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Chasing Life

Did you know that some people can taste colors and others have a hard time recognizing faces? This season on Chasing Life, Dr. Sanjay Gupta takes listeners beyond the basics of sight, sound, smell, taste and touch to explore unique sensory experiences. Discover why psychedelics might change your worldview, how animals perceive differently than humans, and how biases in taste might impact the future of food production.

Join us each week to marvel at how the rich landscape of sensory perception shapes our understanding of the world.

Dr. Sanjay Gupta

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Climate Anxiety is Real
Chasing Life
Aug 9, 2022

Climate change has long been an existential threat, but for many young people, government inaction and increasing natural disasters are now taking a mental toll. Psychologists describe this phenomenon as climate anxiety, or ecological grief. On this episode, Dr. Sanjay Gupta talks to climate researcher Britt Wray, and climate activist and writer adrienne maree brown, about how to deal with climate anxiety and ways of finding joy amidst the darkness. 

You can find more of adrienne maree brown’s writing here

As well as some of the resources mentioned at the end of the episode:  

Gen Dread Newsletter

Good Grief Network

Climate Cafes

Episode Transcript
adrienne maree brown
00:00:02
Oh yeah. I definitely have climate anxiety. Sometimes I might even say I have climate despair, you know?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:00:10
That's adrienne maree brown, a social and environmental justice activist and author of "Emergent Strategy," a book about shaping our relationship with the changing earth.
adrienne maree brown
00:00:22
After I had been organizing for like 15 years, I was feeling very hopeless. You know, I was just like, I don't understand how we get ourselves into a formation that can survive.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:00:34
adrienee has been an activist for decades. It's a constant uphill battle without a finish line.
adrienne maree brown
00:00:39
I think a lot of what happens with climate anxiety is people are like, we can't even possibly win. It's all too big. There's no chance to engage. So I just have to sit here being anxious with no way out.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:00:52
adrienne says the anxiety has affected their life choices, including their decision not to have children or even live in a place they love.
adrienne maree brown
00:01:00
If it was in my heart that I was the only one making the decision, I'm pretty sure I would live in New Orleans. Right? It calls to me. But climate anxiety, I think, is too overwhelming for me to live in a place where I'm like, Oh, the level of crisis that happens here is so intense. And I think that's happening for more and more people.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:01:19
And the thing is, adrienne's anxiety isn't an overreaction. It is a natural and rational response to what is happening.
adrienne maree brown
00:01:28
You know, we always know that the future is uncertain, but there's something about having all the data we currently have that it's like the uncertainty is just how bad it's going to be and how we'll survive it because we're making it more and more certain that it's going to be difficult, it's going to be devastating, that we're going to create unlivable conditions for more and more people.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:01:52
I don't need to tell you the global climate is in a dire situation at the moment. Even as we're working on this episode, parts of the world are going through a historic heatwave, and that's a really scary thought. Many people like adrienne are worried about this all the time, and it's creating a new mental health crisis, especially among younger folks. In a recent survey of 10,000 young people around the world, more than 50% of them said they believe all the things they value most will be destroyed. So in this episode, we'll take a look at climate anxiety, what it is, how it's impacting our mental health, and how we cope with the realities of our changing planet. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's chief medical correspondent. It's time to start chasing life.
Samara
00:02:45
Hi. This is Samara. I'm 14. I'm from California. And just like the thought of, like, the world crumbling on itself, it freaks me out a lot. I'm constantly thinking about it.
Keaton
00:02:57
Hi. My name's Keaton. I'm 17. I'm from Norman, Oklahoma. So for the past year-ish has had a lot of climate anxiety. What causes so much anxiety for me is just seeing that we're not doing stuff about it and it kind of makes you think that you're crazy. And it's like wait, it's real and it's scary. So why aren't we doing something about it?
Arwyn
00:03:18
Hi, my name is Arwyn Revere. I, I'm a 16 year old high school student from Kailua, Hawaii. And a lot of my friends and I have been experiencing what we're now calling climate change burnout out. Funnily enough, there's a lot of people now who are dropping out of climate activism because they don't know how to keep going like this. It almost feels like it's one step forward, three steps back.
Maher
00:03:44
Hi, my name is Maher, I'm 19, I'm from Illinois. I am very frightened. I feel between hope and struggle and optimism and pessimism.
