Everywhere you look in the news, it is full of doom and gloom when it comes to the future of our planet and our environment: climate change, environmental destruction, animal species going extinct, sea levels rising, rainforests burning - and all of it seems to be getting worse every day. You are thinking about the future of humanity and about what kind of life your kids will have when they are your age, and you are starting to feel climate anxiety, fear or maybe even panic.
Does this sound familiar to you? If so, what I want to tell you is this: There is nothing wrong with you if you are feeling fear and anxiety when thinking about climate change. In fact, you feeling climate anxiety is a sign that your human brain is working perfectly fine and exactly as it has been designed to do. Let me explain.
How our human brain works in the face of the climate crisis
Emotions are vibrations of energy that originate in our brain and move from our brain into and through our body. The fact that our emotions originate in our brain plays a crucial role. Our brain is divided into a primitive, „animal“ part and a more sophisticated, „human“ part, operating on the basis of an evolutionary programming from thousands of years ago designed to secure our survival as a species. Our brains are programmed to seek pleasure, avoid pain and do both with the least amount of energy expenditure possible. This means that our brain constantly tries to move us away from any actual or potential danger to our physical survival or integrity and keep us safely ensconced in the warmth, familiarity and coziness of our comfort zone. In order to be able to do that, our brain is permanently scanning our surroundings for anything that is unknown, potentially uncomfortable or dangerous and will, when in doubt, classify everything as a potential danger. And as soon as our brain identifies a danger, its „animal“ part will instinctively move into flight-flight-freeze-fawn mode, producing anxiety and fear as a default reaction to keep us safe.
So, if you are feeling climate anxiety, this is a sign that your brain is working perfectly fine and exactly as it was designed to.
Why the evolutionary programming of our brain is a problem
But the problem is that, unfortunately, our brain has not yet updated this stone age programming of feeling fear by default to the needs and challenges of our modern times. Feeling fear has kept us alive as a species, it has gotten us to where we are now in our human evolution and it still serves us in genuinely dangerous, physically threatening situations. However, today, there are very few things in our lives that pose an immediate physical threat to our lives, that we genuinely need to be afraid of in order to secure our survival right this moment. In fact, most things we are afraid of today are either not dangerous at all - such as doing something we have never done before - or may only be dangerous at some point in the future. Nevertheless, our brain´s programming kicks in not only in moments of actual, immediate physical danger, but also in instances of potential future danger.
Let´s take the example of climate change. There may be instances when our physical survival is under immediate threat due to climate change - for example, when we find ourselves in the middle of a forest fire or flood. But there are other (probably far more numerous) instances when we are not physically threatened, for example when we are sitting on our sofa at home and reading news about forest fires or floods happening in other parts of the world, but are still feeling the emotional reaction of climate anxiety as if we were actually in danger. This is because our „animal“ brain is kicking in instinctively and not rationally differentiating between a real, momentary and a potential future danger to our survival.
Today, this evolutionary programming is exactly our problem when it comes to tackling climate change: In order to deal with this crisis, feeling fear by default doesn't serve us, because fear paralyzes us and prevents us from taking action. In fact, most of what we don't do in our life today is because of fear. However, the work that we need to do today to prevent or alleviate the worst impacts of the climate crisis requires something different from us than going into knee-jerk panic mode and scurrying back into the “cave”, hiding in inaction within our comfort zone. We've gotten to a different point in our human evolution - one where feeling fear by default does not serve us anymore. And what got us to where we are today will not get us to where we need to go.
How we can overcome this programming to take climate action
Therefore, if we want to address the climate crisis and secure a livable future for humanity on planet Earth, we need to evolve to the next level of our human development. We need to do that by flipping our brain´s evolutionary programming of seeking pleasure, avoiding pain and conserving energy on its head: Instead of seeking pleasure, we need to delay gratification and keep going, even when it is uncomfortable. Instead of avoiding pain, we need to learn how to embrace and process negative emotion. And instead of conserving energy, we need to learn how to generate energy and motivation for sustained action from within ourselves. Ironically, in order to survive as a species, we need to overcome our brain´s programming for survival.
So, whenever you find yourself starting to feel eco-anxiety, fear and panic with regards to climate change, notice how you want to hide or distract yourself from the emotion. Don’t give in to that, stay present with it. And then take a minute and think about what exactly you are afraid of. Think about whether the fear you feel is actually serving you today, keeping you alive in this present moment. Ask yourself „Is this fear actually protecting me? Do I need it to stay alive right this moment?” And if not, acknowledge the fear, allow it to be there, accept it as part of your human experience and then take action regardless.
Imagine what your life would be like if you were not afraid anymore - what would you be doing right now, what would you be creating?
About Katharina Hellmann:
Katharina is a Certified Life Coach and Climate Change Coach. After reading in the 2018 IPCC report that humanity had a mere 12 years left to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, she became crippled with climate anxiety, questioning everything including her dream to have a family. It was only after she found life coaching that she learned about the true cause of our emotions, how to deal with them in a healthy way and how to transform our minds to create the change we want to see in the world. By applying the tools that she now teaches to herself, she shook off her paralysis, slashed her carbon footprint without giving up on quality of life and joined the fight against the climate crisis. And she became a Life Coach for the sole purpose of putting the most powerful tools she has ever encountered into the hands of people who want to change the world for the better. Today, she helps eco-conscious people overcome climate anxiety, build emotional resilience and take effective and empowered climate action their way. In this decisive decade for the future of humanity, doing what we have always done will only get us more of the same. Lasting change, both in our own lives and in the world, starts with changing how we think, feel and behave. And we can only be of help to ourselves, to others and to the planet if we are at our full mental and emotional capacity.