Meaning and eco-anxiety
Featuring: Panu Pihkala
July 4, 2023

A note from Rachel

Eco-anxiety is a complex topic, and researchers help us understand climate emotions in a deeper way by creating models that explain different connection points. Panu Pihkala is an eco-anxiety researcher from Finland who has written extensively on eco-anxiety and published many notable articles. His new Process Model of Eco-anxiety is drawing attention throughout the climate mental health community. In Panu’s model, meaning-making about our climate emotions is a multifaceted process. It includes activities related to Distancing, a key aspect of self-care, as well as Engaging with our emotions. It also includes chronological and thematic aspects. This model has a lot of similarities with our own storytelling approach here at Eco-Anxious Stories, especially the dynamics related to meaning. Panu contributed this blog to our site to bring further insight into the model and what it can teach us about our eco-anxious stories.– RMC

A note from the author: 

In December, I published the results of a long research project: a new Process Model of Eco-anxiety and Grief. I have been very pleased to hear that the model has been helpful for many people. The model is freely available online, but perhaps the easiest introduction to it is the two-part story about it on the Generation Dread website of Britt Wray and colleagues (click here for Part 1 and Part 2).

Recently, Jo and Mary, from another cool website called “What can we do?” sent me a heart-warming letter which included an important but complex question. They had used the model creatively in their discussions, posting sticky notes of various factors and experiences. They also provide a helpful, brief explanation of the model . The question was: how do I see the role of meaning-focused coping in the model? Where does meaning fit in?

This blog is based on the text I wrote in response to Jo and Mary, modified for the Eco-Anxious Stories community. We hope you take away something valuable. 

Panu Pihkala

Eco-Anxiety Researcher

Meaning and Eco-Anxiety

by Panu Pihkala

What do we mean with meaning?

The questions are related to a classic dilemma: what does meaning mean? Some people like myself separate “meaning” and “purpose”, even when these can overlap: a purpose is a more clearly discerned reason to live and act, while meaning can be lived through also implicitly. Furthermore, we all attach various meanings to things in our lives, such as social relations, experiences, skills, and elements in the natural world. Social status and various identities may include various kinds of meanings for us, and we may value them differently: status means more to some people than for others, for example.

Every person has some kind of “meaning system”: a way in which their various meanings are related to each other and function. We may or may not be aware of various elements in our meaning systems, because awareness needs reflection and help from others. The concept of meaning system is thus even broader than “worldview” or “religion”, since a meaning system refers to our overall way of being in the world, which includes a worldview and sometimes elements of religion.

Where does meaning-making fit when we’re coping with eco-anxiety?

Meaning is one of the key issues for me in relation to eco-emotions, and it is used in many frameworks. When it comes to climate emotions, how does one actually practice meaning-focused coping? Is that separate from other things one does to cope? Well, I think that it can sometimes be a separate, or specific activity– one can for example go to a desert and meditate on one’s system on meanings – but usually it is not. People are working through changes in our meaning systems by engaging in various tasks and activities, and even by resting and rejoicing.

Meaning-focused models can overlap and align with other models. When they reached out to me for more information about this, Jo and Mary brought up a coping framework by Lazarus and Folkman. These psychologists, who built the framework of problem-focused coping (PFC) and emotion-focused coping (EFC), into which meaning-focused coping was later added especially by Folkman, did not intend that PFC and EFC would be necessarily completely apart from each other. They use examples of how a person may consciously combine the two. For example, when one is anxious about an important presentation, one may do one’s best in preparing (PFC) and then use somatic methods of calming one’s emotions right before the actual event (EFC). 

Especially the Swedish researcher Maria Ojala has applied the framework into climate psychology and education. Furtheremore, she has raised up the importance of meaning. In coping with climate change, both PFC and EFC are needed, and an overall aim is to experience meaning and participate in meaningful actions. She has found that this is also related to “constructive hope” instead of mere wishful thinking. Maria’s work has been highly influential and useful.

Meaning-focused coping (MFC) is characterized by an ability to work through the impacts of the crisis/loss in one’s system of meanings.  In practice, this requires both problem-focused coping and emotion-focused coping elements, but contextual differences can be significant. Sometimes one is able to do more about the problem itself, and sometimes the PFC elements are instead related to solving smaller practical problems related to the bigger issue which can’t be completely solved (you may see where I’m getting at here in relation to climate issues…). With existential issues, a lot of EFC is always needed, because these situations raise up all kinds of emotions. One needs to both learn from these emotions and learn to cope with them.

However, I think that in addition to MFC, other frameworks which emphasize meaning are also needed. Here I focus on grief scholar Robert Neimeyer’s framework of Meaning reconstruction, and existential-phenomenological theories oriented around the concept of meaning (e.g. Joel Vos). 

Rebuilding systems of meaning

Let’s take a closer look at how Vos’ model helps us understand the process of meaning-making. Vos separates between various kinds of meanings that a person may have in their life. Some of these are related to more material things and some for example to beliefs and worldviews. Awakening to the severity of the ecological crisis can challenge numerous kinds of meanings that people have. At a deep level, people have to face changes to so-called basic assumptions and beliefs; this of course depends on those assumptions and beliefs. People have to rework many things in their fabric of life, to use a metaphor. They may have to learn to live even though there remains some holes in that fabric.

Some issues that people in industrialized nations commonly face include the following.

