Degrees: Real talk about planet-saving careers

Yes, you can turn your climate anxiety into meaningful action

Episode Summary

This week we talk with LaUra Schmidt, cofounder of The Good Grief Network. LaUra talks about how millions of us are suffering from eco-anxiety, how our emotions affect our planet-saving work, and how we can cope so we can do the work that needs to be done to make a positive impact on the future.

Episode Notes

LaUra Schmidt co-founded the non-profit Good Grief Network in 2016 with her wife, Aimee Lewis-Reau, to provide a space to help people cope with climate anxiety. Passionate about saving endangered species and panic-stricken about the climate emergency, LaUra had been suffering from her own climate grief and impotence. A childhood trauma survivor, LaUra had found solace in Adult Children of Alcoholics. So she took that group’s 12-step model (an offshoot of AA) and developed a 10-step program for others like her. Today, it’s helped more than 2,500 climate anxiety sufferers from more than 14 countries—and growing.  

Schmidt describes the despair of climate anxiety as “when we wake up to how severe the climate crisis is, paralleled with our social injustice issues... our ecosite issues and our habitat destruction issues.” That wake-up call can make anyone question themselves, she says: “It really takes on a personal blend of, ‘ What can I possibly do?’” 

The Good Grief Network arrived right on time. A recent study published in the medical journal The Lancet found that of 10,000 young people, ages 16 to 25, in 10 countries, 84% are worried about the climate. 

The authors wrote that this stress threatens the health and well-being of young people and there is an “urgent need” for an increase in research and governmental response to this critical issue.  

Since its founding, The Good Grief Network has served more than 2,500 participants in more than 14 countries. Schmidt, who describes herself as a “truth-seeker, cultural critic, grief-worker, and the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor” hopes to help others around the world develop the resiliency and skill set to create change.

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Episode Transcription

This transcript was auto-generated from an audio recording. Please excuse any typos or grammatical errors.  

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (00:00):

In 2009 environmentalist Laura Schmidt was struggling with anxiety and depression. She felt like it was her job to save the whole world from climate change. At that time, she was also attending a 12 step meetings program for adult children of alcoholics. So she combined what she was learning in the program with the eco anxiety she was feeling and founded her own group. Since then, she's learned a lot about how to transform despair into hope through meaningful action

LaUra Schmidt (00:32):

Can overwhelm us and it's not soft work at all. In fact, to feel our feelings and to actually deal with our despair or our hopelessness or our grief or what, our rage, you know, if, if we're not facing those feelings, they're going to prevent us from having joy and from expressing meaning in our lives.

Music (01:04):

Change is coming, oh yeah

Ain’t no holding it back

Ain't no running 

Change is coming, oh yeah!

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (01:06):

I'm Yesh Pavlik Slenk. And this is Degrees, real talk about planet saving careers from Environmental Defense Fund. In September, I read a stunning report about climate anxiety, a team of global academics surveyed 10,000 young people in 10 countries, and found that more than half feel sad, anxious, angry, powerless, they feel helpless and guilty when it comes to how climate change will affect their future to my guest, Laura Schmidt, that that data came as no surprise in the four years that she and her cofounder Amy Lewis-Reau have been running the good grief network more than 2,500 people have attended their 10 step support groups. I'll talk with Laura about how millions of us are suffering from eco anxiety and how we can cope so that we can do the work that needs to be done to make a positive impact on the future. Welcome to Degrees, Laura.

LaUra Schmidt (02:02):

Thank you. Yesh. I'm grateful to be here today.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (02:05):

Laura, can you take me back to the day when you first realized that what you were feeling was different than a more generalized anxiety or depression. That it had to do with the planet's future and that you weren't the only one feeling this way?

