VIEW: Climate anxiety and grief are healthy feelings which can form a basis for action

Young people are particularly experiencing real stress and anxiety around climate change, with four in five Australian students recently reporting they are very anxious, and one in five saying they would not or have fewer children because of climate change. In this interview, Dr Sally Gillespie outlines how she has applied her studies and experiences with Jungian psychology to help others and publish a book on climate consciousness.

  • What is Jungian psychology and how did you initially become interested in this field?

The focus of Jungian psychology is to expand consciousness through identifying unconscious aspects of ourselves and the cultures we live within. As a therapeutic approach, it encourages us to find meaning and healing through seeing beyond our habitual thoughts, behaviours and identifications. Jungian psychological practices aim to question, observe and reflect on unknown aspects of ourselves through paying attention to dreams, body symptoms, emotional responses, fantasies and creative expressions.

Jungian psychology initially appealed to me because of my vivid dream life. In my early twenties I began recording and working with my dreams, which led me to read and attend lectures about dreams and the work of Jung. This led me into Jungian analysis and then training to become a psychotherapist.

  • How have you been applying it to the field and global issue of climate change?

As my concerns over climate change grew, I became aware that there was a strong psychological component behind climate denial and inaction. This prompted me to think about my own and other people’s reactions to climate change. My dreams also reflected climate concerns, spurring me on to deeper involvement. In 2011 I undertook PHD research and set up a research group to discuss our psychological responses to ongoing engagement with climate issues. Drawing upon Jungian perspectives, I looked for ways to bring unconscious feelings into consciousness through encouraging reflective conversations, based upon respectful listening and open-ended questions. I also invited participants to share dreams which seemed relevant to the research topic. Dream sharing allowed the group’s conversations to acknowledge difficult feelings like confusion, fear, grief and despair in ways which fostered compassion, wisdom and tolerance. What we learnt through this research process was that having the safety and space to identify and explore climate change responses, many of which were quite ambivalent or contradictory, increased our emotional resilience and motivation for action.

When something which has been felt unconsciously becomes conscious and can be explored compassionately with others, it frees minds, hearts and imaginations for change and creative action. I have continued this work through writing and facilitating community conversations and workshops on climate psychology.

  • ‘Climate anxiety’ is a growing problem and challenge, particularly for younger generations. How common or natural is it to feel overwhelmed by issues like climate change?

It is important to acknowledge that feeling anxious about climate disruption is a rational and sane response, especially given the lack of adequate climate action by Governments, nationally and internationally. Climate anxiety and grief are healthy feelings to have and are part of waking up to what is being lost and destroyed in our natural world, and the ways that this will affect our lives especially for younger generations. When this anxiety and grief can be acknowledged and shared safely, it builds empathy and connections with others while developing ecological consciousness and conscience as a basis for action.

While it is natural to feel overwhelmed at times by climate anxiety, especially when in midst of climate driven disasters such as drought and bushfires, it is neither healthy nor useful to live in a perpetual state of heightened anxiety over climate disruption, or to feel paralysed by climate anxieties. Instead we need to learn how to process and manage our climate fears, as many long term climate campaigners and scientists have learnt to do.

The emotional process of normalising and familiarising ourselves with climate anxiety acts as an antidote for feelings of numbness and apathy which frequently mask underlying or unconscious feelings of climate anxiety, grief and despair. We need to identify, discuss and digest our climate fears and sadness, at both a personal and a collective level, to become fully engaged and response-able. When we can do this, climate anxiety does not so much disappear as become a part of the landscape of our lives and our relationship to our world, which we can reflect upon and integrate over time.

  • How can someone who is experiencing this feeling of being overwhelmed shift their mindset to be more action-oriented?

Learning how to manage climate anxiety is an ongoing personal and collective process which builds social connections, develops emotional resilience and empowers action. The first step is to acknowledge how you feel and to share your feelings with others in a safe space. For anyone experiencing ongoing paralysing anxiety, it is best to seek sympathetic professional help to manage distressing anxiety symptoms. Otherwise a good strategy is to seek out others who are up for honest and respectful conversations (not debates!) about climate anxiety. This might mean initiating conversations with friends or within your existing communities, such as schools, workplaces, sporting groups or book clubs, or it might mean initiating a climate discussion group.

While people are often scared to enter into climate conversations, fearing that they will either feel overwhelmed or encounter arguments, they usually feel relieved and grateful when they can talk openly and safely about their feelings with someone who listens well. There are also supportive websites, podcasts and books that acknowledge climate anxiety and grief, while sharing inspirational personal stories that support connection and action.

Secondly, monitor how much time you spend viewing climate media reports as this can be traumatising. Once you accept the basic climate science it is best to focus on collective climate action rather than fall into repeated reading of distressing reports on your own.

Thirdly, prioritise emotional wellbeing through maintaining self-care and social networks. For climate action to be sustainable and enjoyable, as it needs to be, individuals and campaign groups need to foster social connection and support through activities such as regular check ins, mindfulness practices, bushwalks or group dinners. Additionally always choose a form of action that excites you and aligns with your talents and interests, while also making time for fun activities not related to climate action. Just as our ecosystems need restorative attention and space, so do we!


About the expert

Dr Sally Gillespie facilitates workshops on climate psychology and ecopsychology and is the author of Climate Crisis and Consciousness: Re-imagining our world and ourselves, available online and in all good bookstores.


Image description: Headshot of Dr Sally Gillespie from the shoulders up. She wears a navy blue top, gold necklace and glasses. She is smiling and standing in a garden, surrounded by trees and plants.