ON UNDERSTANDING AND MANAGING CLIMATE ANXIETY
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Endangered species. Rising temperatures. Carbon neutral solutions. These terms have made their into our frequently used vocabulary as climate change concerns grow more grim. A study conducted by Yale University on perceptions towards climate change showed that in 2008, 16% of the 1114 survey respondents claimed to be "very worried" about climate change. This number jumped to 29% when the same survey was disseminated in 2018, showing that concerns about climate change are quickly climbing (Sklar, 2020). Climate psychologist Caroline Hickman offers therapy for individuals for whom climate change is a huge source of anxiety. How might this worry manifest? She reports that this looks like choosing not to have children because of the resultant environmental pressure on the planet. Some individuals have marital difficulties because of how strongly they differ from their partner on matters concerning climate change. Some teenagers feel hopeless about their future, questioning the use of going to college when environmental doom is inevitable. Some blame their grandparents for not taking enough action in their youth. Climate change has become such a significant source of worry for people that it is straining their interpersonal relationships and influencing major life decisions.
This worry or anxiety felt as a consequence of climate change has been dubbed as eco-anxiety. It was once limited to a specific group of people like climate scientists who worked towards understanding climate in a professional capacity, but as climate change awareness has bloomed, this phrase has entered the public lexicon. Anxiety is considered to be the gateway emotion one experiences as they become aware of the global deterioration of the environment. This transforms into anger, disbelief, depression, despair, and even guilt, making the emotional reaction towards climate change highly complex. Unlike other forms of anxiety like phobias, eco-anxiety is not a clinical pathology. In other words, it is not a mental illness and should not be treated as such. It is an emotionally healthy response which shows that you deeply care about the environment. Hickman describes it as the price we pay for living conscientiously (Hickman & Sharp, 2019).
Eco-anxiety, although healthy, is distressing and needs to be addressed before it can become incapacitating. It is important to note that this anxiety is legitimate. It is based on a frightening reality, so the emotions that it elicits should not be dismissed as unfounded.
One solution seems obvious-- if climate change feels unsettling, then we should adopt habits that are climate sensitive. Not only will this make one feel like they are personally contributing to building an environmentally healthy planet, but also directly impacts one’s mental wellbeing. People who bike and walk, as opposed to drive, experience lower stress levels (Clayton, Manning, Krygsman, & Speiser, 2017). Additionally, more time spent interacting with nature has been found to significantly lower stress levels and reduce stress related illness (Clayton, Manning, Krygsman, & Speiser, 2017).
Despite making lifestyle adjustments that have a positive environmental impact, the climate crisis can still feel bleak. Hickman, through her personal experience as a climate activist, suggests that ignoring one’s grief and despair is not going to help; we shouldn't splice off a part of ourselves because it feels painful. Instead, we must find determination in our despair, because only from this is born the capacity to do good work. Thus, integrating our authentic emotion into our efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change is how we can effectively deal with eco-anxiety.
Author Stuti Bagri For Limelighting Life Collective
Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica.
Hickman, C., & Sharp, V. (Hosts). (2019, October 14). Eco-anxiety, eco-despair, eco-depression, eco-grief? Or maybe ..... eco-empathy? [Audio podcast episode]. In Climate Crisis Conversations. Climate Psychology Alliance.
Migne, J., & Tickell, S.C. (Hosts). (2020, June 2). Eco-anxiety with Caroline Hickman [Audio podcast episode]. In Good Natured. University of Oxford. Retrieved from https://podcasts.ox.ac.uk/eco-anxiety-caroline-hickman
Sklar, J. (2020, January 6). Here’s what it looks like to seek therapy for climate change anxiety. In Leaps.org. Retrieved from https://leaps.org/heres-what-it-looks-like-to-seek-therapy-for-climate-change-anxiety/particle-2