By Cailin Crosby
As our awareness of climate change and its impacts grows, so does the prevalence of public dialogue and media coverage on the topic. And if you’ve been feeling overwhelmed by it all, you’re not alone.
The terms “eco-anxiety”, “climate grief”, and “solastalgia” have entered into the mainstream as a way to define the specific anxiety, grief, and stress a person feels in relation to climate change. As a result, a growing number of organizations have officially recognized the effects climate change can have on our health.
Whether you’re currently struggling with anxious thoughts related to climate change or simply interested in learning more about the topic, continue reading for more on how climate change may affect our mental health and suggestions on how to cope.
Impacts on Mental Health
Our lives don’t exist in vacuums. We are continually influencing and influenced by the environments and systems we are a part of. This is important for our understanding of mental health and climate change as the effects are so widespread - impacting the communities and social networks where we engage and connect with others - a key barometer for our mental health.
Studies have shown links between experiencing extreme weather events and the adverse effects this can have on both our physical and mental health. Direct effects of experiencing one of these events can manifest in lots of different ways for different people.
Emotional and Psychological Trauma resulting from:
- Loss of property
- Witnessing damage and/or harm
- Loss of a loved one
Physical Trauma due to:
- Increased exposure to infection and disease
The direct effects of experiencing these events firsthand may seem clear. Yet, continued exposure to representations, imagery, and stories of climate change can also have an impact. Those experiencing “eco-anxiety” often report feelings of:
- Grief or a sense of loss
There is a loss inherent in simply acknowledging this is not something that can be ignored. Try to have compassion for yourself in recognizing that the path of processing these feelings likely won’t be linear and will be unique to you.
Balancing Hope with Anxiety
Anxiety is a normal part of life. And when faced with a distressing situation, anxiety is often a valid and helpful response. In the right dose, anxiety can be mobilizing and useful. On the other hand, when we experience a level of anxiety that overwhelms our capacity to cope it can be paralyzing. So how do you straddle the line between mobilizing and immobilizing anxiety? One way can be to balance anxiety with hope and action.
When you feel powerless it can help to shift your focus to what is within your power; such as the individual choices you make. This could be what you choose to focus on, listen to, watch, the
actions you choose to take, or the people you choose to talk to and surround yourself with.
Taking action, no matter how small, reminds us that we do have control to affect change in a seemingly ‘uncontrollable’ situation. But remember that it can be overwhelming to take on too many big changes all at once; consider making small, realistic changes that you can keep and then build upon when you feel ready.
We need balance when it comes to informing ourselves as well. Burying yourself in negative news may feel like keeping up to date, but too much can sometimes be too much. Reading about every frightening aspect of climate change may make us feel overwhelmed with fear and anxiety, which are rarely helpful motivators. Seeing positive, hopeful representations of constructive things that are happening can be a good reminder that there is meaning to our actions (and the actions of others) and that it is possible to make a difference. Try to limit your time on social media, or try to balance out negative stories with positive ones.
Talking with like-minded family or friends can also be helpful. Learning from one another and being able to express your concerns or vent your frustrations to people who understand reinforces that change is a collective effort and that you are not alone.
Individual vs. Collective Action
As the effects of climate change are felt on both an individual and global level, we may naturally go back and forth between reflecting on our own actions, as individuals, while also becoming increasingly aware of the global implications of the actions of others.
Noticing and modifying your own behaviour can be empowering and offer a sense of control - a sense that you’re ‘doing something’. At the same time, increasing awareness of the universal scale of change needed can make us feel powerless. Navigating conflicting emotions around this may be tricky. With that said, it can be comforting to consider that while individual action alone may not feel like ‘enough’, individual action is part of the collective, global effort. Knowing that climate change is not something that you have to face, or solve, alone can lift some of the weight of that anxiety. As blogger and ‘plastic-free chef’ Anne Marie Bonneau astutely put it, “we don't need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly”.
Living with Climate Anxiety
Climate change may not be something you have thought a whole lot about; or it may be something you’ve been feeling anxious about for a while. We are all at different stages of learning, understanding, and informing ourselves about certain issues. So, wherever you’re at, that’s okay. And if you choose to engage in dialogue with others about these issues, try to remember this as a matter of self-care; you cannot control where others are at in their own journey of understanding. You can only control your own journey and your own responses.
As you attempt to find a balance between anxiety and hope, know that you may vacillate between the two from time to time. And that’s okay - just practice noticing when you are beginning to feel overwhelmed and take steps to care for yourself. Talk about it out loud, step away from your phone, engage in an enjoyable self-care activity or positive distraction. Above all, be kind to yourself if you embark on any new changes or actions; try not to beat yourself up for what you are or aren’t doing.
Do you want support with navigating your eco-anxiety?