‘I was enjoying a life that was ruining the world’: can therapy treat climate anxiety?

(The Guardian, 12 Apr 2022) People are increasingly looking for help to deal with feelings of fear, helplessness and guilt amid the climate crisis. But can therapists make a difference and is seeking treatment just a form of denial?

Pete Knapp, 36, who lives in London, has visited North Korea, travelled overland from Kenya to Cape Town, motorcycled through Japan and Cambodia and trekked by horse through China. Until a few years ago, “I felt invincible,” he says. He had never experienced anxiety, or worried about the climate crisis.

Then, in 2019, he went to Borneo. “I remember flying in one of those small planes over a part of Borneo that used to be rainforest but is now a palm oil plantation. The whole landscape was this monoculture,” he says. He spent days trying to find orangutans in the wild, and, when he finally found the primary rainforest that remained, he saw “such depth, character, colour and variety” that he felt horrified by the “quiet, dead, grey, nothingness” replacing it. “It hammered home how our lifestyles and diets had caused so much destruction to this part of the world that is so precious. When you go to a supermarket and buy food, you don’t see the cost of it. That was the first time I saw the cost.” It marked the end of his travels and feeling of invincibility, and the beginning of what he now calls climate anxiety.

This emotional state includes feelings as varied as fear and helplessness, guilt, shame, loss, betrayal and abandonment, and it can take different shapes in each individual. Anouchka Grose, a psychoanalyst and the author of A Guide to Eco-Anxiety, How to Protect the Planet and Your Mental Health, says some patients describe staying awake all night thinking of coral reefs, bush fires and ice caps melting. Some might “walk into a shop and freak out because they suddenly see it as it is,” how “all the things in front of you are in damaging forms of packaging, freighted from goodness knows where, covered in pesticides”. In her book, someone describes looking at a friend’s take-away coffee: “It makes me sad and alarmed, imagining millions of people out there, just like him, with one throwaway plastic cup, millions of times over every day.”

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The Guardian, 12 Apr 2022: ‘I was enjoying a life that was ruining the world’: can therapy treat climate anxiety?