Britt Wray
00:03:57
Climate anxiety is alarmingly prevalent, even for those of us who think about it professionally.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:04:06
That's Britt Wray, a human and planetary health fellow at Stanford University and author of the book "Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis." Today, she's a climate activist and an expert in the mental health effects of climate change. But she wasn't always. In fact, her transition to climate work started out as a personal project.
Britt Wray
00:04:30
I had long been concerned about the climate and biodiversity crisis. Having studied conservation biology in university and been an environmental reporter and science communicator. But a handful of years ago, these feelings became far more intimate and deep and personal and challenging, when I started considering with my partner whether or not we wanted to try and have a baby. And I no longer felt that that was the wisest thing to do or the most compassionate thing to do, given what climate predictions were coming across my desk when I was not seeing rapid, swift action from power holders. So then I realized I had what is called climate anxiety, eco anxiety, eco distress, grief about what's being lost. And I had never put words to these feelings before, but they became quite overwhelming. And I needed a way to navigate them. And I thought, well, I am surely not the only one feeling this way. Let's do some research and figure out what the psychological impacts of the climate crisis are for other people. And that's why the book was written in the first place.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:05:46
What is climate anxiety? How do you describe that to someone?
Britt Wray
00:05:50
Climate anxiety is really an umbrella term for a variety of challenging emotions that a person can experience when confronting the climate crisis. When really taking on the severity of its implications, what it implies about the impaired security and safety of future generations. And the anxiety, of course, is one of these emotions that people often report. But it also includes things like grief about what's being lost, fear, of course, worry, anger about the costs of historical inaction on the climate. Rage about climate injustice, and how the communities that have long been the most marginalized and oppressed are also those who are paying the costs hardest and first, particularly black and brown communities and those who have been colonized.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:06:53
How prevalent do you think this is?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:06:56
In a study that my colleagues and I did of 10,000 young people in ten countries around the world India, Nigeria, the Philippines, Brazil, UK, U.S., Finland and some others. And what we learned was that 45% of these global respondents told us that their feelings about the climate crisis are disrupting their ability to function. So get through the day with normal tasks, eating and sleeping and going to work and hanging out with friends and enjoying yourself and being able to concentrate. Those types of things are being impaired by the emotional toll that comes with awareness of climate change. Now, 75% of these young people said that the future is frightening. 56% said that they feel that humanity is doomed as a result of this topic. The most prevalent emotions reported were being anxious and sad and angry. And these results were more pronounced in some of the most vulnerable countries. So in Nigeria, in the Philippines, in India, the disruption to daily functioning was much higher, closer to 74% of the populations in those countries. And so what we're talking about is a very serious issue, which is robbing young people of not only their joy, but their well-being. We found that these emotions, they're really tightly correlated with a sense of being betrayed by governments and lied to by leaders because they're not doing all that can be done. They're knowingly not doing all that can be done. And that sense of moral injury can have a huge impact on one's sense of hope, on what could emerge in the future. And it can really rip away at resilience because it leaves one feeling isolated and alienated in a damaging status quo. While young people are often being told that they are the hope for the future, young people say, often, how on earth can you put all your hope in us when this is a time bound problem and we are not yet even old enough to take up office or to vote? We don't have the power. We feel like our hands are tied. So please stop offloading your hope on to us and create the hope yourself by taking action or stand with us and we can do it together.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:09:26
Wow. You know, they have every right to be anxious. Right? I mean, my kids are born into two wars, two recessions, a constant sort of albatross of climate change around their necks. And and then this pandemic, obviously, over the last couple of years. No wonder there's such existential anxiety. Right? I have three daughters. My middle daughter was this daughter who she would always talk about. This is what I want to do when I grow up. I want to be an architect. I'm going to marry, get married at such and such age. I want to have this number of kids and blah, blah, blah. And one day at dinner, a few years ago, we're sitting there talking and I said, So Sky, that's her name. Sky. How are the plans going for, you know, the rest of your life? It's not happening anymore, she said. So why not? Well, it was not that long after the climate change report had come out, and her interpretation and the interpretation that, you know, she was hearing in school was kind of like, what difference does it make? We're not really going to be inhabiting a world that is worth that inhabiting. And I tell you, Britt, I was a little bit stymied there. What do I say? She's not wrong. What would you tell her? I mean, what do you, what do you say? How do you balance that hope and honesty?
