By Julia Arciga
There were dance parties, DJ sets, drum classes and tutu-making workshops. Still, despite the buoyant mood it wasn’t just another festival tailor-made for glossy Instagram photos. Instead, Catharsis on the Mall, which was inspired by Burning Man and took place on the National Mall in May, had a different aim— healing. Not surprisingly part of the conversation included climate change and within 24 hours of a climate anxiety session being announced, all the seats were reserved. Amid laughter and ambient festival noise 30 people gathered in a hot tent and sat on rugs and lawn chairs to talk about their feelings of despair, depression, and anxiety.
Debbie Chang, a volunteer with the D.C. chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, led the group and said the genesis of the event came from noticing the negativity of activists around her.
“There’s not really a space, I don’t think, for people to talk about these feelings,” Chang said. “People don’t want to dwell on negative emotions, but people want to be heard and validated.”
Attendees were asked to jot down emotions they felt when thinking about climate change and elaborate within small groups. After exploring the emotions, Chang led a discussion about coping mechanisms including breathing exercises, yoga, meditation, and stretching.
As part of staying grounded in the work the group also discussed what aspects of the movement made them hopeful. In naming those hopes, they were tasked with envisioning an ideal future and to imagine the first baby step they could take towards actualizing it.
“The idea is: There’s a lot of doom-and-gloom, and it’s important to remember what it is you’re working for. I think taking a moment to envision that is motivating,” Chang said. “I think there’s a lot of research to support that visualizing that first step means people will more likely take it.”
Chang’s meetup is part of a growing movement of support spaces that have sprung up around the country. As activists seek to stay engaged they are increasingly grappling with the challenges of what has become known as climate anxiety or climate depression.
“There’s a feeling that your anxiety or your feelings are going nowhere… we’re locked in the warming, greenhouse gas will have effects for decades,” said Alex Trope, a resident physician at the University of California in San Francisco within the Department of Psychiatry. “It’s the 11th hour. People are going to feel that now.”
Trope is also a member of Climate Psychiatry Alliance, a group comprised of psychiatrists who believe that mental health is significantly impacted by the changing climate and requires more clinicians to be well-versed in the concerns of the activist community. In addition to ideas on how to take tangible and meaningful action the alliance is, working to build a list of “climate-aware therapists.”
Though Trope said professional intervention for climate anxiety might be necessary for those with “deep dysfunction,” he said finding someone who could relate could also be therapeutic.
“It’s important to find someone who can hold it with you, not crack jokes or not recognize the crisis,” he said, adding that person-to-person interaction could help counteract the “doom-and-gloom online coverage.”