In the course of a single year, University of Maine climate Jacquelyn Gill scientist lost both her mother and her stepfather. She struggled with infertility, then during research in the Arctic, she developed embolisms in both lungs, was transferred to an intensive care unit in Siberia and nearly died. She was airlifted back home and later had a hysterectomy. Then the pandemic hit.
Her trials and her perseverance, she said, seemed to make her a magnet for emails and direct messages on Twitter “asking me how to be hopeful, asking me, like, what keeps me going?”
Gill said she has accepted the idea that she is “everybody’s climate midwife” and coaches them to hope through action.
Hope and optimism often blossom in the experts toiling in the gloomy fields of global warming, COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s disease.
How climate scientists like Gill or emergency room doctors during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic cope with their depressing day-to-day work, yet remain hopeful, can offer help to ordinary people dealing with a world going off the rails, psychologists said .
“I think it’s because they see a way out. They see that things can be done,” said Pennsylvania State University psychology professor Janet Swim. “Hope is seeing a pathway, even though the pathway seems far, far away.”
United Nations Environment Program Director Inger Andersen said she simply cannot do her job without being an optimist.
“I do not wish to sound naive in choosing to be the ‘realistic optimist,’ but the alternative to being the realistic optimist is either to hold one’s ears and wait for doomsday or to party while the orchestra of the Titanic plays,” Andersen said . “I do not subscribe to either.”
Dr. Kristina Goff works in the intensive care unit at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and said at times she felt overwhelmed during the pandemic. She keeps a file folder at home of “little notes that say ‘hey you made a difference.’”
“I think half of the battle in my job is learning to take what could be a very overwhelming anxiety and turn it into productivity and resilience,” Goff said. “You just have to focus on these little areas where you can make a difference.”
Alzheimer’s disease may be one of the bleakest diagnoses a physician can convey, one where the future can appear hopeless. Yet Dr. Ronald Petersen, director of the Mayo Clinic Alzheimer’s research center and a man colleagues describe as optimism and passionate, doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t think it’s depressing. I don’t think it’s gloomy. It’s difficult. It’s challenging,” Petersen said. But “we’re so much better off today than five years ago, 10 years ago.”
The coping technique these scientists have in common is doing something to help. The word they often use is “agency.” It’s especially true for climate researchers — tarred as doomsayers by political types who reject the science.
Gill, who describes herself as a lifelong cheerleader, has also battled with depression. She said what’s key in fighting eco-anxiety is that “regular depression and regular anxiety tools work just as well. And so that’s why I tell people: ‘Be a doer. Get other there. Don’t just doomscroll.’ There are entry level ways that anyone, literally anyone, can help out. And the more we do that, ‘Oh, it actually works,’ it turns out.”