Britt Wray
00:10:39
Yes. Yes. Thank you for that poignant picture of how this emerges in our lives and in our relationships and how difficult it is. I think you're absolutely right to not invalidate the anxiety. It comes from a very rational appraisal of what's going on. And so, what requires flexible thinking is this ability to balance hope and fear and sit in the gray zone of uncertainty productively so that we can face the future with an openness towards both how daunting and scary what we're moving towards is, while also knowing that there is so much to be done that can make a difference. We are not in a uni directional losing game. There are small wins along the way that people are already making and that we can all be a part of increasingly making. And so, getting beyond this black and white thinking is really key. So that requires sitting on the fence rather than associating with either side of it, which is not where an anxious brain easily takes you, and which is why emotional processing and coping skills are really important to help people see, all is not lost, even though it's a bad situation.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:12:09
When we come back, how we can all do our part to combat climate change and take care of our mental health. We'll be back in a moment.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:12:25
And now back to Chasing Life and my conversation with climate expert Britt Wray.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:12:32
We evolved to be able to deal with threats, but immediate threats. And now if it's not going to interfere with dinner plans tonight, we don't seem to pay as much attention to it. And climate change, because I think it feels distant for so many people, they sort of put it off and maybe that's that's the human brain.
Britt Wray
00:12:52
I do find it odd and strange and inexcusable. For example, across the American public, let's say right now, for people to still think of it as a distant or far away phenomenon. Considering how many wildfires and floods and hurricanes, drought, American soil experiences. The philosopher Timothy Morton talks about the climate crisis as a hyper object. And hyper objects are things that are so vast and all encompassing that you can't see their edges. It's not clear where the borders or boundaries are. Climate change, for example, shows up in what comes out of our tailpipe after burning fossil fuels and having air pollution. It shows up in news reports about declining fisheries, and it shows up in anxious parents' conversations about what their kids are going to have to deal with on a warming planet and so on and so forth. It just is really difficult to then identify where can I intervene when it touches everything and it is enmeshed in really complex systems. And so that hyper object-ness means that we can't think about it very clearly. And when you can't think about it very clearly, it's easier to really not regard it or think about it at all in many cases.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:14:19
You know, my daughter again, Sky, we took a lot of walks during the pandemic because that's something we could do pretty easily. And she would ask me, on a particularly nice day when we're outside and you hear birds chirping and you're looking at these beautiful green trees and you just smell that aroma of the forest. She would ask me if I thought that her grandkids would get to be able to do the same thing one day or not. And again, you know, I uh, you want to say the thing that's going to be assuaging of the anxiety. Yes, of course, they'll be able to do this. You know, they're going to-, birds and the trees and all that. And it's hard because at the same time, we hear that emissions have to peak essentially by 2025 if we want to keep global warming to one and a half degrees Celsius. It's sort of a now or never proposition that people are hearing that she's hearing, that I'm hearing. That's three years from now. So the hyper object seems to get more definition around it if you start to put a timeframe on that. Is that a good framing, you know, in this context of climate anxiety?
Britt Wray
00:15:34
In moments of civilizational threat, in world wars, we do not rally and take action by responding to calming messages that try to assuage our fears and tell us that things are relatively fine and that we can just make a few changes here and there in order to not be killed or what have you. The rhetorical power of fear and threat is crucial to mobilizing the masses at the scales required in order to protect one's society, civilization. When it's time bound, we require that type of mustering force to get our ducks in a row to organize us. It will raise anxieties naturally, because it's commensurate with what the science is telling us, that we have these alarming messages about what needs to be done. This requires a lot of courage and coping skills along the way so that the anxiety doesn't rob you of your functioning. So there's a lot that people can do to support themselves as they take on this uncomfortable information and use it to muster the will to use that that time frame most effectively.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:17:04
