How to Tame Climate Change Anxiety

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If you’re worried about climate change, you’re not alone. Climate change anxiety has reached a new high for many, particularly the young, to the point that it's impacting their well being. Mental health intersects with climate change in a variety of ways. One type of climate change anxiety results from the post-traumatic stress of living through a climate event (fire, flood, storm, drought, etc), or dreading its impending arrival. Another comes from feelings of helplessness in the face of such a complex threat. Young people especially internalize that threat deeply and many are choosing not to have children because of climate change fears. Even those who live outside the immediate danger zones may struggle with the anxiety of watching climate events destroy and displace others' lives.

Tips for Managing Climate Change Anxiety

From a psychological perspective, climate change anxiety isn’t much different than other forms of anxiety. Treating it is something you can do with the help of a trained counselor, with trusted friends or community groups, or through self-care and reflection, depending on the severity of your symptoms. If you feel like your life is significantly impacted by anxiety of any kind, the best course is to seek professional help.

Take time to reflect on your feelings.

Acknowledging and exploring your feelings can go a long way in helping you process them. Both nihilism and optimism can detract from addressing your anxiety head on. According to climate psychologist Renee Lertzman, it’s important to “pause, take stock, reflect,” and in that process, “deal with whatever might be coming up around guilt, and shame, and remorse, and anger and all that stuff that is very natural when you start to really, truly accept and take stock of the situation.”

Differentiate between constructive and destructive fear.

Climate change coverage and messaging often utilizes fear to get your attention and inspire you to take action. While fear-based appeals do appear to work, they are better at fueling one-time actions than long-term commitment. Over time, fear and its close cousin, worry, can debilitate your ability to act by causing burnout, numbness, or disengagement.

Talk about your feelings.

Sharing fear-based messages through passive means, such as email or social media, tends to increase worry rather than generate meaningful solutions. Anxiety and fear are isolating. Sharing our vulnerabilities with each other humanizes the threat and helps people find similarities among our differences. Youth being treated at a psychotherapy meeting

Show compassion for the complexity of the situation.

Everyone responds to the threat of climate change differently. Shaming individual actions (driving a car, using plastic) is counterproductive and puts people on the defense. Compassion can turn anxiety into a constructive force. Lertzman says, “from a neurological perspective, it soothes the defense mechanism so we can actually move into prefrontal cortex problem-solving.”

Aim for emotional resilience.

“You cannot have a healthy society that is scared,” asserts therapist and environmental activist, Lise Van Susteren. In the context of climate change, emotional resilience means working toward positive outcomes even when it’s unclear they’ll succeed. It means giving up on the search for quick fixes and addressing an overwhelming thing like climate change with our daily efforts. In a recent New York Times op-ed, authors Auden Schendler and Aaron P. Jones compare this sort of resilience to the incremental process of practicing something that challenges us – as in yoga or dieting or learning an instrument. “Our actions must be to scale, so while we undertake individual steps in our lives, like retrofitting light bulbs, we must realize that real progress comes from voting, running for office, marching in protest, writing letters, and uncomfortable but respectful conversations with fathers-in-law. This work must be habitual. Everyday some learning and conversation. Every week a call to Congress. Every year a donation to a nonprofit advancing the cause. In other words, a practice… And we know what happens when enough people take up a cause as practice: Cultural norms change.” group of volunteers help clean up a public beach Addressing climate change anxiety is essential to building such a practice, and the two can go hand-in-hand. In fact, the presence of such anxiety might be a good sign: the risks of doing nothing have finally infiltrated our emotional landscape and our feelings are priming us for action.

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About The Author

Sarah West has worked on small farms and local food systems since 2008, a path that has taken her from pulling weeds on an organic garlic farm in northeastern Oregon to managing a vibrant farmers market in Portland. Along the way she earned an associate's degree in Horticulture and ran her own small farm, where she learned how hard it is to make a living growing organic food. She currently lives at the foothills of the Wallowa Mountains in northeast Oregon, where she and her husband recently bought a plot of land down the road from the garlic farm where it all started.

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