Climate Change + Mental Health: 8 Ways to Take Action

This is a guest article by Abigail Dean | ecofairytales.com.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but the one most adaptable to change.”  – a quote commonly miscredited to Charles Darwin 

Evidence supporting climate change is now undeniable and many people are already starting to see the consequences.  The 2019 United Nations Climate Summit in New York identified climate change as “the defining issue of our time.”  The International Psychoanalytical Association recognizes climate change as “the biggest global health threat of the 21st century.”2

I’m an average millennial with feet craving distant soil, a mind wandering through a digital age, and a passionate heart for making the world a better place.  As a child I nurtured a deep love for the wild, spending my days climbing trees and exploring the Rocky Mountains of Colorado.  When I started learning about climate change (back when we called it global warming), I felt a constant sense of anxiety that my future was destined to be a desolate dystopian horror film.  I decided at an early age I would dedicate my life to saving wildlife and natural ecosystems.  

Among other eco-friendly collegiate efforts, I helped found the Colorado State University Zero Waste Team and quickly fell into an anxious turmoil, which I now know was climate anxiety.  I saw first-hand the amount of waste created by only one university and the lack of infrastructure to handle that waste. I felt like the pressure of solving this was on my shoulders because I knew my future was at risk.  I strongly believed environmental work was my calling, but in the face of our environmental crisis I wanted to escape.  I crumbled under the weight of the world’s trash and CO2.  I had to look away so I turned inward.  My inward journey led to my recently published blog, ecofairytales.com—busting common sustainability myths and focusing on self-care related to the pursuit of climate reconstruction. 

So, What is ‘Climate Anxiety’ Anyway?

Climate anxiety is categorized under eco-anxiety which is the manifestation of powerful, challenging emotions caused by environmental problems or the knowledge of them4

Climate anxiety is related more specifically to the emotions evoked by effects and anticipation of climate change.  Climate anxiety is an understandable reaction to the scope of climate change predictions and effects. Climate anxiety can lead to sleep disorders, panic attacks, general anxiety or obsessive thinking, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, pre-traumatic stress reactions, and suicidal thoughts. 

Another layer of climate anxiety, known as ecological grief, occurs when people experience feelings of loss due to climate change driven by environmental changes5. People mourn the loss of their homes, community, familiar ecosystems and weather patterns due to changing climate, which will become a larger problem as climate change progresses. 

Who Experiences Climate Anxiety?

No population is untouched by climate change and experts predict effects of climate change will increase exponentially over the next decades.  Climate change is a well-known concept and many people can relate climate change to intensifying natural disasters and increased risks of human health conditions such as asthma.  

Mental health is not commonly associated with climate change but many people, myself included, have experienced the phenomenon of climate anxiety.  Panu Pahkala, a Finnish expert on eco anxiety, found the two groups most affected by climate anxiety are youth and farmers4.  The effects of climate anxiety will spread as ecosystems and weather continue to change.  Both anxiety and environmental effects of climate change are new complex problems infiltrating every level of our society, and unfortunately we don’t yet have formal protocol for how to manage the effects and recover. 

Most people have seen climate change information in a way that evokes shame and fear about, which can cause an inability to take action.  In an interview with Vox, psychologist and economist, Per Epsen Stoknes, explained “This fear and guilt, we know from psychology, is not conducive to engagement.  It’s rather the opposite.  It makes people passive because when I feel fearful or guiltty, I will withdraw from the issue and try to think about something else that makes me feel better”3

How to Manage Climate Anxiety and Use it to Your Advantage 

1, Accept and Feel

Accepting what we feel is the first step. Negative feelings about climate change are valid!  Brave are those who are sensitive enough to feel the urgency and despair of our climate situation.  Brave are those who accept feelings, sit with them, dive deeper to understand the origin, and seek reconstruction.  We can use the powerful emotions of this unique situation to change it and make the world a better place.  

Seek guidance if you need help processing these emotions. Currently, there are no psychology professionals specifically trained in managing climate anxiety, but psychologists can work through coping mechanisms for anxiety, depression and grief. 

Sometimes negative emotions need a powerful outlet.  Go for a run, scream into a pillow, throw paint at a canvas, sob loudly, dance your heart out. 

2. Determine Where the Feeling is Coming From and Turn it Around

Are you concerned about your future?  Try focusing on how good it would feel to have a healthy, clean future instead of feeling fearful for the opposite. 