LaUra Schmidt (02:21):

Yeah. This is a great question. Yesh. I think that it's never really about one particular thing. And this awareness started when I was really young and just compounded over time. I remember being really young and watching an episode of Kratt's Creatures on PBS and seeing that all of the episodes ended with really teaching me about all these cool animals that exist worldwide and all the episodes would end with, but this animal is endangered or this animal is threatened. And I think that I kept a special place in my mind for this. And then through my undergraduate studies, I studied biology and environmental studies and the professors continuously just showed all of the problems and there was no space or no discussion for the solutions. And so I think that I really woke up to the severity of the predicament in that coursework. And I was wanting to have these conversations with everyone, and there wasn't much space to be talking about this. And I think there was a sentiment of like, we'll figure it out, we'll just figure it out. And so I realized that if I didn't start actually addressing the emotional reality, the emotional toll that it was having on me as a student and then as a change maker and wanting to be a climate advocate, wanting to be a climate activist, that if I didn't start addressing my feelings, that I was going to burn out straight away,

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (03:40):

Not exactly like your experience, but when you talk about your anxiety around wanting to be an agent of change and use your time and career to address these problems and not knowing what the solutions are. I mean, I feel like I have it. By the time this episode airs, I will have brought a second child into this world. As a parent, I spend a lot of energy thinking about how to make my daughter's experiences as full of possibility and love as possible. And as much as my husband and I can do to prepare them for what's next, or what's ahead from middle school heartbreak to climate change. We know that we can't protect them from it, and it's not even reasonable to predict the world that they'll become adults in. I constantly feel a mix of dread and guilt about what I'm signing them up for bringing them into this world, despite all of the care and the protection that my husband and I work to provide for them. This is my personal definition of climate anxiety. What is your definition?

LaUra Schmidt (04:42):

For me, climate anxiety is a lot about feeling like for a moment that my personal agency has been taken away. That there's nothing I can do as one human being to affect the change that we need. And I think this is where we need to evolve new solutions and identify new pathways forward that can really help us take that personal agency back and then get into communities and start affecting the changes that we need. But I think when we wake up to how severe the climate crisis is paralleled with our social injustice issues, paralleled with our ecocide issues and our habitat destruction issues, it really takes on a personal blend of what can I possibly do. And that despair right there, I think is what most people label climate anxiety. What I was seeing is, I can't both be an agent of change and have this unresolved trauma in my life. And so that forced me to do a lot of my own self work and figure out resilience strategies that can keep me engaged in these problems that seem so pressing and so important.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (05:45):

With your business partner, you have founded the Good Grief Network, and it's a network that's growing really fast. At one point, it was just a glimmer of an idea. So, I want you to take me back to the day you thought of it connecting you were inspired by the transformations of people experiencing progress using the 12 step groups method like Alcoholics Anonymous and for you, it was Adult. Children of Alcoholics. And you combined that with wanting to make progress on addressing your climate anxiety. Talk to me about when you made that connection and how it grew.

LaUra Schmidt (06:20):

Yeah, my business partner is actually my wife. So it's way better than just a business partner.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (06:26):

How convenient! You can take meetings anytime!

LaUra Schmidt (06:28):

Amy's background is in social justice. And mine, as we've mentioned, has been in biology and environmental studies. And we started just looking around at the state of the world and realized that we had kind of a framework that might help people. And so the exact day would be right after an air quality March in Salt Lake City, where you see thousands of people on the ground, and then you see it not transfer to direct change in the legislature or in a law. And there's only so many times that you can show up for a March or you can show up for a rally or you can call your legislator before you're like, are there any other options? Is there anything else I can do to make sure change happens? So I started conversations with my wife. I said, I had a framework, as you mentioned, the 12 step framework was really great. We borrowed some of their best aspects about container making. One includes no crosstalk. And so we just practice really deep listening and bearing witness to each other's story. And that in itself provides a really healing modality for relating to people, especially as we're experiencing these really heavy and painful feelings.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (07:36):

Can you define what "container making" is?

LaUra Schmidt (07:38):

Yeah. The container is just simply the place where we sit together and how we hold that space. And so AA and the other 12 steps have a really great container in that when you come to the meeting, you know why everybody is at that meeting. They start with a simple script and intro script, they close with a script. And then in addition to that they have certain rules for how we're going to guide ourselves, how we're going to be in this space together,

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (08:02):

What are those 10 steps, and what is it like to be in a meeting?

