Why facing our feelings is essential for tackling our climate crisis

Thirty years ago, I sat in a darkened lecture hall listening to what was happening to our Earth because of the decisions people had made. Climate change, toxic contamination, species loss, forest fires, soil depletion: it was a litany of all the ways humans had gone very wrong. At least, that’s how it felt to me, at age 19. Human behavior was directly influencing the globe’s weather patterns. It was almost unthinkable.
Apparently, it was so unthinkable for those around me — that people were literally not thinking about it.
Meanwhile, my world was turned upside down, forcing me to reassess almost everything — how I traveled, what I ate, wore, what I drank out of, slept in, even put on my face — surprisingly intimate things. It also made me think about who I was in the world, and who I wanted to be. I did not identify as a scientist, activist or “radical.” Yet, at that time, those seemed to be the only people who understood our lethal and dangerous trajectory.
I tried talking with other people about it. I wanted to understand what I was feeling, and why others seemed somehow immune. Was it grief? Was it a unique, new kind of anxiety? A crisis of “epistemic trust” — the helplessness Dr. Daniel Siegel calls when the world no longer seems trustworthy?
It was all of the above. Yet at that time, not many people wanted to talk about it. This is now changing. And that’s a good thing, because it’s the ticket to our collective survival.
As we face a global pandemic, tornadoes march across our country, forests burn, waters rise and warm, corals bleach, jungles disappear, floods decimate entire regions, and storms devastate coastlines. More and more people are feeling overwhelmed, anxious and despairing. And here’s the thing: we really need to be talking about this. Openly, without judgment, shame, blame, guilt or “emotional policing.”
We are seeing huge numbers of people starting to bravely name their feelings, openly: I am scared. I feel overwhelmed. I feel powerlessness. I feel angry. Such as Hugh, who struggles with anxiety and wrote into CNN before the climate town hall, “I’ve been losing sleep after reading a report that talks about how climate change could lead to the collapse of civilization by 2050.” A few years ago, this comment would have seemed extreme. This is no longer the case. It just hasn’t been acknowledged as openly — until now. And that’s a very good thing, especially in this uncertain, anxious and precarious time.
We are all seeking meaning at a time of such radical uncertainty and upheaval. And so the talking heads come out: we should prepare for an apocalypse, mobilize, activate, solve problems, come together, dialogue, innovate, grieve, cry or simply check out.
But we’re missing a crucial step. We need to name and acknowledge our feelings; if we don’t, we can’t move forward.
As neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux reminds us, “Body hormones, such as cortisol, help us cope with stress. But as with any useful chemical, you can have too much of a good thing. Prolonged, intense stress can raise the levels of cortisol beyond the point where they are useful and can impair memory processing and decision making systems that normally help us be effective amidst uncertainty and change. If we can keep our stress at levels that are useful rather than harmful, we can help ourselves and others be in the zone where we are able to use memory and foresight to cope with the situation. But because we are each different, we each have a unique tipping point.”
The question is, how we can do this, particularly when the stakes are so high. Psychologists have a term, “self-regulation” — ways we can keep our stress levels in a zone that enables us to be functional, proactive, agile and resilient.
“It requires huge self-regulation to contemplate and open our minds to apprehend the edges of these massive issues,” said neuroscientist Sarah Peyton, author of “Your Resonant Self.” This would include climate change, the pandemic, the economy, who we were pre-Covid-19 and who we are now becoming. “No wonder people get their fuses blown: being asked to take action, mourn, engage, with something so big.”
When anxiety or being overwhelmed hits, we can move outside of our “window of tolerance.” Siegel describes this “window” as the optimal zone of arousal where we are able to manage and thrive in everyday life, despite the ups and downs. On the one end, when stressed we can go into a “rigid” response, which may look like despair or depression, or a more “chaotic” mode of agitation and rage. Often we ricochet between, bouncing around based on how well we can cope with these stressors.
here are many things we can do — individually, socially and collectively — to move us into our window of tolerance. We are all doing them every day: walking, playing with our pets, cooking meals, joking around with our friends. We can also try calming practices like deep breathing and meditation known to powerfully change our stress levels. And, what truly helps us all, is our ability to open up, be honest, and have candid, compassionate conversations with those who feel similarly or who are open to listening.
Many of us are afraid that we’ll get pulled down into a black hole if we call out pain, guilt and shame that arises when we recognize that we are responsible for some big things going wrong, and that we are now reaping what we’ve sown. But in fact, it’s exactly the opposite.
Compassionately naming our emotions actively decreases activity in the amygdala, as cognitive scientist Golnaz Tabibnia and her team have discovered in their groundbreaking work. Or what Siegel calls “name it to tame it.”
Each of us need to support this kind of public global climate conversation. And it starts with, “of course.”
Of course you feel sad. Of course you have anxiety and are waking up at night. Of course you are worried about your kids and family. Of course you feel deep concern for all of humanity right now. Of course you feel angry but are not sure why. Of course you are wondering where leadership is. Of course you are grieving for the losses that are happening and will continue. Of course you feel energized to show up as fully as you can. Of course you care.
Saying “of course” to ourselves, first, and to each other as a regular practice, gives us permission to show up as our full, effective selves by first acknowledging the validity, complexity and intensity of the feelings. When leaders, influencers and each of us does this, we are saying, “You are not alone. I am here with you. Let’s figure this out together.”
What this looks like in practice — whether in UN meetings, your online conversations, news coverage or a presidential candidate debate stage — is having the courage and bravery to actively acknowledge and affirm what many are feeling but not giving voice to.
Of course this is a terrifying moment. These issues seem intractable and overwhelming. Of course it’s hard to even contemplate. Of course no one wants this to be happening, and everyone wishes it wasn’t.
The bottom line is that we are all so much more capable of showing up as our most active, hard-working, brilliant, creative, loving and generous selves, when our experience is being part of something bigger than ourselves. That we are not alone — which at this moment we are most certainly, clearly not. When we feel that we matter, our voices and experiences count — no matter how messy or complicated or dark or hopeful. We can all help each other, and our beautiful and suffering planet right now, by starting with saying to one person or a whole cast of thousands, “Of course you feel that way.” Of course. SOURCE

Renée Lertzman Ph.D. is a climate psychologist, researcher and strategist, focusing on individual and collective action on our climate and environmental crises.

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