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Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis
Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis

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2.1 Danger of burnout

The risk of activist burnout is well documented (Hoggett and Randall, 2018; Brown and Pickerill, 2009; Lawson, 2021), but what is it and what are the psycho-social factors that can lead to it?

Mental Health UK (2023) defines burnout as ‘a state of physical and emotional exhaustion’ and lists the common signs of burnout as:

  • feeling tired or drained most of the time
  • feeling helpless, trapped and/or defeated
  • feeling detached/alone in the world
  • having a cynical/negative outlook
  • self-doubt
  • procrastinating and taking longer to get things done
  • feeling overwhelmed.

So why does activism carry this risk? Brown and Pickerill (2009) suggest that there is a socially constructed ‘perfect standard’ for being an activist which is unrealistic. They describe an ‘activist identity’ that encompasses values of total commitment to the cause and personal sacrifice. There can even sometimes be a culture of competition between activists in a group – who is the ‘best’ activist. Buying into this identity can lead to physical, emotional and even financial strains that eventually lead to burnout.

Hoggett and Randall (2018) describe a possible activist journey:

  1. Epiphany – the person realises the seriousness of the problem.
  2. Immersion – the person becomes heavily involved in activism and spends a great deal of time reading and thinking about the issue.
  3. Crisis (burnout) – the person experiences the urgency of the climate crisis and at the same time feels over-worked, over-whelmed, disillusioned or disempowered.
  4. Resolution – the person finds a balance between their activism and normal life, finds a sense of proportion that works for them. They also find intermittent distance from the knowledge of the climate crisis so that there is a reduction in the pre-occupation with information.

Activity 4 Climate activist journey

Timing: Allow about 5 minutes

In relation to climate grief, psychotherapist Sally Gillespie gives a personal example of her own journey of coping with the climate crisis and finding a balance. Read the following extract and reflect on Sally’s words.

These days I am no longer stalked by apocalyptic imaginings or dreams in ways that I once was, although I am even more concerned about climate disruption and its consequences. I have learned to accept that I cannot be sure of any scenario ahead, although I do anticipate immense change. This acceptance enables me to hold a conscious resolve to stay open to the world as it is, beautiful and wounded, while doing what I can to contribute to ecological restoration, climate action and cultural change. While grief and anxiety ebbs and wanes in me, so too does hope and inspiration, grounded in the resilience and creativity of the natural world, including human nature.

(Gillespie, 2020, p. 37)

What do you notice in Sally’s description about how her feelings have evolved regarding the climate crisis?

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Sally’s words describe how, through a long process involving adjustment and adaptation, she has reached a phase where her eco-anxiety and grief is not so overwhelming. She no longer has disturbing dreams and seems to have reached a place of acceptance. She can accept uncertainty and the inevitable changes that will happen. She is able to accept both her responsibility and the limits of what she can personally achieve. She can experience beauty, hope and empowerment even though grief and anxiety come and go. One of the most striking elements of Sally’s account is the transformation she has experienced in her thinking, social values and way of living.

Taking the time to reflect on how you are feeling when you engaged in activism is a vital part of avoiding burnout. You can then ensure that you engage in self-care.