Fear, Anxiety, and Responding to Collapse
“I had never really felt, in my bones, the weight of it all. I had never felt a sense of real fear, for myself, for those I love most, and for all of humanity. But that was what rushed over me when I finished working in Siberia” Climate change photographer Katie Orlinsky on a National Geographic assignment about permafrost (2018).
This article is about the importance of connecting and managing our fear and anxiety to adapt and develop resilience.
Many people that are aware of our existential threats can be anxious, afraid, and dreadful. Occasionally, I feel the same.
The good news is that if you are anxious or afraid you’ve managed to actually perceive the threat.
Fear is likely a barrier to awareness and acceptance of our crises; our challenges are so overwhelming that at a subconscious level many among us choose not to engage with our reality and fall into denial.
The bad news is that fear and anxiety can paralyze us. It can also lead us to despair, or cloud our judgement.
I’m not going to tell you that there’s nothing to fear and that we will likely “solve” our predicaments. Based on what we’ve done so far in terms of facing our environmental, energy, overpopulation, and climate disruption crises, it is way more realistic to consider a bleak future as possible.
In this article I’ll link to resources on dealing with anxiety and fear, but I want to make myself clear:
Many resources recommend activism as an antidote to despair. I recommend Extinction Rebellion if that’s a path you would like.
But I’m a realist.
It is reasonable to seriously consider the possibility of defeat. After all, the odds are not looking good.
I’m not saying that we should stop doing activism, we need it, but we should also prepare and adapt.
We’ve already woken the dragon of climate change, overpopulation, unprecedented economic inequality, and mass extinction. Peak energy and conflict are half asleep…
“Since all of our constructive actions may or may not avert the predicted catastrophes, some people in addition to doing what they can to solve problems are also preparing for the transition to a different way of life. The irony is that this may turn out to be not only the smart and prudent thing to do (“expect the best, prepare for the worst”), but also bring more happiness into our lives. A simpler, more local and neighbor-connected lifestyle may turn out to be far more satisfying than the rushed and stressed rat-race so many of us endure today.”3The Waking Up Syndrome
back to fear
If you aren’t afraid, you’re not paying enough attention, and you’re not aware of how destructive collapse could be. You’re not aware how badly damaged our life support systems are.
Fear and anxiety are emotions that we must acknowledge, connect to, and then let them go through us, like a passing wave. These emotions force us to think about our crises instead of denying them; they motivate us to act. That’s why it is important to embrace them.
Climate change is a powerful catalyst that is making people aware that business as usual is a dead end. By no means is climate change our only existential threat, but it does act as a threat multiplier to other crises.
What creates more sense of urgency than fear?
“No amount of veggie gardening will address the powerful feelings and concerns that arise among those with gut-level experience (even second-hand via the omnipresent media) of oil spills, toxic contamination, resource wars, food/energy shortages, or climate-caused droughts, fires, or hurricanes. Some people are also connecting the dots between what’s happening in the secondary and tertiary economies (jobs, money) and the primary economy (nature), raising additional worries”.4The Waking Up Challenge
appropriate fear and stress
When fear and anxiety overtake our mind, they impair our ability to accomplish difficult tasks. Preparing for an energy-descent, climate-disrupted future, in which food, water, energy, society and transportation are likely to become increasingly disrupted, is not an easy endeavour.
We must remain calm in order to prepare and adapt.
Below is a graphic showing the relationship between arousal (fear & anxiety) and performance when doing difficult tasks. Notice how having moderate amounts of stress and fear increases performance.
“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
― Frank Herbert
“As unpleasant as some emotions can be, however, every type of negative emotion that we experience is evolutionarily designed to serve one overriding purpose: to help motivate behavior that will bring us back into [balance].”5Emotions, Survival, and Disconnection
So fear and stress are useful in low doses because they keeps us on task and can actually help us make better decisions. But how can we manage those feelings so that they don’t become a hindrance?
The best way to manage fear and anxiety is to live in the present. Fear can’t exist in the present, and when it does, it’s only for a brief period of time when there is immediate danger.
Deep breathing is a good way of calming our body and thus our mind. Breathing exercises like box breathing can reset your mental rhythm and take your mind off a negative path of fear and anxiety. They are very effective at calming and improving your mental state.
Mindfulness is another great way of calming yourself. It basically is just trying to be present and aware of your body and mind: your sensations, feelings, and thoughts. This awareness has to be non-judgemental (think of them as neutral, not negative or positive), don’t dwell on your thoughts just let them pass through you.
