The monarch butterfly, known for its distinctive orange color, is now on the verge of extinction. Numbering in the millions in the 1980s, the monarch population has been in steep decline thanks to habitat loss, pesticide use, and climate change. So, in fall 2020, when I spied several monarch caterpillars feasting on a neighbor’s milkweed plant, I excitedly pointed them out to my young daughters. We soon noticed the caterpillars inching their way toward a neighbor’s garage door, where they spun chrysalises, preparing to transform.
They’d arrived at an uncertain time, two months after we’d woken up to a sky made orange by wildfire smoke, and at the beginning of the third COVID-19 surge in the U.S. I drew something altogether human from their presence: The world may be chaotic and unforgiving, but survival is still possible because nature insists on it.
We walked by each day, anticipating empty cocoons. But the days turned to weeks and the butterflies remained locked inside their husks. They would never emerge.
The monarchs hanging delicately before us never had a shot.
In early December, looking for answers, I read about scientists tracking the monarch butterfly population. A yearly volunteer count found fewer than 2,000 monarchs, a figure that puts them closer to extinction. When I contacted one of the researchers with my own anecdote and asked if the butterflies’ demise might be related to climate change, the expert said that while nature is full of “small failures,” it’s also possible that warmer temperatures confused the female caterpillar into laying eggs too late in the season. In that scenario, the monarchs hanging delicately before us never had a shot.
I was crestfallen. I couldn’t bear the idea of my children growing up without monarch butterflies — or how that shift mirrors the catastrophes small and large happening on our planet because of climate change. With no way to meaningfully cope with that anxiety and grief, particularly during the bleak winter COVID-19 surge, I left those feelings to idle and fester. Of course, these emotions resurface stronger and more powerful each time I learn of ice sheets melting, heat domes forming, and wildfires blazing.
Burying negative emotions is commonplace in a culture that discourages pessimism about the future. It’s hard to be the downer who talks about a world that could turn apocalyptic in a few short decades. What makes that conversation doubly difficult is the feeling that individual action can seem futile when politicians hedge their bets and refuse to act, whittling away the precious time we have left to stop releasing carbon into the earth’s atmosphere. We are led to believe that our pain belongs to us alone, when in fact the systems we live in — a government and economy built for the wealthy — create the conditions for our suffering.
Yet, as I’ve learned recently, this cycle of reckoning with our rapidly changing planet, feeling overwhelmed by powerlessness, and then living in some form of denial or avoidance isn’t inevitable.
Experts who study mental health and climate change say there are ways to cope with emotions and experiences that can be otherwise debilitating. The goal is to calm the body and mind, make meaning out of confusion and tragedy, and transform our own understanding of what the future may hold so that we can act in meaningful ways, individually and collectively.
“Presencing” and “purposing”
This April, the weather in western Oregon, where Bob Doppelt lives, was an unseasonably warm 85 degrees. Doppelt is trained in counseling psychology and environmental science, and coordinates the International Transformation Resilience Coalition, a project of the The Resource Innovation Group. The nonprofit focuses on creating capacity and resiliency for climate traumas.
The heat wave prompted a Red Flag Warning, a sign that a wildfire could erupt quickly. Traditionally, major blazes aren’t a threat until autumn, when the ground is parched. But a massive drought in the western U.S. changed the equation. After fires destroyed homes and small towns in western Oregon the previous fall, the prospect of a similar tragedy loomed.
Such events elicit the kind of stress, dread, and grief that Doppelt counts as its own crisis. He believes two concepts — presencing and purposing — are essential to coping with these experiences.
Presencing is the act of bringing the body out of its fight-or-flight or freeze modes, states of fear and panic induced by a severe stressor. When the body releases cortisol and adrenaline to facilitate a fight-or-flight response, it’s supposed to help someone flee a wildfire, for example. People can freeze when they’re overwhelmed. The body can also be plunged into a high-alert state, or become low-functioning, even if there’s no immediate action to take. When that happens, it can be challenging to find calm again if we don’t possess the skills to do so.
Doppelt wants people to develop the awareness to identify these dynamics by observing them. Then he wants them to use self-regulation skills to coax the parasympathetic nervous system back online. This network of neurons manages the body’s ability to “rest and digest.”
