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‘I’m Paralyzed by Anxiety About Climate Change!’

Photo: Artush Foto/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Dear Polly,

In many ways, my affliction is the sensible reaction to the world today, but that doesn’t really help. I can’t stop worrying, and it’s stopping me from living. I’ve lost a good three weeks of this year in absolute paralyzing terror about climate change. Reading the news can send me into a spiral of panic where I can’t do anything, I just sit there and think about how we’re all going to die in a desert. I sit on the bus or the tube and want to scream at the top of my lungs because I don’t know what else to do.

Some context: I’m recovering from depression for which I’ve received treatment (therapy), but I think if anything the lessening of the depression has cleared the way for an anxiety that I think has been with me my whole life. I feel like I now understand the year of misery I had after 9/11, where I would get a dropping feeling in my stomach every time I saw a low-flying plane. For a year. I understand how I used to make myself ill during my first year of secondary school because I hated it and I didn’t want to be there. My sheer anxiety made me ill. These days I wake up in the morning feeling like I’ve been pinned to the bed, because my limbs feel heavy and I find it hard to move. When it’s hot and sunny, I find it hard to go outside. I viscerally hate people for enjoying themselves in the nice weather, because I can’t shut off the voice in my head that tells me we’re all going to die.

Some of my friends think this isn’t about climate change. Maybe it’s not. I am stuck in a dead-end, low-paying job, and despite years of online dating I haven’t really moved on from a partner who gaslit me and dumped me three years ago. Maybe my panic is actually about failing to meet the milestones of life (I’m 32). But part of me thinks it’s logical to be afraid all the time, because life is scary! There’s a very real chance that I’m going to die in a horrible way, having lost all my loved ones in some climate catastrophe. I used to take comfort in nature and the seasons, but now I feel like that has been taken away from me too. And the even sadder thing is that, despite my anxiety about this, I can’t bring myself to actually participate in any protests or actions that could make a difference, because I’m too scared. What I’d like is some advice about how to put this fear to good use, rather than being paralyzed by it. I don’t know how to live in this world if the only way to bear everything is to pretend it’s not happening.

Please help!


Dear Paralyzed,

You can be happy as the sky falls. It doesn’t require denial. The happiest people I know are the ones who always keep the possibility of death close at hand. Acknowledging reality instead of hiding from it is the key to tackling your anxiety and depression, and it’s also the key to embracing the fact that life is all about hard work and struggle. Facing hideous obstacles and feeling doomed is a feature of living, not a bug. When you face our dark reality without hiding from it or avoiding it, you recognize that survival itself is worth celebrating and this planet is worth fighting for, even when the fight looks hopeless. You can believe that the fight is hopeless and still fight. You can align your heart and your mind with the fight while also preparing for a future that is very different from the future you were promised.

We have always lived in a world that loves making promises it can’t keep. No great surprise that such a world would now be run by the very best liars, the liars who can smile through every lie, who can fuck you over and act like they’re doing you a favor the whole time. The best liars believe their own lies, so much so that they’re capable of letting the planet die as long as there’s a profit to be made as it’s dying. That’s true because they shape their own reality out of their personal whims. They have no connection to the ground or to other people or to the planet. They live inside their own simulation. The whole world is just an inflatable fuck doll to them.

This looks like freedom to those who aren’t free. “I believe him,” they say of the liar, because the liar sometimes seems like the only one who isn’t paralyzed by the terrors of this doomed planet. His ignorance is a bliss that the ignorant masses want to taste for themselves.

But your paralysis and dread aren’t a way of opposing those lies or that ignorance. Your paralysis is another way of turning your back on reality. It doesn’t help you or anyone else. Your anxiety doesn’t make you more pure than the people who manage to get out of bed in the morning. Many of the functioning people around you are surely in a state of total denial. But it’s inaccurate to assume that they’re all bullshitting themselves while you look straight at the truth.

One of the big tricks anxiety plays on your mind is how it seduces you into believing that maximum darkness and dread and fear are the most accurate emotional reality you can occupy. Even if you knew for a fact that death by climate catastrophe was a very real possibility, there is no benefit to welcoming those horrors into your life ahead of time. Ask someone who has survived a war or a major illness or escaped a terrifying situation, or even someone who’s living with a chronic or terminal illness: As long as you have a pulse, you have something to work with. There’s no benefit to telling yourself that your raging fears and sadness are a proactive acceptance of the future, because your anxiety itself is a simulation, a way of preemptively generating the agony to come. Even if a monster hurricane were bearing down on you as we speak, you’d probably feel better than you do when you’re in the throes of this depression and state of panic. You’d be preparing. You’d be actively planning. You’d be bracing yourself. You’d be living in reality. You would value your own survival more than you do now.

