Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person experiences “climate grief”

How I Came to Terms With ‘Climate Grief’ as an HSP

HSPs feel everything more deeply, including climate change. But one way to feel less overwhelmed by “climate grief” is by making yourself part of the solution.

I’ve always cared deeply about the planet. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a Highly Sensitive Person, so there’s a good chance you feel the same way. 

While caring deeply about the earth is a beautiful thing that I wouldn’t trade for the world, it can sometimes feel unbearable. 

I used to wake up in cold sweats thinking about climate refugees. I’d see those pictures of skinny polar bears clinging to a piece of ice and cry for days, feeling overwhelmed by grief and horror about things that felt far too big for me to influence. 

People use the term “climate grief” to refer to a wider loss and anxiety related to the overall effects of climate change. 

It’s no surprise. Sensitive people feel a profound connection with nature. We process things deeply and feel emotions intensely. Add our empathy for people and animals that we’ve never even met — and our tendency to absorb the feelings of those around us — and it’s no wonder that we’re going to feel overwhelmed by climate grief at some point!

There was a time when I felt crushed by the dread and sadness I felt about climate change and environmental destruction. But, little by little, I’ve learned how to hold those feelings in a way that inspires me to contribute to a better world every day, without feeling paralyzed or devastated by my emotions. 

I can finally care deeply about the planet — and all the living beings who call it home — while still enjoying a happy and joyful life. But it took many years to get to this point! 

If you need some help with the same journey, here are some of the steps that I took along the way.

10 Ways to Come to Terms With Climate Grief as an HSP

1. Welcome your emotions, all of them 

I used to fight against my emotions. When I started to feel dread or panic about the planet, I would either get mad at myself or try to distract myself. But when I learned to welcome my emotions, I found they got a little quieter. 

For example, if I feel a knot in my tummy, I gently focus on that physical sensation and smile toward it. As I do this, I find that the sensation tends to move or change, and I follow it around my body, saying in my head, “I’m here for you, I understand.” 

I have found this much more effective than thinking, “Oh shut up, cry baby!” Because instead of piling shame on top of my already complicated feelings, I can process some of the emotions there and then. This stops them from building up and exploding later down the line!

2. Respect your fears — yes, they are rational

This is linked to my first step, but it’s slightly different. As well as letting my emotions unfurl safely without judgment, I also learned to acknowledge that my fears were rational. 

Let me be clear. Feeling devastated about how humans have treated the planet doesn’t mean you need to be “cured” of anything. Climate grief is a rational and reasonable reaction to the times that we live in. It can make us feel “crazy” when we are the only person who seems to worry about our destructive society. But I think it would be far stranger not to feel anything!

This shift in my perspective made me feel far less distressed, because I could stand in my beliefs with conviction instead of wondering what was “wrong” with me. 

3. Focus on your “sphere of influence”

Now that my emotions weren’t screaming quite so loudly, I was able to take a more practical approach toward dealing with my climate grief. 

On a friend’s advice, I tried doing an exercise called “sphere of influence.” I drew a circle in the middle of a piece of paper, then a second circle outside the first. In the center of the smaller circle, I wrote down the things I have total power to change. 

For example, I wrote things like:

  • I can just go grocery shopping once a week to cut down on gas
  • I can eat 40 percent more organic, local food from the market
  • I can get a reusable face mask 
  • I can donate some money to Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

In the second circle, I wrote down things that were partly in my sphere of influence. For example:

  • I can speak to my friends and family about some of the changes I’ve been making (but I can’t force them to see things differently)
  • I can ask my husband to watch the new documentary about plastic with me (but I can’t force him to go zero-waste)

And in the third circle, I wrote the things that I had very little to no influence over. 

For example:

  • I can’t clean up the ocean 
  • I can’t stop the tar sands exploitation in Alberta, Canada 
  • I can’t stop the climate from getting warmer

It was a difficult exercise, but afterward, I felt such relief. I promised myself that I’d work through everything that was in my power to change. But I would not concern myself with anything in the “out of my influence” zone until my mental health was more stable. As a sensitive person, my mind’s already in overdrive, so learning to focus on what I can do really helped me. 

If I feel able to in the future, I could look at that zone of “no influence” and think of some concrete things I can do, such as, “I will write a letter asking my politician to stop investing in tar sands exploitation.” 

But unless I could think of something concrete I was going to do, I would not waste anymore time feeling terrible about things that were “out of my worry grade.” After all, all that worrying was just distracting me from the things I really could do, and we HSPs need to protect our energy as much as possible!

4. Shift to a zero-waste lifestyle 

After I identified my zone of influence, it became clear that a zero-waste lifestyle was a road I wanted to take. Zero-waste doesn’t mean you never produce any garbage again; that would be impossible. It just means you take active steps to reduce the waste that your lifestyle produces, particularly toxic wastes, like plastic, which have a detrimental effect on the planet. 