The disadvantage of mindfulness is that it might be harder for people to practice during highly stressful situations. Other than that, there’s a reason why it is so widely recommended.
Fear and anxiety can cause us to paralyze. Instead of a fight or flight response, we freeze. If we feel spaced out, shut down or ‘unreal’ we are detaching from reality. When we notice we are zoning out and going into autopilot we can try a grounding exercise to get us back to our bodies and the present.
Don’t be afraid of fear
Allow yourself to be afraid; don’t resist the experience. It is natural.
We must be comfortable with fear.
If we focus on avoiding fear, it will be like being afraid of fear.
And being afraid of fear becomes a self-fulfilling vicious cycle.
exposure to stress
A way of becoming more resilient to stress is through exposure to stress. Makes sense.
There’s stress inoculation training, exposure therapy, and systematic desensitization. The idea behind these techniques is to first learn ways to cope with fear/stress/anxiety and then gradually become exposed to what triggers those emotions.
The first step is to find ways to manage stress that work for you (like breathing techniques) and keep stress at tolerable levels.
The second step is to become stressed. Gradually expose yourself to things that trigger that fear and anxiety.
Ideally, you could expose yourself to controlled simulations of your fears, but most likely you’ll have to simulate them in your mind.
Create vivid, specific visualizations, or mental imagery of what you fear, and immerse yourself in them. Once you can stay calm on those situation you should go further into your fear, and visualize things that make you even more fearful.
The point is to walk calmly and gradually towards your fears instead of running from them.
“Confront the end of your own life, and then figure out one thing you can do to channel your anxiety effectively.”7Climate anxiety doesn’t have to ruin your life. Here’s how to manage it.
fear of death
Coming to terms with death is a helpful step in collapse resilience and adaptation.
If we confront the fear of death then we are free to live without having that fear controlling us.
Thinking through what it is that we are afraid about death, and just taking the time to contemplate our eventual death can help us be more familiar with it. We are afraid of the unknown.
Responding to collapse is not about fearing the future or being afraid of dying, it’s about accepting our existential threats and then preparing to face them in an intelligent way.
We all die…
If we just focus on delaying the inevitable we’ll be merely surviving, not living.
Here is a list of actions from the American Psychological Association that can help increase mental resilience, and manage anxiety and fear.8Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance I’ve also added my thoughts.
Build belief in one’s own resilience.
People who feel positive about their ability to overcome a source of stress and trauma do better.
Those who are able to reframe and find something positive in their circumstances tend to do better than people who are less able to regulate their thoughts, emotions, and actions. Humor is also great.
Find personal meaning.
For many, faith gives a sense of peace during difficulty. Having a spiritual practice can help people manage and find meaning in suffering during significant adversity.
Nevertheless you don’t need spirituality to carve meaning in your life; finding your own meaning is an incredible aid.
Boost personal preparedness.
Preparedness: family, neighborhood, community response plans and resilience can help increase confidence, and the feeling of safety and reduce fear.
Support social networks.
One strategy frequently noted in resilience studies is cultivating and maintaining strong social connections. Connectedness to others is a core psychological need and an essential foundation for well-being. During difficult times, people turn to those they are close to, such as family, friends, and neighbors, for emotional support, as well as material help. Social support is a critical protective resource during adversity.
action is the antidote of despair
“Ultimately, your personal anxiety has no effect on the world around you. Worry is not action, and knowledge, while important, is not action either. Randall [psychotherapist] cautions against getting caught up in following every minute detail of an issue. “Whatever the issue is, once you’ve found out about it, stop,” she says. “That’s enough. You know about it. Then you need to decide what you’re going to do.”9Constant Anxiety Won’t Save the World
“As we come to accept the limits of our general powerlessness, we also find the parameters of the power we do have in this strange new situation. We discover we no longer need to resist our current and emerging reality. We don’t need to feel compelled to save the entire world or to hold onto a world that no longer makes sense. We are freed, instead, to pursue what James Kunstler calls “the intelligent response, ” seeking and taking whatever creative, constructive action will best sustain those aspects of life that are truly most important to us in the context of the changes unfolding around us. At this point our curiosity and creativity kick in and we can begin following our natural instincts to find what is both feasible and rewarding to safeguard ourselves, our families, our communities and the planet.”10The Waking Up Syndrome
Live in the present.
Get busy living, or get busy dying.