‘Eco-grief’ emerges in new research

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Ecological grief/eco-grief, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is when people grieve the loss or anticipated loss of ecological structures. This condition afflicts many U.S. citizens. (Created by Ashley Pun Eveson using Canva)

An increasing number of people are being affected by an emerging mental health condition called “ecological grief.”

A squirrel tries to find food during the winter. Scientists predict climate change will make it harder for animals and humans to survive. (Ashley Pun Eveson)

Ecological grief, also known as eco-grief or eco-anxiety, is when “people experience climate grief when they notice or anticipate the loss of ‘species, ecosystems and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change,’” according to the research article “Addressing Climate Change Concerns in Practice” published by the American Psychological Association.

In a 2020 poll, the APA found that 56% of U.S. adults believe climate change is the most important issue today, and 7 in 10 people say they “wish there was more they could do to combat climate change.” About 68% of adults said they have at least a little “eco-anxiety.”

“One of the hazards of being involved with the environment is that you suddenly realize how bad something is and become overwhelmed with feelings of grief or loss,” said Amy Brunvand, a librarian at the University of Utah involved with sustainability and an author at Catalyst Magazine. 

Other Utah natives like Cora Van Leeuwen have started to become more aware of environmental issues with the lack of snow in recent years. 

“We need to pay more attention to what’s actually happening, but then nothing happens. There’s a period where everyone’s super freaked out about climate change, but then it’s swept under the rug and no one talks about it anymore,” Van Leeuwen said. 

Therapists and counselors have noticed climate change and other environmental issues being brought to the forefront more than ever, according to the APA. They say more stress and anxiety are also common among patients.

More than half of U.S. adults believe climate change is the most important issue in society today. This concern is growing in the public sphere. (Created by Ashley Pun Eveson using Canva)

“I am not surprised,” said Annabella Hagen, a licensed clinical social worker who wrote a book called “Let Go of Anxiety.” “I didn’t know there was a name for the worries many people are experiencing about air pollution, forest fires, increase of temperature and droughts.” 

Hagen works at Mindset Family Therapy in Provo, helping patients deal with anxiety. Anxiety can bring feelings of being overwhelmed, tense, having trouble falling asleep, generalized unhappiness and headaches, among other physical symptoms. “People with anxiety may end up with a physical illness”, Hagen said. 

“It is normal to worry about our environment. The question is, ‘What can I control?’” Hagen said. She recommends professional help to those experiencing high levels of anxiety. 

“Van Leeuwen deals with her feelings of eco-anxiety by individually trying to be more conscious about sustainability”, she said.

“It stresses me out, but it’s encouraging to see that there are other people out there trying to be environmentally friendly,” she said.

Within her research about sustainability, Brunvand has found that eco-anxiety/eco-grief is an emerging field of study and that the people who are deeply engaged are trying to think of it in terms of spirituality, healing or activism. 

In addition to traditional practices like Mindset Family Therapy, other alternative practices have shown up to specifically combat eco-grief and eco-anxiety. 

In 2016 LaUra Schmidt and Aimee Lewis created The Good Grief Network, a 10-step program based off of Alcoholics Anonymous to help individuals work through eco-grief. 

A man sits alone looking over the lake. Grief tending rituals like visiting the Great Salt Lake can help individuals work through emotions and find healing. (Photo courtesy of Kinde Nebeker)

The Good Grief website says the 10 steps are as follows: “(1) to accept the severity of the predicament, (2) practice being with uncertainty, (3) honor my mortality and the mortality of all, (4) do inner work, (5) develop awareness of biases and perception, (6) practice gratitude, witness beauty and create connections, (7) take breaks and rest, (8) grieve the harm I have caused, (9) show up and (10) reinvest in meaningful efforts.”

“At the beginning of 2017, I fell into a depression because I was overwhelmed with climate change and what was going on, and I was really struggling with the intensity of those emotions. I was getting a lot of emotion that needed to be processed somehow,” said Adair Kovach, a former facilitator for the Good Grief Network who got involved to find support. 

Just like Alcoholics Anonymous, the groups work through steps adjusted to focus on the environment and eco-grief. Many people joined the network, which eventually moved its headquarters to Nebraska. COVID-19 moved the group online, and Kovach said eco-grief seemed to increase during the pandemic as people were thinking a lot more about the environment. 

Kovach ended up leading several groups in 2018 and 2019. He said he believes the program gives people a space to build a community, process emotions and understand the environmental issues the earth is facing. 

Most U.S. adults find climate change to be the most important issue being faced as a society. Many are concerned for the future. (Created in Canva by Ashley Pun Eveson)

Today, he continues advocating for social justice issues and the environment while attending Good Grief meetings online and being a part of other environmental organizations. 

“I decided to live my life with the knowledge of what’s happening, both in trying to do what I can to improve it but then also being appreciative and grateful for the time I have now,” Kovach said. 

Another organization created to help individuals cope with eco-grief called New Moon Rites of Passage is run by Kinde Nebeker, a native Utahn with a master’s degree in graphic design and transpersonal psychology. 

Nebeker wants to provide nature-based support for transformational change, offering coaching, grief guidance and rites of passage that help individuals reconnect to nature and gain empowerment for taking action. 

“I just felt it in my bones, this is how we’re human together. This matters, how we sit in a circle and are surrounded by trees and rocks,” Nebeker said, describing her personal transformation on a rites of passage trip where she fasted for three days and three nights. 

More than half of U.S. adults surveyed reported having some eco-anxiety in a 2020 survey. This data comes from the American Psychological Association. (Created in Canva by Ashley Pun Eveson.)

In her early forties, Nebeker felt like things were falling apart and she needed “something more,” she said. She ended up going on this rite of passage trip in the wilderness, which ultimately changed her life. 

“I first came upon a grief-tending ritual at an international wilderness guides council meeting held in South Africa. One thing we do in council is say, ‘What is the shadow? What is not here?’ And there was a lot of sorrow,” Nebeker said. 

New Moon Rites of Passage was formed in 2011 in Utah. The group hosts bi-annual community grief-tending rituals for people to grieve in a collective rite. 

A group of people experiencing eco-grief/eco-anxiety gathers at the Great Salt Lake during a full moon twice a year to acknowledge the collective grief they feel and to find healing in nature and community. 

“Tending to grief, both personal and collective, is critical in this time. Without grieving, our hearts are not clear to hear what wants to be born,” the New Moon Rites of Passage website says. “Collective grieving is collective healing.” 

People usually shove grief aside, Brunvand said, but the ritual helps welcome the feeling of grief to learn from it and acknowledge it. 

Like the Good Grief Network and New Moon Rites of Passage, traditional therapy also confronts anxiety and grief using cognitive behavioral therapy to change dysfunctional ways of thinking, according to the APA

Through all of these different practices and organizations that address eco-grief and eco-anxiety directly, those struggling with feelings of hopelessness and stress can find different ways to heal, Brunvand said. 

“Our body is connected to our mother’s body, the body of the earth. We’re not separate,” Nebeker said. “You are normal if you feel grief and anxiety. It can be transmuted into power.”

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