Yeah, you know, I think it's really interesting to see sometimes what resonates with people and sometimes it's surprising. It's interesting. You are a mom now. Congratulations.
Britt Wray
00:17:17
Thank you.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:17:18
I know you, you, you thought a lot about that decision whether or not you wanted to have a child given the climate crisis.
Britt Wray
00:17:26
Yeah.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:17:26
And I'm, I'm just wondering if you're comfortable telling me a little bit about that decision and how you worked through it?
Britt Wray
00:17:32
Yeah, it was a few years of thinking, reading, talking, interviewing, gathering really diverse perspectives on what it means to live amidst consecutive threat scenarios and what it means to be resilient under existential threat, which many humans have been experiencing for time immemorial. And ultimately, the decision to have a child meant for me that I have to be a climate activist and I have to be professionally focused on this planetary health crisis, so that I can do whatever is possible, whatever is within my power to help support young kids like my own, to have a healthier world in the future.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:18:30
Tell me tell me about your your baby.
Britt Wray
00:18:33
Oh, yeah, sure. He's ten months old now. His name is Atlas.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:18:37
Atlas?
Britt Wray
00:18:38
Yeah.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:18:38
Is Atlas going to carry the world on his shoulders?
Britt Wray
00:18:41
You know, obviously, this is the the the remark that, I poor kid, I'm just, I've given him to have to live down in every conversation for the rest of his life. We were thinking of it as strength, you know, strength to be able to deal with a a heavy world and to weather the storms, rather than the burden that comes with it. But I guess it's an interesting reflection, of course, on the whole issue of climate change.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:19:07
What do you think, Atlas, what do you think his life will be like? I don't know, 70 or 80 years from now.
Britt Wray
00:19:16
Really hard one to answer. I see a lot of. A lot of destruction and a lot of difficulty. And parts of the world perhaps being quite uninhabitable, and that will bring about social strife in proportions that I do not wish upon any of these innocent people who are, will be having to deal with it. But I also see there being wonderful pockets of figuring things out and regenerating landscapes and ecosystems. But, of course, I have no idea what I'm talking about. I don't know what it's going to look like. And I feel much more comfortable staying in that gray zone and saying, I really don't know. I really don't know and I don't need to know, you know? What I can do is use that uncertainty to fill my imagination about what could be possible in radically hopeful ways and then just fight for it, no matter what comes. And if it gets harder and harder and worse and worse, the way that we bring about the hope is by using it as a verb. It's something active and doing it together with others, no matter how dark it gets.
adrienne maree brown
00:20:38
One of my teachers is a woman named Mariame Kaba, and she tells us that hope is a discipline. And so I feel like I'm constantly like in a discipline of strengthening that muscle of hope in myself.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:20:51
When activist adrienne maree brown is feeling down, they find their hope in the natural world around them.
adrienne maree brown
00:20:58
The Earth is constantly giving us instructions for how to be in relationship to her.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:21:03
One time Adrian traveled to Mexico because they just really needed a break from everything.
adrienne maree brown
00:21:09
And I looked up and I saw these birds moving in formation with each other. I learned that that formation is called a murmuration. The way the birds move is, they don't map it out, nobody's calling out the instructions, here's where we go next. They pay attention to each other and they get into a deep relationship with the birds right around them, and they stay the right distance apart. And in this way, they avoid predation and they migrate massive distances and they survive. It was as if nature was being like, here, honey, these are the instructions. Humans are no different from anything else. You just have to find your formation. How do you murmurate together?
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:21:53
The reality is, climate change isn't going to fix itself. Just like the birds, humanity needs to work together and find our own formation.
adrienne maree brown
00:22:03