When you tame the stress response, it can lead to making wiser decisions about what to do next.
Doppelt recommends techniques like coherent breathing, a rhythmic exercise, and body scanning, which involves noticing physical sensations like heat, tingling, or warmth. When the brain focuses on unpleasant feelings, Doppelt says to shift attention to pleasant or neutral sensations. These techniques can slow the body’s heart rate and restore a sense of calm. Other skills include creating art or music and engaging in high-energy activities like dance or movement, which provide an opportunity for the body to recalibrate and release feel-good hormones like endorphins and dopamine. Similarly, connecting with a loved one can push oxytocin into the body, which is why Doppelt recommends tapping into emotional or practical support from friends and family as an antidote to climate-related angst. When you tame the stress response, Doppelt says, it can lead to making wiser decisions about what to do next.
“You’re trying to learn skills to hold the distress in a way that allows you to continue to function well,” he adds.
Presencing can be followed by purposing, or using the painful experience to clarify your values, find new sources of meaning, and seize realistic hope. Most find their purpose by working with others to help people, animals, or the natural world, says Doppelt. This enhances well-being while also creating key relationships that help you and others determine together how to respond to climate change. Doppelt highly recommends starting or participating in community organizing efforts focused on improving people’s capacity for psychological wellness and resilience.
“Building community coalitions…is really the most powerful thing we can do right now to help ourselves and also help the environment,” he says.
Feel, talk, unite, act
When I spoke with Andrew Bryant, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Seattle, he’d just experienced an unprecedented heat wave. An extreme weather phenomenon known as a heat dome had blanketed the temperate Pacific Northwest, sending temperatures into the triple digits and potentially causing hundreds of sudden deaths. Scientists have linked heat domes to human-caused warming.
Bryant, who counsels people with mental health issues connected to climate change and runs the online resource Climate & Mind, spent those four days trying to stay cool with his family. That meant watching movies in their basement with fans blasting, visiting a family member with a pool, and retreating to the beach in the evenings.
“Emotionally it was very distressing,” says Bryant, describing the combination of enduring the heat itself, grieving over how his hometown environment will likely change as a result of climate change, and imagining how the severe heat physically and psychologically impacted vulnerable people who aren’t housed or can’t seek respite in cooler settings like a pool or beach.
When treating clients grappling with such complex emotions, Bryant uses an approach he calls “feel, talk, unite, act.” Often people sense their fear, dread, or grief, and either go deep into denial or skip straight to action in order to cope with the enormity of their feelings. But both tactics can backfire. People avoiding their feelings may make well-meaning choices that don’t align with their abilities, passions, or values. Those who choose action may set themselves on a path to exhaustion. Think, for example, of the bystander turned activist who uses their fear as fuel to lobby their neighbors and elected officials but ignores the underlying emotions and burns out.
Instead, Bryant recommends identifying the feelings, like anger, guilt, hopelessness, frustration, and sadness.
“It’s really important to let ourselves feel those feelings and not judge them or push them away,” he says. “Because those are under the surface and they’re going to be steering our actions and behaviors, either consciously or unconsciously.”
Talking about these feelings with others, including a friend, family member, colleague, or therapist, can relieve stress and decrease loneliness and anguish. These conversations don’t need to be comprehensive. Even casually mentioning what you’re experiencing can yield important benefits.
Once you’ve followed the first two steps — feeling and talking — then think about finding like-minded people who are leading interesting efforts to stop climate change and repair its effects. That could be participating in climate activism or an environmental advocacy group, joining a Climate Café discussion group, or supporting a local tree-planting or trail restoration initiative. The important part is to build relationships with other people. These bonds will help sustain you during climate-related traumas and disasters. With that foundation in place, you can act in meaningful ways to reduce and mitigate climate change, and know how to manage the emotional volatility, pressure, and high expectations that can cause people to spiral and lose sight of their goals.
“I try not to focus on a specific catastrophic vision.”
Bryant believes it’s critical to acknowledge the reality of your fears. In general, when people catastrophize about the future, therapists invite them to evaluate their emotions in accordance with what’s really happening in their life. With climate change, however, there are immediate reasons to feel anxious and terrified, particularly when you’re experiencing an extreme weather event. Bryant tries to balance this truth against the fact that he can’t definitively know what the future holds.