LaUra Schmidt (08:06):

So the steps really start like AA, with an acceptance. So it's modeled after the 12 steps, but obviously it follows a very different track because we're, we're doing different types of work, but we start with accepting the severity of the predicament. And it really asks us to go internal to our internal worlds and kind of assess what's there. And in our meetings, we don't actually sort of even bring up the severity of the predicament. We bring up our emotional reactions to the severity of the predicament. So in our spaces, you talk a lot about, I feel, or we use "I" statements. "I am," I experienced the world this way, or today "this thing" happened. Then we move into relationships with uncertainty and with our own mortality and the mortality of everything in the mainstream culture is pretty phobic about talking about death and loss. And so we're trying to normalize what it means to be finite creatures on a finite planet and how we might make meaning with that understanding.

Then we move into our cognitive biases and assessment of the stories we tell ourselves, you know, what does our culture tell us we should do about this problem? What does the culture tell us about what we value and how to make a meaningful life? Should we start questioning those norms? Then we move into a practice of gratitude and beauty and connections. We talk about what it means to be harm doers, to grieve the harm that we have caused. And the fact that we're in a system that forces all of us to cause harm. We can take accountability for that and then make better decisions. And then we finalize out on the other side about really reframing what meaningful action means.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (09:41):

I wonder if you get a lot of pushback, you know, people may say that coping with eco anxiety is soft. Maybe they say that because it's so new it's not real science. Maybe someone would say, or people who are experiencing this are just over-sensitive. I'd like to play devil's advocate here. You know, our podcast is for people who either already have jobs saving the planet, or they're trying to break into this field, why should they care about climate anxiety? Is it all about doing the work and implementing it for them? I think it's all about doing the work and implementing solutions and attacking the actual problem.

LaUra Schmidt (10:22):

My wife says that if you're not grieving, I grieve for you. And I think that is such a good statement. I think that if you're reading the IPCC or the barrage of news, that floods our inboxes and our newsfeeds every day, and you're not having an emotional reaction to it that you're not actually paying attention. And so we can call it eco anxiety, we can call it climate grief. We can call it a million different names, but there is an emotional reaction when we notice that we're committing ourselves to more storms, to food shortages, to crop failures, to more fires, all of these fires that we're seeing time and time again, if that's not breaking your heart open, then you're not paying attention to the state of the world. And I think that we don't stop at those feelings. Those feelings can overwhelm us and to actually feel our feelings and to actually deal with our despair or our hopelessness or our grief or our rage. If we're not facing those feelings, they're going to prevent us from having joy and from expressing meaning in our lives

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (11:23):

Who attends Good Grief Network meetings? Are certain types of people or professions more prone to experience climate anxiety?

LaUra Schmidt (11:32):

We're seeing a lot of different types of people come into our spaces. We're seeing the seasoned activists, the people who have been on the front lines for a number of years, and really questioning their effectiveness as Changemakers and wanting to find that renewed inspiration. We're seeing a lot of climate scientists and therapists come into the field. The therapists are trying to find ways to help support their clients. In addition to that, we're seeing some younger folks college age folks come into our spaces and really asking like, how can I be my best self? How can I be a changemaker? The same types of questions I was asking about a decade ago, trying to really figure out my personal agency and where my energy is best placed at this time.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (12:13):

So it sounds like people who are arriving at your meetings want to make progress. They are admitting to themselves, to some degree, that they are facing anxiety that is overwhelming them and keeping them from moving forward. Can you give me an example of some of the transformations that you've seen participants experience when they work with your program?

LaUra Schmidt (12:34):

I'm interested in your question of progress. I would push back and say that most of the people who find themselves in our spaces are actually really struggling with how to live, knowing what they know. Most of the people who come into our spaces come into our spaces because they feel isolated by the severity of the predicament. They may not have partners. They don't have friends, or they don't have family members who they can openly discuss these feelings with. Our culture is really scared of the dark and heavy, painful feelings. And so we really seek to normalize that those feelings are very human, very normal reactions to the state of the world.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (13:12):

LaUra, can you talk about a specific participant and their journey to your program? Why did they seek out this 10 step program?