If you like the Avengers, you know you like Marvel Comics and you like all that. That's who we are. Those of us who are trying to save the Earth, we are the superheroes of the future, come be a part of it. Like you can activate whatever your superpower is and join us because we are the badasses who are saving the earth. Like that's what every one of those movies is about. It's like, who's going to save us? Who's going to save us? Who's going to save us? Us. We are. We're always the ones who save us.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:22:30
So the question is how do we manage our anxiety and keep going in the fight against climate change? Here's tip number one. Do something. Put your thoughts into action.
adrienne maree brown
00:22:43
This is a time when we need a lot of direct action and we need people who are willing to get in the streets and march and like protest and raise awareness around this stuff. Even if you're like, Oh, I don't do that, or I'm not ready to be in the streets yet, donate to people who actually support that work happening. Or create a ruckus wherever you are. Every single place we are is a frontline in this fight for the climate. So, become a warrior.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:23:09
Tip number two Celebrate the victories. Find joy in the work.
adrienne maree brown
00:23:14
It's very hard to know that we're moving in the right direction if we never celebrate. So whenever I facilitate a group, even the small wins, we all decided where to order lunch together from? Yay! Right? We managed to pull off a gathering where nobody had plastic water bottles? Amazing. Let's celebrate all these moves that we're making to get back in right relationship with the Earth. Part of the joy of doing climate activism well is being like, look at us. We are really taking care of the earth and taking care of each other. Wow. This is what we're supposed to be doing.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:23:46
Tip number three, from researcher Britt Wray, approach climate anxiety with compassion for yourself.
Britt Wray
00:23:53
It's really important to initially know that there's nothing wrong with you. This is not a mental illness. You can't get a diagnosis for it from a mental health professional. It's not in the DSM and rather it's a very understandable and normal natural reaction to a large, threatening scenario that is not easy to reconcile. This form of distress is, by many accounts, from mental health professionals, healthy. The issue is to make sure that it doesn't become so intense that it starts to rob you of your functioning and general joy and well-being.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:24:34
Tip number four, find space to be in a community with like minded people who understand what you're going through.
Britt Wray
00:24:41
So it's really important to find containment for the distress. Containment is found with any other individuals who will validate and give permission to these feelings and say that, yes, you are understood. There's such a need for this now that many groups have emerged around the world to help people with their climate distress. Places like the Good Grief Network, who run a ten step program that's actually modeled off of Alcoholics Anonymous, moving people through eco anxiety and grief towards meaningful orientations and purposeful actions on it. There are things like climate cafes, which are decentralized meetings that are held by volunteers all over the world where people can have open hearted and frank conversations about how they're feeling in light of the climate crisis. I have a monthly maintenance call with a climate aware therapist because the mental health and climate space is filled with a lot of distressing concepts. And so it's nice to be able to check in with others who professionally focus on that.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:25:47
If you want more information, you can subscribe to Britt's newsletter at Gen Dread. That's G-E-N Dread dot substack dot com. We'll put a link in our show notes to that, as well as to the Good Grief Network and Climate Cafes.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:26:05
I hope all of you listening are taking some of what Britt and adrienne have said to heart. I definitely have. But I think with mindfulness, community and small steps, we can all get to a place where it doesn't feel as overwhelming. Climate change is happening. It isn't going away. And I don't want to lay it all at the feet of future generations. But, at the same time, I am optimistic about the future. I think we can really work together and make our community stronger, and that, with scientific solutions, may really make a difference.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:26:41
I'd love to hear if any of what we talked about today has helped you record your thoughts as a voice memo and email them to ask Sanjay at CNN dot com or give us a call at 4703960832 and leave a message. We might even include them on an upcoming episode of the podcast. We'll be back next Tuesday with an episode about the importance of play and why it's good not just for kids, but also adults. Thanks for listening.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta
00:27:13
Chasing Life is a production of CNN audio. Megan Marcus is our executive producer. Our podcast is produced by Emily Liu, Andrea Kane, Xavier Lopez, Isoke Samuel, Grace Walker and Allison Park. Tommy Bazarian is our engineer and a special thanks to Ben Tinker, Amanda Sealy, Carolyn Sung and Nadia Kounang of CNN Health, as well as Rafeena Ahmad, Lindsay Abrams and Courtney Coupe from CNN Audio.