Sustainable Pet Parenting Can Be Stressful. Here’s How to Deal
A climate psychologist on how to deal with eco-anxiety: “We have to be good to ourselves the way we want to be good to the planet.”
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By now, it’s no surprise: The planet is not in great shape, and we need to do something about it. As climate change continues to make its presence known through extreme storms and funky weather patterns, wildfires and floods, we are — understandably — feeling the burn on our mental health. According to a poll conducted by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) in 2020, 67% of Americans now report feeling anxious about the impact of climate change.
Wendy Greenspun, Ph.D., a therapist specializing in climate psychology, says that beyond fueling anxiety, climate change can provoke feelings of grief for the world we are losing, anger at those most to blame, and guilt over our own personal footprints.
The more people (or pets) in your household, the more responsibility you might feel for the problem. When wellness advocate Minna Lee adopted her Corgi, Benny, during the pandemic, she remembers being super startled by his impact on her trashcan. “An additional living being is going to generate waste in a way that you can’t avoid,” she says of how being a pet parent can exacerbate climate stress and guilt.
Having an emotional reaction to an issue as vast and all-encompassing as the climate crisis is totally reasonable, Dr. Greenspun notes, and nothing to shy away from. However, for those who now find these feelings overwhelming, these are a few strategies that she’s found to be helpful for taking the edge off.
1. Move away from black-and-white thinking.
“When we go to extremes, we don’t find the room for creative thinking. It’s about finding the middle ground,” Dr. Greenspun explains. While climate change continues to be a massive problem, there are also people who are dedicating their lives to finding solutions to it.
Put this tip into practice by challenging yourself to read one article that gives you hope to offset every one that leaves you feeling doomed. Each time your mind flashes to a bleak future, try to envision a more sustainable world that humanity built out of respect for the planet and each other. Remind yourself of the power of human resilience, and know that focusing on solutions won’t distract you from the severity of the problem. Instead, it will equip you to do something about it.
2. Find your own place within the movement.
Hate to break it to you, but you alone will not reverse climate change. With the help of other people, however, you can make a real difference to ease one aspect of it. Dr. Greenspun thinks that it can be helpful to narrow your action to a particular climate issue that you really care about (such as ocean plastic or food waste) at a time, and synch up with others in your area who have a similar focus. Not only will this make the problem easier to wrap your head around, but it will also help you see progress in real-time and build confidence. It will also give you the opportunity to talk about your concerns with others, which Dr. Greenspun has noticed can be very helpful for combatting feelings of despair.
Dr. Greenspun explains that this is also an example of what counselor Bob Doppelt calls “Purposing,” or making meaning of misfortune. “When we’re faced with this enormous thing and feel helpless, sometimes what’s useful is thinking about who you want to be in the midst of it, and how you want to live your life,” she says. When we consider how climate change could be guiding us to our life’s greater purpose, we step away from anxiety and towards action.
3. Let your values guide your actions.
Dr. Greenspun has consulted with plenty of people who put a ton of pressure on themselves to live a perfectly sustainable life all the time. This is not only impossible but counterproductive. “Perfection is not part of any system,” she observes. Just like our outer world is filled with variation and nuance, our inner world needs to remain flexible to change.
This is something to remember the next time you aren’t able to send in your pet’s food packaging to be recycled or find a place to donate old toys. Be kind to yourself. It’s not about getting everything right all the time; it’s about living your life with your values as guiding principles. “Focus on the values that are involved versus the exact specific behavior that needs to always be adhered to,” Dr. Greenspun suggests.
4. Don’t deplete your inner resources.
Just like animals hibernate and plants go dormant, we as humans need periods of rest and respite in order to flourish. Consider this permission to take breaks, spend time with those you love, and chase joy — even (and perhaps, especially) when it feels like there isn’t much to celebrate.
“Finding those sources that really nourish the psychological system is really essential,” Greenspun emphasizes. “It’s okay to go out and enjoy yourself. You need to do that.” As a pet parent, this may look like going on a mindful nature walk or indulging in some extra snuggle time. Lee notes that for her and Benny, it’s walks around their neighborhood and intentional moments of rest that promote calm amidst the chaos.
In this way, self-care is essential to climate care. After all, as Greenspun acknowledges, “We have to be good to ourselves the way we want to be good to the planet.”
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Emma is a writer, editor, and environmentalist based in New York City. She is the senior sustainability editor at mindbodygreen, the author of Return To Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us (April 2022), and the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self-Care. While she doesn’t have any pets of her own, she is a loving dog aunt to Pip the pup.