I thought it would be hard — especially since we HSPs don’t love change — but I just took lots of tiny steps, and before I knew it, I had cut down my waste to one bag of trash every two months. I achieved this through composting my food (you can even do this in an apartment!) and buying in bulk. 

It hasn’t worked out to be more expensive either, because I think more carefully about what I’m going to buy and don’t make any unnecessary purchases like I used to. I stopped buying new clothes and have great fun picking up cheap outfits at thrift stores. 

Of course, change has to come from above, too. But by focusing on some of the things I could change myself, I felt far less powerless, and it’s given me the strength I need to go forward joyfully. 

5. Limit your exposure to news

Do you ever feel a terrible sense of doom after reading the news, but you just can’t stop reading more and more? You’re not alone. It’s called “doomscrolling,” and it turns out that it’s a pretty common thing to do. 

But it’s not very good for our mental health, and those horrible images we see can stay with sensitive people for a long time. Besides, the good news usually doesn’t get reported, so we end up with a skewed perspective of how bad things really are. 

My new rule is no reading the news after 8 p.m., and I only check the news sites around once a week. If something is important enough that I have to know it, then someone else will probably tell me about it anyway. 

This one was difficult for me, as I studied International Development and Journalism in college. Surely reading about all the horror in the world was my moral duty?! Well, no. I believe my human duty is to be kind to everyone I can and to help protect the earth. 

Does reading about every single horrible thing happening in the world achieve either of those things? Nope. In fact, it’s unkind to put myself through so much heartache. 

6. Meditate and do yoga

Meditation and yoga are not magical cures that are going to make everything feel better. But, over time, I’ve found that both of these things helped me create a healthy distance between myself and my feelings. 

Instead of thinking, “THE WORLD IS ENDING, AND I AM DEVASTATED,” I now think things like, “There are some serious problems in the world, which makes me feel overwhelmed sometimes. I will continue to do what I can to protect myself and other people from harm. I’m so grateful for all the other people doing the same.”

It’s not as snappy, but it’s more accurate, and it helps me cope with feelings that, at one point, had swallowed me whole!

7. Take time to see the beauty in nature

It can be so easy to feel overwhelmed by graphic images of environmental destruction. (Especially since we HSPs are so affected by our environments already!) But there is so much beauty in the world still. 

I find getting out into the mountains for hiking and swimming helps me recharge when climate grief is beginning to drain my energy again. (And recharging is essential for HSPs so we don’t get an “emotional hangover”!) 

Being in nature reminds me of what I’m fighting for and gives me a sense of peace. Plus, nature is very healing for highly sensitive souls anyway.

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8. Connect with like-minded people 

I used to feel so alone in caring about the planet. But connecting with like-minded people has been helpful. For instance, I recently went on a meditation retreat, geared toward environmental activists, which was such a wonderful experience. 

I was suddenly surrounded by people that thought exactly as I did and who felt equally alone in their efforts to protect nature. (And, yes, I’m pretty sure a lot of them were HSPs!) I can’t tell you how relieved and validated I felt after this experience. So I suggest you do the same: connect with others and find a commuity to join, either online or in person, for causes you believe in.

9. Find a way to leave the world a better place 

I spent many years thinking about how I could reduce my impact on the planet. But as I grew more hopeful and resilient, I decided that reducing my impact wasn’t enough. If I just focused on making my lifestyle “less bad,” I didn’t feel I was contributing to any positive change.

So I started researching more about pesticides, because they are something that I worry about a lot. I came across a course that I could take online, and I’m now training to become a soil technician. Once I’m qualified, I will be able to help farmers shift away from pesticides and restore their soil. This will have a huge positive impact for insects, animals, and people. 

Your path will almost certainly look different from mine. But there is a way that you can make the world a better place: it’s just waiting for you to discover it. 

Remember to focus on your well-being and health first so you don’t burn out down the line. But when you’re ready, you can roll up your sleeves and find your path. It is hard to feel overwhelmed by climate grief when you make yourself part of the solution. 

10. Acknowledge mother nature’s power

The final thing that helped me come to terms with climate grief was realizing how truly powerful mother nature is. (My lecturers on the soil course helped me with this!)

Here’s an example:

After the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, scientists believed that the area would be a nuclear wasteland forever. But just three decades later, the exclusion zone is teeming with wildlife. Birds are making their homes in the old reactor, and bears, wild horses, wolves, and lynx have all returned to thrive in the area now that humans are gone. 

So even though I have genuine hope that humans will turn things around for the better, I find it reassuring to know that nature will go on, with or without us. 

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