I believed that there is progress; now it seems that I have to change my whole view of the world.” (meanings related to worldviews that are now in crisis)

I was raised by the ideals that I should study hard, apply for a good educational institute and then engage in a career. But if everything seems to be changing rapidly, is this really what I should do?” (meanings related to life plans, values, and social status which are now in crisis)

I grew up in a religious community which taught me that God is benevolent and in charge of the world. Can that really be true because the ecosystems are so damaged?” (spiritual meanings which are now in crisis)

The whole process of trying to Cope and Change, and to Adjust and Transform, includes the dimension of meaning reconstruction. Neimeyer and colleagues often use narrative methods when they work with this in grief and bereavement therapy. I don’t know if they ever have used this in relation to ecological grief, but I strongly believe in the usefulness of this approach also there, and have experimented with it some in Finland. Even though I am not a therapist, I do facilitate workshops and discussion groups, and I sometimes work with therapists. The narrative methods allow people to tell stories about how the losses and anxiety-producing situations happened. Integrative work then carries the stories further in time. This is something which is naturally closely related to the whole endeavour of Eco-anxious Stories.

Image 1: Awakening

There is great alignment between the narrative model we use at Eco-Anxious Stories and the model that Panu offers us in his Process Model for Eco-anxiety and Ecological grief. Panu’s conceptual model works chronologically from left to right, just like a storyline. It starts with what we might consider a “Prologue” to the story – a state of unknowing and semi-consciousness about ecological crises, which can lead to awakening and shock. In our model of storytelling, we start with Act 1 – the beginning of the story when a key turning point or conflict emerges. Emotions like anxiety, worry, shock, powerlessness, and helplessness often come along with “waking up” to the reality of our climate era.

Neimeyer and colleagues have great questions that can be applied here. I will write more about this in the future, but here are some selections of their questions that I find really relevant to experiences of eco-anxiety and ecological grief.

  • How do I make sense of what has happened, and what is the meaning of my life now in its wake?
  • What do my bodily and emotional feelings tell me about what I now need?
  • With what cherished beliefs is this loss compatible? Incompatible?
  • Who am I in light of this loss, now and in the future? How does this experience shape or reshape the larger story of my life?
  • Who in my life can grasp and accept what this loss means to me? (Source: Neimeyer 2015, see below)

Image 2: Coping and Changing

Panu’s model moves from the shock of awakening to an interconnected process of Coping and Changing. This process aligns well with how we talk about Act 2.  This part of the story is where characters are wrestling with a new truth. It is where we make choices about how, or if, we will  allow it to shape our identities, our relationships, and the ways we engage with the problems we are facing.

Some older sources of meanings will change or become lost, for example ones linked with perpetual economic growth. Some new ones will emerge. Some meanings stay, even though they may emerge impacted by the process; perhaps scarred, perhaps made more enduring through the trials. There may be elements of Post-Traumatic Growth here. Grief scholars sometimes ask about “finding meaning in the loss”, which does not need to mean brightsiding. Despite the enduring pain and sometimes a strong sense of injustice, is there something meaningful which the process of engaging with the loss has brought? In the environmental context, many people have for example testified to an increased sense of meaningfulness when they have found ways to engage the situation with trusted others, and they speak of having found values which are important for them. Even while the ecological crisis is totally terrible, engaging with it can also generate meaningful things.

Storytelling as an act of reconstruction

An increased or rejuvenated ability to experience a general sense of meaning in life can be seen as a sign of Adjustment and Transformation. It can also be seen as an advancement in engaging with tasks of grief (see William Worden’s work, and Thomas Attig’s). There may indeed be fluctuations, still. There are some moving literary descriptions of this, such as journalist Dahr Jamail’s book End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption (2019). He testifies to a long process and to feeling still both sadness and meaning.

Image 3: Transformation and Adjustment

Panu’s model explores how our eco-emotions can be a guide from Coping and Changing to transformation adjustment. During this third phase of the model, there are still complex emotions at play, but the process of acting, grieving, and taking care of ourselves is integrated and self-aware. This similar to how we talk about Act 3, the part of the story where characters connect to a sense of capacity and community, tapping into support and the power to make change.

We are thus confronted with a challenge and a possibility. Who do we want to be? And what characteristics and values do we desire to manifest amidst the changes? I think we need to ask these questions together with trusted others and re-tell our stories in communities (Joanna Macy and colleagues are great at this).

I hope that this has clarified a bit how I see the role of meaning and meaning-focused coping in relation to the new process model. I aim to write more about the meaning dynamics, but currently I’ve been deep in writing more about theories of grief and about Post-Traumatic Growth, always in relation to ecological emotions. 

I will close this blog with the same question I left Jo and Mary: How does this all resonate with you? 

Please discuss with trusted others, and if you want to let me know some thoughts, I’m all ears. 


Best of luck,


Helsinki, Finland, 6th May 2023 (revised 10th May / 23rd June)

References and further reading:

Neimeyer, Robert A. 2015. ‘Treating Complicated Bereavement: The Development of Grief Therapy’. In Death, Dying, and Bereavement: Contemporary Perspectives, Institutions, and Practices, edited by Thomas Attig and Judith M. Stillion, 307–20. New York: Springer Publishing Company.

Ojala, Maria. 2016. ‘Facing Anxiety in Climate Change Education: From Therapeutic Practice to Hopeful Transgressive Learning’. Canadian Journal Of Environmental Education 21: 41–56.

Passmore, Holli-Anne, and Ashley N. Krause. 2023. ‘The Beyond-Human Natural World: Providing Meaning and Making Meaning’. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 20 (12).

Pihkala, Panu. 2022. ‘The Process of Eco-Anxiety and Ecological Grief: A Narrative Review and a New Proposal’. Sustainability 14 (24): article number 16628.

Vos, Joel. 2018. Meaning in Life: An Evidence-Based Handbook for Practitioners. London: Bloomsbury.

Vos, Joel. 2023. ‘The Meaning Sextet: A Systematic Literature Review and Further Validation of a Universal Typology of Meaning in Life’. Journal of Constructivist Psychology 36 (2): 204–31.