If climate anxiety is keeping you up at night, you’re not alone. According to a 2020 poll from the American Psychiatric Association (APA), more than two-thirds (68 percent) of Americans reported being either somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change on the planet, and more than half (55 percent) were anxious about its effect on their mental health. For those feeling anxious about the state of the planet, there is a new book, The Climate Optimist Handbook: How to Shift the Narrative on Climate Change and Find the Courage to Choose Change, that addresses the topic with a look at the psychological reasons that often keep us from acting in our own best interests. Author Anne Therese Gennari, a speaker, educator, and long-term climate activist, spent years feeling overwhelmed by the daunting task of creating a better world. Here, she shares how overcame her climate anxiety by changing her mindset and adopting a more positive outlook.
How can we shift our perspective from doom and gloom to a more optimistic outlook about the environment?
First off, we must recognize that nothing about the future is certain and everything we do now will have a significant impact on the world we see next. I’m not just saying that. It is evident from the latest IPCC report.
I mean, how exciting is that? It means we have the opportunity to participate in creating history and co-creating a world that isn’t just different from what we know today but is perhaps much better than anything we’ve yet to see.
Once we allow ourselves to look beyond our current realities and dream about the most unbelievable future, we start to tap into our true potential. Not only is it a fun practice to do, but it’s also a necessary act for our survival. This is where the optimism comes in. We need optimism to expand our minds and envision something different, but we also need it to find the courage to act. Therefore, shifting the narrative on the stories we tell ourselves is essential, and it begins with something as simple as this:
It’s not your responsibility to fix climate change, but you do have an incredibly exciting opportunity to participate in this shift. Why would you waste the chance to make history with everyone around you? Remind yourself of this every day when you wake up in the morning, and you’ll be surprised how easy it’ll be to start acting on the change!
What helped when you were experiencing anxiety related to climate change?
It honestly took me years to even recognize that climate anxiety was something I was experiencing that needed to be addressed. The topic of climate change was fairly stigmatized and not something people talked about, and there certainly wasn’t any talk about climate anxiety. Therefore, I thought it best to just shove those feelings to the side and focus on being optimistic. I thought that if I only focused on the positive and tried to ignore the negative climate news all around me, I would be okay.
That was how my climate optimist journey started, and ironically, my anxiety was at its highest in the early days of this journey. What I learned was that there is no way of not knowing, and the only way to become and remain a resilient optimist is to work on your emotions and allow them to be part of who you are.
I didn’t cure myself from climate anxiety, I am healing myself from it constantly to this day. Just like you can’t spend one day eating healthy and working out and think you’re fit for a while, you also can’t mend your anxiety and think you’re done and good. It’s an ongoing practice and a huge part of being an optimist. You land in a grounding acceptance of reality and understand that although things may look dire, we still have a choice to act differently moving forward. And that is the reminder you come back to every day.
So, my healing and my climate optimism come from a mix of emotional resilience work and positive action. I understand that my actions will only be as impactful and strong as I am, which is why tending to self-care is so important. For me, that is practicing mindfulness every day, including the multiple walks I take or sitting on the floor being present with my daughter. I allow myself to fully live in these moments, to feel alive and excited about each day, even though I know my anxiety about the future is real and valid. The practice comes to finding a balance of grounded awareness and empowered action and in figuring out a way to live life to its fullest each day.
What prompted you to write The Climate Optimist Handbook?
I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and I’ve always felt drawn to inspire others. I started writing the book in my early 20s, and back then, the focus was to write a self-help book. I wanted to create a guide for people to start choosing change, and in doing so, transform their lives for the better. But as the years went on and I learned more and more about the intersection of climate action and behavioral psychology, I understood it had to be a book about climate change. Not the climate change book you might be used to, but one focused on the individual, the person living through these times. It became clear that I was supposed to write a handbook for all of us living through climate change. And in many ways, it has become the book I wish I had when I was going through my own climate anxiety for all these years.
What is the biggest psychological reason that prevents us from acting in our best interests?
Our brains are wired to prevent us from acting when there’s a possibility of a loss or a threat, and they inspire action when there’s a possibility of a gain. In other words, we’re programmed to stay away of things that scare us and move towards things that can bring us happiness and joy. I think this should fundamentally change the entire climate conversation as opposed to how we usually tackle climate change. We talk about scary scenarios in a nearby future that will happen if we don’t act. Meaning, we’re trying to spark action with a fear-based approach. It’s silly when our brains are literally saying, “thank you, but no thank you, I will ignore what you just said so I can stay safe.”
There are many other barriers to climate action that I mention in the book, but I would say this is the biggest one. We simply must change how we talk about climate change and start getting excited about our actions. We need to act not because we are afraid of what might happen if we don’t, but because we are excited to find out what might happen if we do!
What are some tips for modeling positive change?
Find something that interests you, and bring your energy forth in that area. The best thing about climate action is that it’s needed in all areas of our lives and society, so there really is no right or wrong answer in how we go about this. No one can change everything, but we can all do something. And for me, the biggest shift happened when I realized I can’t change the world, but I can change my world, and that every little thing I do matters. It matters because it changes how I think of and see myself, which directly impacts the world of those around me. So, by taking agency of my own world, I start to create ripple effects of change everywhere I go and that is how positive action spreads.
What gives you hope when it comes to addressing climate change?
The fact that we have all the knowledge and resources now to do this. All we have to do is find the courage to act. So, what are we waiting for? Let’s get excited!