LaUra Schmidt (13:23):

We have a lot of folks who come into our spaces who are parents and they're seeking guidance, how to take care of themselves so that they can also take care of their kids and not project their fears of the world onto their kids. And there's one participant, in particular, who came to us shortly after becoming a dad and just came with a lot of questions, and came with a lot of grief. A lot of folks and him in particular, I think he falls into this category, he had just experienced a loss in his life as well. And a lot of our participants actually come into our space after they've experienced a personal loss of some sort, which I think is fascinating, but he's seeking for ways to be in the world as a new dad. How does he not project his fears and his anxieties?

How does he provide hope for his son? And a lot of it, this particular participant came into our space during coronavirus lockdown. We were halfway through our step program when the lockdown happened in the United States. And so this presented a whole new set of fears for him, for us, for us being together in this space, it transitioned a lot from climate anxiety to COVID fears and the very real threat of how do I survive? What does tomorrow look like? And so we spent the latter half of the program just navigating that fear together in a space of 15 people talking about the state of the world. And what does it look like to be together in this great unknown. And how do we hold each other with our grief? But another thing that I thought was really fascinating is he and his family live in a particular city and to feel safe, they left the city and they went into a more natural place. And so every week he would update us on playing in the woods with his son. And that would bring a certain lightness to our meetings. It is envisioning this little toddler and his dad at a very scary time for all of us, you know, finding safety and solace in a forested area, just the image brings healing, I think, to many of us.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (15:24):

So an outcome of what you did together was for him to purchase land in upstate New York?

LaUra Schmidt (15:29):

He ended up buying a plot of land 50 or so acres in upstate New York. And his intention is to restore it to its natural habitat, with a focus of removing non native species and really trying to teach his son how to cultivate some land so that he can pay attention to the native species that ought to be there. And I think that's a really beautiful story because it's not only highlighting that he wants to help restore some land, but he's helping inform his son on how to take care of land. So it's a very generative type of practice that we're seeing.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (16:05):

And so, how did he use the 10 step program to really make that project become a reality?

LaUra Schmidt (16:11):

Our 10th step is to reinvest in meaningful efforts and we keep that really broad because our goal is to really reframe what meaningful action is. So many of us think that the only type of action that we can take is to call our legislators or to sign a petition or to show up for a protest or a street March. And what we're trying to do is help people identify where their experience meets their skillset and their passions. And then to go do that in the world, because with such a unique opportunity as the climate crisis, we know that we're going to have to really broaden what we think we can do and stop letting the culture decide that we only have two or three ways of being change makers. This is the time to be really creative and really innovative with the different ways we can make change, and innovate inspiration moving forward.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (16:58):

What types of environmental actions make people feel better? You know, not everyone has the means to purchase that much land in upstate New York or the time to cultivate it and return it to its natural state. How can people who don't have that time or don't have those resources take meaningful environmental action to really help them heal and deal with how they're feeling?

LaUra Schmidt (17:21):

I think the most important thing that we can do is feel those feelings. You don't have to buy 50 acres in upstate New York, but maybe you can reinvest in parenting. Maybe you can grow a garden. Maybe you can have conversations with your book club or, you know, out for a beer or at the dinner table. You know, let's start normalizing these different modalities of how we each can take action. Instead of just having a blanket statement that these are meaningful actions we can take, let's really look inward and see what makes us come alive, what fuels meaning and joy. And then how can we do that in a collective way? We're bringing these skills and these passions to each other and inspiring each other on the collective level.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (18:03):

So, LaUra, it's been a couple of years and you've helped a lot of people on this journey. How is your level of climate anxiety today?

LaUra Schmidt (18:11):

My levels of climate anxiety vary tremendously, and it really depends on the types of practices I'm doing. If I'm not creating time to feel my feelings, to move my body, to connect with other people, I really easily get overwhelmed. And that actually looks a lot like me laying in bed all day because I have depression and anxiety already. I am mindful of the amount of work that I have to do to stay regulated and to stay connected with other people. So some days you'll catch me and I'm overwhelmed. I'm feeling a lot of anxiety. My chest is tight. Some days you'll find me and I'll be at our local lake with my dogs and my wife just hanging out and breathing and enjoying the present moment. I definitely have to do work to regulate myself and to remain connected and inspired though.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (19:01):

LaUra, you've been doing this heart work for a really long time. Tell me about a time, a moment, an experience that really shifted things for you.

