Culture can be a piece of art, a tradition, or a set of values. Sometimes, though, it is just a feeling. For me, the past several years are not best defined by a global hit song, an obsession with baking sourdough, or a polarized political system. They are best defined by feeling assaulted by the news. The blows seem to just come one after the other — wildfire, flood, hurricane, invasion, police shooting, mass shooting, over and over.
So, when I was listening to new music this morning, I was struck by one title in particular — “Emotion Sickness.” The song itself is reminiscent of early 2010s pop rock (thanks Parachute, for always being around to take me back to middle school). There is no deep meaning and certainly not one that can be related to the climate crisis. It’s just a simple story of passionate, destructive, young love. However, the title seems apt for an age.
We get motion sickness when things are changing too quickly and we feel out of control. It makes us dizzy and nauseous. The idea that emotions can make us sick as well, in much the same way, for much the same reasons, is not something that feels controversial in 2022. We live in a world where “doomscrolling” is a word, and events in our own lives and across the world send us catapulting between fear, rage, heartbreak, love, and apathy faster than we can reshare the latest hot take. If that’s not a culture of emotion sickness, I don’t know what is.
As the climate continues to breakdown, I can only imagine that emotion sickness will become more common. This is because our reference points are being pulled out from underneath us, people in power are making indefensible choices, and we are watching the suffering in real time. I mean — eco-anxiety was in both the New York Times and Good Housekeeping a few weeks ago, so you know it’s hitting the mainstream.
Since the West is in a megadrought and Russia is causing untold suffering Ukraine and American democracy is at risk of collapse, and, and, and, it is important to recognize, validate, and name the feeling of this cultural moment. Thankfully, there are the things we can do.
I’m not a psychologist, but I think we address emotion sickness in much the same way that we address motion sickness.
1) Pick a focus point. Just like you might look at the horizon, focus on your vision of a better world. What does it look like? How does it feel? It’s out there.
2) Slow down. The speed with which we get information is unparalleled. It’s hard to believe that not too long ago (in the scale of history), we would have been getting all this information in letters carried on horseback. It is completely valid to feel your feelings. My suggestion? Give yourself time for each one, rather than allowing new information to send you spiraling between them. You don’t need to read the news 24/7! You are not personally responsible for knowing everything.
3) Take back your agency. We get motion sickness when we’re out of control. We don’t get motion sickness when we’re running of our own volition! Our emotions can be similarly hard to deal with when it feels like situations are happening to us, and we can’t change anything. In reality, the truth remains that most people across the world still want the same thing — a livable future for ourselves and our loved ones. That means there is room for the kind of collective action that has achieved positive change in the face of seemingly impossible odds for as long as there has been oppression. There are things individually that we can each do to show up for the mass movement to change the system — you can find them on the Climate Action Explorer. You can do something about this with others around the world to make real change!
If you’d like some further recommendations from a real therapist on climate anxiety specifically — you got it!
I won’t lie, I’m having a difficult time comprehending the scale of suffering happening in the world right now as much as the next girl. Sometimes, my brain likes to skate over it or look away. Instead, this feels like a moment that I must bear witness too. We are living through something momentous on historical time scales, but also something that is tragic and real and all-consuming on individual time scales as well. We can’t forget that. We can’t forget each person who is in a fight for their life. Today, I’m making a commitment to sharing in this pain when I am mentally and emotionally able.
At the same time, I am making a commitment to hope, because that is what this moment demands of me. It may be hard to believe, but I honestly have no doubt that change is possible. I believe in our future. I believe in our shared past. And I believe in the present you and me, and our ability to come together for change.
So, no matter where you are in your case of emotion sickness, I hope you can be kind to yourself when the nausea lays you out flat. I hope you’ll pump the brakes. And I hope that eventually, you’ll be able to catch a glimpse through that dirty windshield to see a blazing sunrise on the horizon. I’ll be here when you do.