This is the final part of my essay on Eco-Anxiety and Existentialism – enjoy!
Catch parts 1 & 2 here and here!
Hope and Anxiety
As mentioned in the above paragraphs, anxiety seems to be the main feature of the psychological impact of climate change. In the previous paragraphs I have shown how climate change threatens two very important parts of the structure of Dasein, namely Being-in-the-world and Being-towards-death. In this paragraph the concepts of anxiety and hope will be explored further.
When reading interviews and articles, it is clear that the main response to the facts of climate change (especially in Millennials) in anxiety. Anxiety is described in existential thought as the fear of something ‘completely indefinite’ (Heidegger, 2010, p. 180). Heidegger (2010, p. 180) continues to write that ‘anxiety “does not know” what it is anxious about’ and what is provoking the anxiety ‘is so near that it is oppressive and takes away one’s breath – and yet it is nowhere’. These are powerful words. I can see that they may reflect Eco-Anxiety. Climate change and its apocalyptic possibilities are indeed ‘nowhere’: I cannot point to climate change. I may be able to point at ‘signs’ of climate change, but not climate change in-itself. This seems to be of great importance when considering eco-anxiety.
The second point I want to make about Eco-Anxiety is that it is closely linked to Existential Anxiety from a Kierkegaardian perspective. Kierkegaard (1980, p. 61) (beautifully) writes: ‘anxiety is the dizziness of freedom…and freedom looks down into its own possibility’. I believe that this highly relevant in defining the concept of Eco-Anxiety: when a person realises that there is a monumental issue of life and death before them (not unlike existence itself) and is presented with the fact that it is their choices which will determine such issue, it is no wonder that this freedom to choose becomes almost unbearable. Many report a sense of burn-out (Fawbert, 2019) and hopelessness (IPCC, 2018). Eco-Anxiety in this sense is a manifestation of existential anxiety: the number of possibilities extends limitless, the consequences are dire. For example, we can cosider the example of driving to work: I can choose to not take the car, buy a bike, or maybe set up a carpool with other colleagues. If I choose to continue as before (driving my car to work), I am actively contributing to climate change. Every action (or non action) has its consequences.
This can be a very daunting prospects for many who are concerned with climate change. Because we are beings-towards-death, we all are concerned by climate change, but many choose to flee from the self (Heidegger, 2010) and ignore the issue at hand. In the room with our client, this issue may come to surface and as therapists we may be confronted with feelings of anxiety and hopelessness.
Ojala (2012) writes extensively on the topic of hope (and action) when dealing with Eco-Anxiety. She writes: ‘hope is indeed more than just a feel-good emotion since it also seems to be important for environmental engagement’ (Ojala, 2012, p. 635) and ‘when hope is based on denial it is not a positive phenomenon from the point of view of engagement’ (636). Ojala links hope and engagement (or action) together. If an individual does not feel that there is hope for change, they will not act. In the face of Eco-Anxiety, if the individual does not find within him/herself the hope that a shift can happen, he or she will not participate in acts of engagement. I believe that this may also closely link to Sartre’s concept of political engagement and I would also like to note that it does not relate to ‘falling into the they’ which is one Heidegger’s concepts. In fact, acts of engagement of this kind go against the they, the accepted way of doing things, the common lifeworld. Climate change activists are often treated as outsiders and a nuisance; they go against the they. Ojala (2012, p. 637) concludes that ‘when people start to do something concrete it seems as if hope is evoked by those actions themselves. Hope, in a sense, becomes embodied’.
I believe that these are key concepts when thinking of therapy. When faced with a client’s Eco-Anxiety, the first step is indeed to acknowledge said anxiety. Anxiety can be a very powerful catalyst for change and authentic living. However, it cannot stop here. It not authentic living until the client acts upon the anxiety. That is why I believe that developing a sense of hope in the room can be of great importance for the client afflicted by Eco-Anxiety.
Relevance to therapy
It has been reported (Ojala, 2012) that young adults, or the so-called ‘Millennials’, are the generational group who most suffers from eco-anxiety. In existential terms, one can note the loss of freedom to choose one’s trajectory in life due to previous generations’ mistakes and miscalculations. The facticity of the apocalyptic future awaiting the current generation was not chosen by them of course and yet they find themselves suffering and anticipating its consequences. All this has resulted in a dynamic movement of young people coming together to demand action and to provoke change.
In the previous paragraph I have noted how clients who come to therapy because of Eco-Anxiety might present existential anxiety, hopelessness and despair. Another possibility is that they might also show some existential guilt. After we have worked on exploring hopeful action, clients might still find that they are unable to fulfil their possibilities in a world whose facticity goes against their authentic beliefs. For example, Greta might come to therapy because she suffers from Eco-Anxiety and she is losing hope that world leaders will make the right choice, even though she has acted upon her beliefs. What can be done? She has indeed embraced the anxiety, found hope and acted. As a therapist, it might be important to keep exploring the possibilities available with Greta and letting her decide what else can done. However, this seems not to be enough. There might be some existential guilt hiding behind the frustration – why were her actions not enough? Is she really being authentic if what she does does not work? I believe that for Greta it might be good to explore phenomenologically her sense of responsibility (for the future), anxiety and anger (towards failure to change).
As therapists we must also be very aware that ‘culture in its many forms is always present in the clinical setting and is the context within which all experience unfolds’ (Frie, 2011, p.3) in the sense that our clients are not isolated systems. Who and what influences Greta? Furthermore, I want to make a point that the choice of approach will without doubt influence the therapeutic journey of the client. In fact, ‘a central part of what goes on in helping people…will consist in addressing questions about what constitutes the good life’ (Guignon, 2006, p. 217), which indeed will be influenced both by the client and the therapist. What if the therapist is a climate change denier?
I, as a therapist, am an ‘agent’ in the room as much as the client is. What if I do not share the sense hopefulness that the client needs? What if I fail to engage authentically? As Guignon (2006, p. 234) rightly points out, ‘as agents, then, each of us appropriates, transmits, and transmutes a sense of what is important that we have inherited from our historical tradition’. If moral values are to be at the centre of our ‘self’ and the core of our authenticity, how can we ask our clients to live authentically if the therapist fails to do so?
Lastly, I believe it necessary to highlight that eco-anxiety does not look the same for everyone. I am privileged because I live in an affluent country which has not been devasted by natural disasters caused by climate change. I might meet a client who has had to emigrate because their village was destroyed by a flood. Not all Eco-Anxiety can be neatly packaged in the same box.
In this essay, I hope to have shown how an existential approach to therapy can be beneficial to clients suffering from Eco-Anxiety. Although the term Eco-Anxiety is very new and is yet to be fully defined, I have compared it to the concept of existential anxiety and found that it can be similarly considered. Eco-Anxiety affects Daseinbecause climate change threatens both our being-in-the-world and our being-towards-death. Clients who come to therapy with Eco-Anxiety might suffer also from hopelessness, burn-out and anger. I propose that the therapist will do well to explore with the client first of all the anxiety and also the horizon of possibilities of action that are available, so as to dispel hopelessness and capitalise on the anxiety. There are many other approaches that might also be just as useful, but the non-directiveness of the person-centred approach, for example, might abandon the client in the depth of hopelessness and fail to direct them towards action.
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