LaUra Schmidt (19:12):

When I first entered Adult Children of Alcoholics, I didn't speak in those rooms for three months. I just sat and I listened to other people's stories and an author, her name is Claudia black, she does a lot of work on adult children of alcoholics. And she says that there are three rules of adult children of alcoholics, and that's, don't talk, don't trust, don't feel. And I came into those spaces pre-programmed with those unconscious rules navigating my life. And so it took a lot of time to open up, but through the power of community and through the power of people, sharing their stories, I finally felt able to share my own and I haven't stopped since. And those types of lessons, we carry over to our Good Grief Network spaces. Instead of don't talk, we say, please do talk. And instead of don't trust, we say, trust us, trust a moment. And instead of don't feel, we say absolutely feel, and you're not alone in those feelings.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (20:10):

It sounds like it wasn't a moment. But the experience of going through that program for you sitting in those meetings for three months gave you permission to talk, to feel, to be heard.

LaUra Schmidt (20:23):

And to show up to be myself, my messy unregulated self, which is the same permission we give our participants in Good Grief Network.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (20:32):

This conversation is eye opening to me because some days I feel like I have it all figured out. I'm a parent, I'm a professional. I have my own limitations on time and energy. And for me, a best practice is to spend about 30 minutes a day, if I need to, to address those fears, listen to them and then let them go so that I can get excited about what I can do to change it. And for me, it's working with the next generation of climate leaders through the Climate Corps program. And if I wasn't working on this work with EDF, I think I would be a mess when it comes to climate anxiety. So I'm excited for our listeners who want to enter into this career or who are already in it because they too will have a way that they can help make an impact. But what I'm hearing you say is that maybe 30 minutes a day or whatever I'm dedicating to actually letting fear and anxiety sit with myself is maybe not enough to really sustain myself, to continue to do this work in the most effective way that I possibly can. What's your reaction to that?

LaUra Schmidt (21:43):

I think there are a lot of different practices that we can employ in our daily lives and that we shouldn't be prescriptive about which ones work for us to help us regulate our feelings and our emotions. I think that feeling our feelings is one that we obviously like talking about. For many of us, we spend a lot of time outside. If we have access to the outdoors, we spend time near water that has a naturally calming effect. Another practice that a lot of our participants use is journaling. You know, getting those feelings out of us and onto the page, you don't have to keep a journal. You can rip up the pages. There are a lot of modalities for letting us express our feelings. There's a big movement to be training more climate aware therapists, which I think is huge and crucial for this time.

And then finally, I really want to advocate for body movement. How are we moving our bodies to help regulate that buildup of cortisol or adrenaline or whatever feelings might have brought up in us? And our body will tell us if it wants to move, if it needs to shake, if it wants to go for a run, but what it comes down to is how can you be present in the moment with the body mind, soul spirit that you have without overwhelming yourself?

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (22:52):

What's your favorite practice?

LaUra Schmidt (22:54):

My favorite practice is random dance parties. My wife and I have a lot of random dance parties. She is a DJ. And so she really likes making Spotify playlists. And we'll just put on some music and dance together for 15, 20 minutes at a time.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (23:09):

That sounds like so much fun. But what about connection as a practice? You know, I can do everything you just said myself. But you have these groups through your program. What happens when we're together that makes a difference?

LaUra Schmidt (23:25):

Connection is essential. I don't think connection is a practice so much as it is an imperative to live in these times. Connection reminds us that we're not alone. Connection inspires new innovation and new ideas for new ways of being and connection, time and time again, psychiatrists and psychologists have taught us that we co-regulate with other people. And so if we have people that are doing their work to regulate themselves, and we come together in community, it actually helps us physically feel better to be in the presence of other regulated people.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (23:59):

Even for introverts like me?

