Blog post

Climate anxiety: How can we process our emotional responses to climate crisis?

Dr Jamie Bird, Deputy Head of the Centre for Health and Social Care Research at the University of Derby explores climate anxiety and the work he and his colleagues are doing to provide an emotional response to the climate crisis across the globe.

By Dr Jamie Bird - 23 January 2020

There is growing awareness of what we humans have done to the environment and to ourselves, which cause a mix of emotions and feelings to swirl within us and must be lived with each and every day. It requires courage and hope to carry on. Here, Dr Jamie Bird, Deputy Head of the Centre for Health and Social Care Research at the University of Derby explores climate anxiety and the work he and his colleagues at the University of Derby are doing to provide an emotional response to the climate crisis across the globe.

What is climate anxiety?

There is huge compassion and love for the planet, there is anger and rage about action and inaction, there is an overwhelming sense of responsibility (especially for parents and grandparents), there is anxiety, guilt and grief. These emotions and feelings come from the scale of what we face, where not knowing precisely how, when or where the consequences of climate change will emerge next lead to a sense of being out of control. We don’t have a blueprint of how to respond to this particular crisis.

Imagining a different place

Making sense of these feelings when alone is not easy. Myself and my colleagues at Derby have therefore been inspired to offer a space within which the spectrum of emotions arising in response to climate crisis and the effort involved in meeting that crisis can be expressed and held in a collective way.

As artists, performers and art therapists we know how useful the arts can be to bring forth that which can’t be easily spoken of, to allow one idea or image to have many meanings, and to reach backwards and forwards in time so that memory and imagination can co-exist with the present. Ideas about belonging and bridging, imagination and spirituality, regenerative culture, trauma and grief work are informing our thinking. The work of Vanessa AndreottiJoanna Macythe Deep Adaptation Forum, and the Climate Psychology Alliance have provided useful resources to draw upon.

What do these ideas look like in practice? This is slowly evolving through a process of iteration and currently includes the following elements. We have been working with small groups of people over several hours. After participants have introduced themselves and said something about their thoughts and feelings about climate crisis, we have been using an activity that is addressed at an individual level. It involves participants finding a small object, which can be either a natural object found outside, where possible, or a small object that they have on their person. Participants are asked to use chalk or pencils to create an interpretation of what they have found. This acts as a means of participants becoming grounded in the present and feeling comfortable with creative ways of working.

The main activity directs the group to start working as a collective, to express a felt response to the climate crisis. This activity also focuses on the here and now. It does not seek to solve problems or provide solutions. It provides a safe space to express feelings in a compassionate environment.

Inspired by the work of Art Refuge UK, we are making use of found and recycled materials to create images and objects that are transient and impermanent. Images and sculptures made of layered collage created without glue or tape emerge to express collective emotional responses to climate crisis. Such an approach to materials speaks to the need to value what is usually discarded or overlooked. An alternative main activity has been to use poetry and movement to explore feelings we have about the environment, with a particular emphasis upon how we might physically and empathically respond to objects that go through a process of rapid change – an ice cube for example.

Where it feels appropriate some groups choose not to move on from this activity; but where a group does choose to proceed, the final activity moves into imagining how communities might be able to respond emotionally and practically to the future as the climate crisis intensifies. The whole process therefore moves from individual feelings and responses towards the collective expression and holding of feelings and to imagined collective responses. This has proved to be especially relevant when delivering workshops within the University of Derby where staff and students have been able to imagine changes to spaces, ways of working, technology and influence.

Where next?

The hope is that groups will find a sense of belonging, a sense of bridging even, and that what comes out of the group is a set of feelings and ideas that will be of value to those who contributed and their respective communities. We have observed individuals gain a sense of not being alone with difficult feelings and of finding some solace in working collectively so that feelings of helplessness and hopelessness lessen.

Workshops outside of the University of Derby have taken place in Bakewell, Chesterfield, Wirksworth, with further workshops planned to take place in Derbyshire, Derby and Nottingham during 2020.

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About the author

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Dr Jamie Bird
Senior Lecturer in the discipline of Professional Psychological Practices

Dr Bird is based within the Health and Social Care Research Centre. His role is focused on helping to develop the College of Health and Social Care's research activity. This includes the development of funding bids, the conducting of research and the dissemination of findings. Dr Bird's research interests include art therapy, migration, domestic abuse, and climate crisis.

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