The following is an excerpt from KUOW’s new podcast, terrestrial, which explores the choices we make in a world we have changed. Subscribe to the show. And let’s talk about climate change — what to do about it and how to live with it — together via our Facebook group.
As the effects of climate change and pollution get worse, psychologists say it’s heightening our stress levels. So much so that we're developing anxiety disorders, PTSD, depression and even problems with substance abuse.
A recent study from the American Psychological Association found there are significant mental health impacts from longer-term climate change. There’s also evidence that low-income communities and people of color experience it most. Take Hurricane Katrina. Among a sample of people affected, suicide or suicidal ideation more than doubled. And according to the study, 49 percent developed an anxiety or mood disorder such as depression.
When an environmental crisis hits, the first impulse for many is to hide from it in any way possible. Yet that won't make us feel any better about it.
Chris Jordan is a filmmaker who lives in Seattle. He created a documentary about Laysan albatross, a seabird that nests on a remote sliver of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean called Midway Atoll.
Here's the devastating thing about these albatrosses: because of the plastic pollution we put into the ocean, their bodies are filled with the stuff. As soon as Jordan learned about the birds, he felt a magnetic pull to visit. He ended up traveling to Midway Atoll eight times. And what he experienced throughout the process is a perfect example of how facing such issues head on actually helps our brain process it all.
As he went around the island cutting open the stomachs of dead birds on that first trip, Jordan pulled out piece after piece of plastic: slivers of containers and packaging, cigarette lighters, firecracker casings, even syringes with the needles still attached.
"Pretty soon we realized... the amounts of plastic in many of these birds is just so astonishing. It's like a quart of plastic inside a bird whose stomach is supposed to be the size of a ping pong ball," he told us. "... Mostly I would open up a bird and take out a handful of bottle caps, and I would just dissolve into tears of grief."
Jordan documented everything he saw along the way. But when he came home from that trip, he sank into a year of depression.
"I was in a state of overwhelm and hopelessness," he said. "I felt like I was too small to make a difference. I smoked way too much cannabis. I would be here in my studio and spend a lot of time on the Internet."
Watch Chris Jordan's short film, MIDWAY a Message from the Gyre
When we see images like that — or read news about how dire our environmental future looks — it activates a specific part of our brains. It’s called the amygdala: an almond sized cluster of neurons that senses when we’re threatened. It triggers the “fight or flight” response. But the problem is that there is nowhere we can flee to, no way we can fight and immediately resolve problems like plastic in the ocean, or climate change. So we feel anxious and depressed.
Jordan says it was only after returning to Midway several times that he was able to start to see the whole picture: how these birds live, and how they die. And something surprising happened to him during that process. He still felt the grief he’d been feeling before but he says facing it actually allowed the grief to roll through him, resulting in a feeling he described as ecstasy.
"Grief is the love we feel for something we're losing or that is suffering," Jordan said. "It brings us so deeply into the present moment and it connects us with our love for whatever that thing is."
He’s anxious about where things are headed, and what people are doing to the planet. He says he tries to do his part but he doesn’t kid himself about the severity of the environmental challenges we all face.
"For me, it's important to not kind of pacify myself or convince myself that I'm doing enough... I want to feel my anxiety," he said.
Because addressing that anxiety is the first step to moving beyond it and getting to work.
What do you do when you’re feeling anxious or down about where things are headed on this planet? How do you cope with bad news about the environment? What makes you feel better? Head over to our Facebook group and share your thoughts.