LaUra Schmidt (24:00):

Even for introverts like you. You don't have to go to a party, but you do have to connect with other people. We're definitely social creatures. I'm an introvert as well.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (24:09):

Have you seen any Good Grief Groups pop up within companies or cities?

LaUra Schmidt (24:14):

Yes. And we're going to be training more facilitators so that folks can bring this program into their own communities. We actually have 200 facilitation packages out worldwide, and I think 14 different countries.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (24:27):

I now have some quick personal questions that we're asking all of our guests and it's kind of rapid-fire and you have to choose one or the other. You can't choose both. Are you ready?

LaUra Schmidt (24:38):

Oh no! Yeah.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (24:39):

Ok, Laura. Mountain or beach?

LaUra Schmidt (24:40):


Yesh Pavlik Slenk (24:43):

Pet or plant.

LaUra Schmidt (24:47):


Yesh Pavlik Slenk (24:47):

Power or money?

LaUra Schmidt (24:50):


Yesh Pavlik Slenk (24:54):

That's a tough one, for everybody.

LaUra Schmidt (24:55):

That is a tough one! Community?

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (24:59):

You're picking a third choice. That's breaking the rules.

LaUra Schmidt (25:03):

I've been a rule breaker my whole life.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (25:06):

Tell me though, what do you choose, power or money? Community, you can have.

LaUra Schmidt (25:12):

Thank you. Power.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (25:13):

Tell me why.

LaUra Schmidt (25:17):

This is hard. Money is a social construct and power is a way of relating to others. I choose a relationship with others over money because money seems like it is an arbitrary creation, culturally.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (25:41):

I love that very scientific, logical answer. Tell us one thing that someone listening to this interview right now, someone who cares about the same things that you do can do to make a difference.

LaUra Schmidt (25:54):

Courage comes to mind. All of your listeners have positioned themselves in careers or wanting to make themselves have a career that's meaningful. And that makes some sort of change in the world. And I think to even get on that path requires courage. Courage can be a source of energy. When we feel like we're depleted of our energy or of our passion, we can just take the next best step in courage and then communicate and connect with other people who are also passionate. And I think this can inform our work. This can inform our lives. And again, especially for those of us who are wanting to dedicate our time and our energy to mitigating the worst impacts of climate, courage is like the single most generative force that we have available to us.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (26:41):

So finding that inner Cowardly Lion and leaning into that journey.

LaUra Schmidt (26:46):

Leaning into it the whole time for the rest of our lives. That's the call that we're being asked to do right now. Or we don't have to know what the world's going to look like in 10 years. I think we can just take the next best step that really brings us alive and creates community and use that as our fuel and our passion to inspire change.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (27:05):

Yes, yes, yes! I am nodding vigorously on that. I love it. I love it. Laura Schmidt is the co-founder of good grief network. You can follow her work on Instagram at Good Grief Network. Laura, thank you so much for being here.

LaUra Schmidt (27:19):

Thank you for the great questions, Yesh.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (27:22):

In the next episode of Degrees:

Dawnielle Tellez (27:24):

In all honesty, over the years, I lost count of how many jobs I haven't gotten that I've gone up for. It's almost to the point, you know, when you get a nicely worded, polite rejection email, that was nice. Thanks for letting me know. Cause you're just so used to getting ghosted by organizations here and there.

Yesh Pavlik Slenk (27:42):

We'll talk to Danielle Tellez. Her early passion for dolphins led her away from the ocean to jobs with outdoor clothing giants, Patagonia, and REI. And that's it for this episode of degrees, you can find links to the resources in this episode and the entire series in your listening app. Degrees is presented by Environmental Defense Fund. Amy Morse is our producer. Our executive producers are Rick Velleu and Christina Mestre. Podcast Allies is our production company, and I am your host Yesh Pavlik Slenk. But the foundation of the show is you. Share this episode with a friend and find your planet saving career together. Thanks for listening.

Music (28:32):

Change is coming, oh yeah

Ain’t no holding it back

Ain't no running 

Change is coming, oh yeah!