The conditions of your life are ripe for a Bartleby-like protest: Nothing is worth doing anymore, but nothing was worth doing before, either, when you really think about it. The writing has always been on the wall. You tell yourself that your anxiety holds the truth and it always has: Low-flying planes become burning forests. A bright, beautiful fall morning brings disaster, and changing seasons are just another reminder that the world will end. But even as you feel sure that you’re the only one who can see the truth clearly, your perspective and way of living are built on avoidance of the present.

I was your age on 9/11. I was unemployed, anxious, and depressed, isolated from friends and living with someone who was also anxious and depressed. I watched the towers fall on live TV, and then I spent two months staring at the news for updates and replays of the towers collapsing. It felt like my job. It felt wrong to abandon my post by going outside and breathing in the fresh air. I couldn’t believe it when other people started to get on with their lives. I couldn’t believe that people were flying places and doing things as if life would just go on as normal. It felt unfair, somehow, to go on living. I was at war with the living. It felt pure to stay in one place and bask in the horror — in my socks, unshowered, in my dark house.

My anxiety and depression told me that 9/11 meant everything should screech to a halt. 9/11 also, eventually, gave my crisis a shape: I couldn’t just give up and avoid the whole world. I had to move out of that house. I needed a new life and a new job. I needed to believe in something, anything. No matter what was going on in the world outside, I needed to value my own survival again.

The world seemed pretty doomed back then, too, to anyone who was paying attention. The world seems much more doomed now, without a doubt. The world will probably seem even more doomed a few decades from now, if we even have the luxury of thinking of it as “doomed” by then and not just “actively disappearing” or “almost gone.”

Obviously, I don’t write those words without feeling terrible. Most days, I feel like the “actively disappearing” phase is already here, and honestly, no part of my life doesn’t feel absurd at this moment. I don’t understand why the world can’t wake the fuck up. I have kids who are very anxious about this too, and it’s extremely difficult to talk to them about their futures. I have very dark days, like anyone else. I’m not lecturing you on how to move the fuck on in spite of this burning world. I’m not telling you to ignore this. I’m not saying “Look on the bright side!” The only thing I want you to know is that yes, you’re right, the world is probably doomed, but that doesn’t sentence us to constant suffering until we’re dead in the ground. There is little suffering in the world that matches the suffering of feeling fearful and panicked and anxious around the clock. You need to take some concrete action to battle your anxiety, not just because it’s ruining your life but because it’s the responsible, ethical thing for a person like you — an able-bodied young person who should be in this fight — to do.

If you believe that by lessening your depression you’ve somehow deepened your anxiety, that’s a sign to me that therapy has rerouted your despair into a kind of hyperactive bout of circular thinking. You need to get back into therapy and discuss the fact that you’re feeling a lot of despair and anxiety. If you’re taking medication for depression, it could be making you anxious, and you should ask about adjusting it. You believe right now that your anxiety is THE TRUTH, your anxiety is REALITY, but you’re wrong. Your paralysis suggests that you’re in a state of crisis — that you’re overdosing on this illusion created by your anxiety and are treating it like clear sight. Make an appointment with your therapist and your doctor and ask some hard questions about why your picture is not improving. Be persistent. Expect more from them. You need their help.

You must separate your very bad state of emotional health from the outside world as much as you can. It’s not that the two things aren’t related or that one can’t fuel the other. It’s that you’re viewing the entire world, including everything good left in it, through the lens of despair and fear. That’s an unsustainable state of being. (For anyone else in that state of mind, please see a therapist or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.)

You don’t sound unhinged when you say, “I am depressed and anxious because that’s rational: Climate change will destroy us.” But it is just as rational to say, “I am not depressed or anxious even though climate change will destroy us.” It is just as rational to say, “The world is ending, and I am still alive.” It is just as rational to say, “I will create this day from the fucked up, messy, raw materials at my disposal. I will do this because it is the only thing I can do.”

You need to treat your anxiety so you can see the world through clear eyes, maybe even for the first time. You need to live in reality and face death. It will change you. It will change your ideas of what feels possible. It’s my belief that those who were once anxious sometimes become the most courageous under duress. Once we finally grapple with our anxiety, and find ways to soothe it and treat it and work around it, we become extremely resilient people. And once the symptoms of anxiety subside or they’re at least under some control, we have all of these tools for taking on big battles without fear. Our panic and familiarity with darkness have prepared us for an uncertain future. We are needed. 

