The Sky is Falling: Anxiety and Activism

By Sandra Ladley

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“The sky is falling; the sky is falling” cried the anxious chick Henny Penny in the old European folktale known as Chicken Little in the United States. Alarmed, Henny Penny begins a quest to alert the king. Along the way, they share their journey and learn lessons from companion animals. In the end, Henny Penny finds out that it was (just) an acorn that bopped them on the head. The moral of the story is to have courage and keep your wits about you even when it seems like the sky is falling.

We are bombarded daily by more than acorns signaling climate change and its effects. Eco-anxiety is palpable and shared – we worry about past, present, and future harms and fear environmental catastrophes and doom. We get so anxious that we don’t want to look anymore, as satirically portrayed in the 2021 film Don’t Look Up. Waking up to the news is frightening. In just this past summer of suffering, we in the US have experienced so much: the fires in Canada and Maui, the thick smoke in New York, the rain and floods back east, and the empty apocalyptic streets of Phoenix at 120 degrees. 

Are you still reading? How can we keep looking up? What can we do?  How to cope? How to help? 

This complex and painful matter cuts close for all of us.

A colleague recently said she learned years ago that anxiety is her friend. Wow! Anxiety has a bad reputation, especially for those of us who grew up in environments that felt unsafe. To cope with our anxieties many of us developed behaviors such as hypervigilance, ruminating, obsessive compulsions, numbing, and addictions. Anxiety as an emotion is experienced as a somatic dis-ease for which you must take action. Rooted in survival, it starts as a warning in your brain that causes your sympathetic nervous system to create bodily tension. Then, we’re flooded by thoughts, and often, as the adage says, and without dissing Henny Penny, we run around in a panic like a chicken with our head cut off.  

How do you experience anxiety? How can we make friends with anxiety and use it to our benefit? 

The warnings and sensations of anxiety can be a friend to us if we respond to them with attunement. Some of us use anxiety as a source of drive, as it can help us focus and get things done. For example, I have developed procrastination habits with deadlines where I rely on my body getting into an anxious state as fuel for bursts of creativity. 

We can also start to recognize when our habits that stem from anxiety are not always a friend to us. For example, when we feel that dis-ease, how quickly do we want to do anything to make that feeling go away --- have a drink, smoke, food, or turn to social media or streaming?

In Karuna Training, we train to become familiar with the full range of our emotions, including anxiety, through meditation and embodiment practices that increase our attunement to them. As we open our hearts, we cultivate compassion toward ourselves and others.  

With eco-anxiety, we are now in a global pandemic of anxiety. It seems to be the defining characteristic of our times, affecting not just some but everyone - including people who may appear less anxious or less aware. It is especially hard for those experiencing climate change firsthand, those with the most to lose, and our young people. 

A 2021 international study of 10,000 youth aged 16-25 showed that 59% were very or extremely worried about climate change. More than 45% said that their feelings about climate change affect their daily lives and functioning. The study showed that our youth experience high anxiety around their governments’ inadequate responses to the climate crisis.

We suffer from eco-anxiety and try to discharge it in often harmful ways, whether conscious or not. We feel hopeless and lose connection to meaning in our lives. We go into paralysis and numbing. We get easily triggered based on our values and politics and go on the attack with our perceived enemies, forgetting the common ground we share. We go into denialism and ignore the truth. We doom scroll and become nihilistic. We feel powerless and hope that religion, science, or technology will save us. 

How do you tend to discharge your eco-anxiety negatively?

Last year the International Panel on Climate Change issued a “final” warning that we must act on climate change while there is still time. Changes that could have been made decades ago have still not been made. Changes ARE happening but are not being made fast enough by enough of us at work and at home. 

To make more change quickly, we need to reduce the harmful tendencies of our eco-anxiety and tap into it as a force for responsibility and action. Here are some commonly cited steps that we can take to help cope, and to contribute to change:

1) Ground yourself in the present through embodiment and connection with nature.

2) Acknowledge and be curious about your feelings. Get and offer support for doing so.

3) Limit your news intake and recognize when you are doom scrolling. Take media breaks.

4) Join a group, community, or circle working on climate change. A 2022 study of United States university students showed a positive correlation between collective action and a reduction of the adverse symptoms of eco-anxiety.

5) Use your voice! Know your government representatives; write and call them. 

6) Find out what you can do personally to have less of an adverse climate impact. Take small steps, which increases the likelihood of sticking with them. 

7) Recognize your strengths and vulnerabilities, and what you can contribute. Try not to compare yourself to others.   

8) Cultivate what is described in the Serenity Prayer: the ability to accept the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things you can, and the wisdom to know the difference. 

9)  Call on the wisdom of those you see as ancestors - who demonstrated courage when faced with adversity.

10) Resource yourself in the best ways you know how. 

What have I left off this list? What can you do to care for yourself, others, and our planet as we face this crisis? 

I hope you’ll join me online for a shared exploration of this urgent topic on Saturday, September 23rd at 10 AM MT.

Article written by Sandra Ladley

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