not just jump into making that decision. I had to take a step back, as I was a science communicator and was constantly absorbing information about the climate crisis. I was becoming more aware of the lack of political action and the solutions being ignored by fossil fuel companies as they continued to receive subsidies. All of this didn't make it a good situation for me to try to get pregnant.
This made me feel really insane. I didn't know if I was crazy for questioning whether it was okay to have children in crisis. It became a complicated dilemma that I had the to solve myself. I had to deal with new emotions that were more existential than those I had previously considered, even though I had been part of climate marches or environmental groups in undergrad biology.
What if I can see the psychological effects of what is happening in my own life? How might others be affected emotionally, mentally, and spiritually by it? That's when I realized that maybe my next project could be about getting to the bottom.
How did this "project” become your book?
As a radio producer, I began by producing a feature documentary of one hour about whether or not to have children in the current climate crisis. After that I realized that I was only scratching the surface of the psychological effects of the climate crisis. I decided to create a project and learn as much as possible about the issue. Generation Dread was born. This was a result of my personal turmoil and the need to find ways to cope and move towards more nourishing, radically helpful narratives about future rather than being enslaved to fearful ideas about where it all is headed.
How did you get to conduct a huge psychological study on climate anxiety in the first place?
After I had done some research and written my book, I realized that I wanted all my energy to support mental health in the climate crisis. People are becoming more alarmed at the severity of the problem, and the lack of any action. Many communities are dealing with trauma from climate events, as well as other forms of oppression or marginalization, which can have a psychological impact. There is so much to do. Perhaps I could help to create meaning out of it. I wanted to do more than just report about it.
I decided to quit my field and begin researching the effects of climate change on mental health. I have made many new friends: therapists and psychiatrists as well as epidemiologists and theologians. They all contribute greatly to the research on how to prevent mental illness and the climate crisis. Through some of my collaborations I was able to be part of the study that examined the impact of climate anxiety on 10,000 children.
What were some of your key findings? Was there anything that surprised you?
We wanted to know how climate anxiety affects young people all over the globe. We looked at countries with very different income levels. These include low-, middle-, and high-income countries. This was to see if there are places that are more exposed to the effects of climate change than those that are less vulnerable. We were shocked at how dire and severe the results were.
A staggering 50 percent of 16- and 25-year-olds believe humanity is doomed. This is a heartbreaking statistic. Half of those surveyed said they will not have the same opportunities as their parents and that the most important things in life will be lost. These are frightening thoughts. We need to be aware of the impact the climate crisis has on young people and how we can help them.
Globally, 39% of respondents stated that they are hesitant to have children due to the climate crisis. This is directly related to why I started to study this field. It's not that young people feel distressed by the environment, but that they are also experiencing a significant correlation with leaders lying to them and perceptions of government corruption. In other words, young people are left with complex problems as they grow up.
Many people have tried different ways to reduce their anxiety about climate change. What strategies do you believe are most effective?
It is crucial that people feel safe to express their feelings and receive support. Many people have reached out to me to tell me how their anxiety has been made worse by the fact they cannot talk to their friends or family about their worries. If they don't feel heard and validated, it can lead to them feeling even worse. This can make it very difficult to deal with the intense emotions and isolation that they cause. This is why it is so important to find support and others to help you get out of your isolation. We can then start to explore our emotions and integrate them in a way that allows us to live with them, harness them and use them as fuel for the changes we want.
This type of internal processing is essential to improve your ability to use the technical and hard skills required for changemaking in the global world. Research has shown this. Because our culture lacks emotional intelligence, we are facing major challenges. It's difficult for us to feel or acknowledge our emotions. We tend to avoid things that make us uncomfortable. This is not an effective way to relate to our emotions in a climate crisis that is increasing in intensity and escalating in severity.
People are becoming more discouraged and telling themselves that it's too late to make any difference. This is a common lie about climate crisis, and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. When people tell themselves it's too late, they can start to believe that it is not possible to make a change. It becomes dangerous to deny the truth.
We need to continue this conversation to open up that false binary and allow people the freedom to explore their emotions and understand how they can be used to pro-environmental or pro-social change. You need to begin with a basic foundation: having honest conversations with people. If you are unable to connect with others, it is very difficult to reach that place of empowerment.
What impact did the pandemic have on your motivations?
When the World Health Organization declared the spread of the novel coronavirus a pandemic, I was actually at Mesa Refuge, a writing residency. The world was in lockdown so I had to leave Point Reyes Station, California, where I was staying for the residency. Although it was disorienting, I realized that there were huge parallels between the mental effects of the climate crisis on mental health and those of Covid-19. We are dealing with a global health crisis and not just a climate crisis. The common cause of this problem is our interaction with nature. Instead of learning healthy ways to integrate with nature, humans try to dominate it.
It was very generative to be writing about a pandemic, as mental health has never been discussed publicly with the same urgency, interest or collective bandwidth. The pandemic brought about a new level of attention to mental health. This was directly connected to the need for dialogues on the mental effects of climate change.
What are your top three takeaways for readers after they have finished the book?
It is healthy to recognize that feeling distressed about the climate crisis is normal. It is not a disease. It is not a mental disorder. It is a sign you care about the world around you and aren’t distracted by your unconscious defenses trying to keep you from pain and anxiety.
It is important to remember that activism does not just involve science, policy, and technology. It can also be internal. To help us deal better, there is much we can do within ourselves. We must find ways to be resilient and strong enough to participate in the collective pairing activities on the side of external activism.
It is important to have a safe place. By that I mean a safe place where you can share your feelings with others, talk authentically, and dwell in what you feel without judgement or shame. It is important to find emotionally mature people who can stand with us through the difficult stuff. From there, you can find some opportunities.
Fourth, there are many things we can do to improve our nervous system if we feel stressed out or anxious. These are all covered in the book. However, we can also expand our tolerance by using mindfulness and meditation, as well as other self-care methods that are applicable to climate distress.
It is also important to learn how to reinvest energy when we are feeling uncertain. These difficult emotions can be turned into meaningful actions that give purpose to our lives. It is essential that we are able to face the crisis each day and be present when it seems so easy to ignore. To be part of the global change-making effort that billions around the globe are trying to achieve, we must be fully present with our purposeful selves.
This interview has been edited for clarity.