The other morning, I saw footage of indigenous women from Brazil marching together to protest President Bolsonaro’s rapid destruction of the Amazon. “There are lots of women at the head of this fight,” one woman told the camera. “If we die, at least we’ll die together.”

Her words are so sad, so fucking depressing. But it’s also possible to see joy there. Anxiety blocks your ability to see that joy because anxiety arises from a fear of any feeling. Anxiety replaces the natural tide of strong emotions with PANIC. Panic is the wall that tries to hold back the tide. You see the words die together and you imagine a painful death and your mind flees that thought. You are running scared. You are hiding instead of walking hand in hand with those women from Brazil. You are struggling to keep the rising tide at bay. Let it wash over you instead. Imagine the worst and stay present for it. You can do this. You are a survivor. You are stronger than you think.

I’m not trying to give you a panic attack. I’m trying to urge you to confront some of your feelings in order to make peace with our sad, doomed world. Facing the worst-case scenario can be a way of releasing yourself from your dread. You’ll be able to do that once you address your anxiety head-on. You need to see a therapist, and you need to start exercising every day. Even going on a walk for a half-hour is likely to make a big difference. Your circuitry is misfiring. You need to have a chance to see the world through clear eyes, without fear, for once in your life. That’s important no matter what happens next, no matter how doomed we all are. You could tell me right now that the planet is guaranteed to implode in a single year, and I would still want that clarity for you.

I don’t believe in much, but I do believe that the smallest, most mundane moments of life are the most precious and meaningful. The experience of watching this woman say “At least we will die together” changed the shape of my morning. It might change the shape of my week or my month or my year. There is joy in this darkness. There will be joy here until we breathe our last breaths. There are plenty of reasons to feel afraid, but when fear rules every cell of your body, it doesn’t matter if the world is ending or the world has been saved from the brink of destruction and everyone is rejoicing: The experience is exactly the same. You are panicked. You aren’t breathing. You want it to stop.

But once you can see the sun shining outside your window without feeling immediate dread, you can join in the fight. You can channel your energy into battling denial and passivity, spreading the truth, engaging in civic actions, taking a stand against corrupt companies and leaders, divesting from fossil fuels, and signal-boosting those who are on the front lines of this battle. If you feel up to it, you can take part in the global climate strike starting today, Friday, September 20, and running until Friday, September 27. You can make posters. You can make stickers. You can write songs. You can make T-shirts. Small actions change the shape of each day.

Are you naïve for doing these things? Is it hopeless? Will we gain ground? Will we be buried more quickly than we thought? Will we live long enough to know how this story ends?

We don’t know, and we might never know. But we can find happiness even as the sky falls. We can keep the possibility of death close at hand. We can fight even when the fight looks hopeless. We have to do whatever it takes to face this challenge, even when it feels overwhelming. Tackling our fear and dread and avoidance is part of that work.

Embrace the unknown and align your life with your values. There is joy there. There is joy in the ashes of the world we were promised. We can learn to live a new way. We can learn to live with limits. We can guide each other forward. Recognizing the joy in that connection is also part of our work.

That’s not denial. Fear and anxiety are denial. Panic is preparing to run away. Real joy can come from facing reality, no matter how ugly it is. A sense of calm can come from embracing sadness, no matter how wrenching it is. You’re being asked to enter a new life now and let go of what you thought you needed. We all have to do that, together.

Every morning, I wake up in a house with children who need someone to show them how to face an uncertain future. Now that my kids are bigger, I feel that responsibility in my bones every single day. I carry that weight around with me everywhere I go. And I’m not some incredible sage who can whisper soothing words to them as the sky falls. But sometimes you don’t find your strength until you’re already fighting.

I know you feel like you’re too overwhelmed to move forward. All I can do is tell you what I’ll tell my own kids: It’s our job to do our best with this broken, doomed world. So go outside and thank the trees for sticking around for so long. Feel the sunshine on your face. Taste the rain, and thank the rain. Savor this day as much as you can. Feel grateful that we are the ones who are called to rise up and face this challenge. And then, get ready to fight for this world with everything you’ve got.


Polly’s evil twin Molly has a newsletter; sign up here. Order Heather Havrilesky’s new book, What If This Were Enough?here. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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Ask Polly: ‘I’m Paralyzed by Anxiety About Climate Change!’