 Are you concerned about the health of the oceans?  Try focusing on all of amazing science and clean-up efforts and imagine ways you can help.

Are you concerned about cute fuzzy wildlife?  Don’t watch disturbing videos of habitat destruction, instead post cute photos of your favorite wildlife around your home and on your phone.  Focus on how incredible it will feel to see that animal in the wild and brainstorm ways you can contribute to its habitat protection.  

3. Change the Way We Talk About Climate Change

Dr Kassouf writes about the idea of viewing our relationship with fossil fuels as a transition resource2.  We can choose to see our dependency on the relationship with fossil fuels as a lesson and opportunity to grow and explore clean energy and focus on a brighter future instead of feeling shameful about the current system. 

  4. Making Small Changes

Pihkala writes that these feelings can be an essential resource and part of motivation or inspiration to join “constructive activity to help migrate climate change” 4.

Making small changes in our everyday routines lowers our carbon footprint, waste, and most importantly sends social ripples through the world creating a new standard.  Follow my instagram eco tips for how you can make small changes in your everyday life that have a big effect! 

5. Give Yourself Grace

“Progress over perfection” is my eco-friendly mantra.  I spent so much time feeling like I needed to have all the answers.  I could feel the weight of environmental degradation on my shoulders.  I had to find grace and remember we are all in this together.

“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly.  We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” -Anne Marie Bonneau

6. Community 

Join a group that is actively doing something to migrate climate change. It’s common knowledge that community support alleviates the burden on many hopeless feelings and conditions.  People are doing incredible things in this world right now!  Like beach clean ups, hiking trail restorations, and habitat protection. 

7. Meet People Where They Are

Susan Kassouf writes that we must accept the fact that public apathy towards climate change is fiction2.  Instead we can have compassion and understanding for people who may be in the stages of denial and overwhelm.  Kassouf also writes, “Whether or not we have a firm grasp on all of the science, ordinary Americans . . . are aware in their bones that conditions on our planet continue to go horribly awry.”2  People know there is a problem and they are going to accept it in their own time, we cannot force them.  We can show up for ourselves and lead by example.

8. Require Strong Leadership and Policy 

Vote for political officials with plans to hold corporations responsible and who will focus on solving climate change for the benefit of all people. 

Is There Hope?  A Successful Case Study: The Ozone Hole 

Many general chemistry classes explain the breakdown of ozone by CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons), which are compounds popularly found in aerosol products.  They created a “hole” in the ozone which is an important layer of our atmosphere that protects us from harmful radiation.

Basically here is what happened: scientists noticed the problem.  They were able to communicate the situation in a way that made people confidently understand three critical pieces: 1) the problem and why they were at risk of harm; 2) the cause of the problem, and; 3) exactly what they could do to take action as part of the solution.  As a result of taking action, scientists predict the hole will be healed by 2050.  Success!!

Solving climate change has more moving parts than the ozone solutions, but as more people understand the strongest drivers of climate change, we can illustrate how they will be affected and how they can take action in the solution to migrate climate change with us! 

I will leave you with this quote from Octavia E. Butler, “There’s no single answer that will solve all of our future problems. There’s no magic bullet. Instead there are thousands of answers–at least.  You can be one of them if you choose to be.”

Author Bio:

My name is Abigail Dean. I am a wildlife conservation biologist, oceanpreneur, and blogger. I recently finished an internship with Hawaii Marine Animal Response, educating people about Haiwaiian Monk Seals and Sea Turtles. You can find me posting eco-tips on instagram @queenabigaildean. You can find even more eco-tip information at ecofairytales.com.

References: 

  1.  Castelloe, M. (2018). Coming to Terms With Ecoanxiety: Growing an awareness of climate change, Psychology Today. 
  2. Kassouf, S. (2017). Psychoanalysis and Climate Change: Revisiting Searles’s The Nonhuman Environment, Rediscovering Freud’s Phylogenetic Fantasy, and Imagining a Future. American Imago 74(2), 141-171. doi:10.1353/aim.2017.0008. 
  3. Murdock, A. (2017). Why humans are so bad at thinking about climate change. Vox Media. 
  4. Pihkala, P. (2019). Climate Anxiety. Helsinki: Suomen mielenterveysseura. 
  5. Usher, K., Durkin, J. and Bhullar, N. (2019), Eco‐anxiety: How thinking about climate change‐related environmental decline is affecting our mental health. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 28: 1233-1234. doi:10.1111/inm.12673
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