Express Yourself: A Hidden Antidote to Climate Anxiety

2022-06-15

 |  Health/Lifestyle

The term ‘climate anxiety’ has been defined by this New York Times article as: “anger, worry and insecurity stemming from an awareness of a warming planet.” Climate anxiety often arises when 

we encounter specific, observable, local impacts of climate change (such as severe or unseasonal weather). Whether these emotions resonate with you personally, or not, many individuals feel some type of psychological barrier to accepting the negative ramifications of the climate crisis. 

A study conducted by the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that feelings of climate anxiety are particularly common in younger adults and “climate change anxiety is correlated with ‘emotional’ (rather than ‘behavioural’) responses to climate change”. In other words, our natural instinct is to project climate anxiety inwards, which leads individuals to experience hopelessness and depression, rather than taking action to mitigate these negative effects. The emotional responses incited by climate change anxiety can lead to destructive patterns and be detrimental to our mental health. To combat these unfortunate repercussions, researchers suggest increasing the accessibility of creative outlets for youth. Although creative expression is not a necessary step in the process of channelling emotional responses to external stressors, many individuals have found this practice to be helpful. In a series of interviews conducted at Florida State University, one participant spoke about her garden and stated that: “[…] there are metaphors all around the garden that can be related back to therapy and our lives. The compost may be a place someone goes when processing grief and the loss of life, and a place to remember that loss evolves into space for new life.” 

Although visual arts can be a wonderful outlet to express climate anxiety, I also wanted to highlight creative writing as an accessible form of creative expression. Creative writing often requires fewer tools and accessories. The simplest methods include only a pen/pencil and a piece of paper, and can therefore be more accessible than other creative outlets. While there is little publicly available research on creative writing as a salve for climate anxiety, researchers have found considerable evidence to support the benefits of expressive writing for emotional well-being. Dr. Beaumont, professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Northern British Columbia, writes that: “One’s most authentic voice is used in expressive writing, which involves verbally expressing one’s honest thoughts and feelings about lived experience through writing. It comes in many forms, such as free writing in journals, life story, note-taking, or poetry.” These expressive writing techniques (especially journaling, free-writing, and poetry), can be particularly helpful for new writers as they require little knowledge of plot or dialogue conventions.

In particular, I would like to highlight poetry, and specifically the subgenre of Ecopoetry, as a form of creative expression. The act of writing poetry can be very helpful in calming writers’ eco-anxiety. A subgenre called Ecopoetry is defined by Dr. Perez, at the University of Hawai‘i, Mānoa, as: “[…] poetry about ecology, ecosystems, environmental injustice, animals, agriculture, climate change, water, and even food.” Dr. Perez writes about his experience founding a course in Ecopoetry to “[…] help students understand the environmental changes around us and give them the opportunity to express their emotions through poetry”. Dr. Perez also incorporated community and public engagement projects into the syllabus for this course after receiving feedback that the students wished to engage with Ecopoetry through active engagement, rather than just passively reading and writing. 

One of the easiest ways to learn the conventions of Ecopoetry is to read examples which are readily available online: 

  • This spoken-word piece by U.S. Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, titled Earthrise
  • A reflection on Ecopoetry (complete with examples) from the Poetry Foundation.
  • This song (ALie Nation) by The Halluci Nation, feat. Tanya Tagaq

Lastly, there may be some well-known practitioners of ecopoetics with whom you are already familiar. If you’re interested in engaging further with this genre, feel free to revisit some (or all) of their portfolios with an ecocritical lens: 

If you would like to engage in a low-barrier writing practice, you can visit the UBC Climate hub’s Instagram (@ubcclimatehub). The UBC Climate Hub has posted a creative writing guide with tips and prompts specific to Ecopoetry and environmental mindfulness.