“We know what’s happening, but there’s a lot depending on factors that haven’t been decided yet,” he says. “I try not to focus on a specific catastrophic vision.”
That approach frees up space to acknowledge your feelings rather than get mired in hypothetical scenarios. This framework led to my own realization during the middle of our interview. When I imagine the world my daughters will inherit, I frequently panic and shut down, envisioning something akin to scenes from Mad Max. Instead of forecasting doom, I can look inward and build the emotional and psychological resilience I will need as their parent to help them adapt to and navigate a climate in which droughts, extreme weather, and climate migration may define their lives.
Talking with Bryant also helped me understand the importance of surrendering the idea that my daughters’ lives would be better than my own. In the history of human civilization, a tiny fraction of people have enjoyed the reassurance and hopefulness this myth offers, but it is just that — a myth. I can acknowledge the privilege of being one of those people, grieve losing the illusion, and instead work toward building a healthier planet and more equitable world. After all, our fate isn’t written yet.
As Bryant pointed out, there will be days when something falls above or below my “window of tolerance,” or my capacity for coping with difficult emotions. Something above that window, like wildfire smoke that keeps us trapped in our house for days, will elicit panic, fear, or anxiety. An event below it, like unsurprising news about heat records, and I might disengage or check out because climate change seems inescapable.
“This isn’t easy,” he says. “It shouldn’t be easy because it’s a terrible situation.”
Finding meaning in the darkest situations
Dr. Britt Wray, Ph.D., who lives in the Bay Area and is accustomed to the growing threat of drought, wildfire, and extreme heat, believes climate change has called us to act swiftly and dramatically. While the scale of this challenge is daunting, Wray says it can be met if we rethink our assumptions about what the moment requires.
“There is a way of finding meaning even in the darkest of situations that humans have exemplified again and again,” says Wray, a postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Medicine Center for Innovation in Global Health, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, & London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Centre on Climate Change and Planetary Health, as well as author of the Gen Dread newsletter. “We’re being asked to do that now, but all together.”
Even if the distress we feel about climate change prompts us to tune out or feel despondent, Wray says it’s actually providing us with valuable information about what we treasure. When we receive that message, it can train our attention on what matters, giving us purpose and the ability to move forward. That doesn’t mean ignoring the anguish in favor of action. Rather, Wray says overlaying your pain and traumatic climate-related experiences with your talents can create a “really empowering space.” She cites as an example a group of Australian accountants who, anxious about climate change, decided to apply their professional skills to the pursuit of a more sustainable future by reconsidering how practices like corporate reporting and financial risk management can reflect our changing priorities.
Being in the position to grapple with these experiences in the first place is a “justice” issue, says Wray. People need the time and space to reckon with climate change, which often isn’t an option when they’re running from job to job trying to earn enough to live. Communities of color are depleted by economic injustice, and yet, because of their long histories facing institutional and personal discrimination, are also home to immense resilience.
“It is true that when enough of us do it, we do start tipping the scales.”
Like Doppelt and Bryant, Wray advocates for increasing personal resiliency as much as possible, and taking collective action. Pairing the two is essential, because one without the other leaves us less prepared to cope with the trials ahead while reducing our ability to prevent and respond effectively to climate change.
Instead of feeling defeated by the failures of leadership in government and business, Wray recommends banding together with others to fight for local changes, like planting trees in communities with so-called heat islands. Such partnerships would have profound co-benefits by mitigating climate threat; increasing people’s ability to relax in cooler, shaded neighborhoods; and easing stress and anxiety. What seem like small actions in a community can have a powerful effect.
The social cohesion that results from community organizing can also have long-lasting, positive implications. Wray says some research suggests that high social capital and connectedness yields increased trust and cooperation in the wake of a disaster, which can lead to better mental health outcomes.
“Even though it never feels like enough when you’re doing it at first, recognize that [it] creates a sphere of influence,” says Wray, of small-scale actions. “It is true that when enough of us do it, we do start tipping the scales.”
As for my family, we decided to plant milkweed in our backyard to provide shelter and sustenance for monarch butterflies. It is minor compared to the other choices we make, like avoiding purchasing new items, walking when possible, and supporting policies that reduce carbon emissions, but it is an enduring reminder that not all is lost.