Record high temperatures in California strained power grids. Thousands of people in Pakistan lost their homes from intense floods. The onslaught of climate change-related disasters may cause some sleepless nights and others to fear the future. You may have experienced helplessness while reading articles about global warming and frustration at your recycling efforts which seem minuscule in battling climate change. I’ve spoken to women who believe that having children in the face of impending climate armageddon would be irresponsible. Such feelings of uncertainty and distress are termed climate anxiety.
Climate anxiety, also known as eco-anxiety or climate distress, affects almost three-quarters of Americans, according to this study. Survey respondents suffer from worry, guilt, and frustration related to environmental disasters and global climate change. Women and younger people are more likely to be affected than other respondent groups, as with people who work on the front lines to solve climate change.
Climate anxiety, similar to a general anxiety disorder, can affect mental health and impact living a fulfilling life. Compared to a phobia of going out or fear of spiders, the difference is that those who suffer from climate anxiety feel that there is nothing they can do to prevent this threat of doom from happening in the future. The repercussions can range from endlessly reading ingredient labels to panic attacks to sleepless nights.
The best way to manage climate anxiety is to talk about it. There are two ways to talk about climate change: first, share your anxiety with others to alleviate the fear and tension. Second, talk with others to take action within your workplace and local communities. Developing relationships with others who share the same values can help us feel less alone and build coalitions to gather momentum for action.
Therapy and Self-Care
One of the worst things about climate anxiety is that others seem not to understand our worry, telling us the distress is exaggerated. It can be easy to feel hopeless from the lack of time, resources or action from governments, particularly for professionals who are exposed to information related to climate change daily. Support groups such as Climate Awakening sessions are safe spaces where individuals can freely express their emotions and connect with others who feel the same way. All We Can Save provides resources for individuals to start conversations with people at work, regardless of whether the work is directly related to the environment.
Specialized climate-aware therapy with Climate Psychologists and Climate Psychiatry can also help overcome mental health challenges. Coaching and behavioral programs focused on eco-anxiety nudge patients into action and to feel more in control of the future. Adopting self-care practices throughout the day can provide relief, such as taking a walk in nature, journaling and starting a meditation practice. When speaking and listening to others about eco-anxiety, use language couched in compassion and acceptance. These mini rituals help to process negative emotions that may lead to paralysis and inaction.
Action and Collaboration
Once negative emotions are appropriately managed, it is easier to set objectives and take action. Using one’s voice can be an easy and effective way of taking action:
- Share a piece of positive news about climate action, such as a story from Eco Anxious,
- Tell others about a new sustainable product you found, or
- Join an advocacy group such as Climate Action and 350.org to raise awareness.
Starting conversations with coworkers could potentially create business value in the workplace. Managers can create spaces such as climate-focused ERGs where team members can share their anxiety and ideas about how to be more sustainable at work. These groups could brainstorm how to increase energy efficiency or create more sustainable products. Convening and encouraging coworkers to take action gives people the feeling of control to overcome eco-anxiety.
Such groups could create a more climate-conscious work culture and a more sustainable company. This makes the company more attractive to potential employees, investors, customers, and suppliers. Current employees tend to be more engaged and are more likely to stay at a company that supports employee mental health and the climate.
Another way to manage eco-anxiety is to perform a random act of eco-kindness. Help a neighbor plant a tree in their garden, organize a community vegetarian potluck or host a team breakfast in the local park. These activities build connections with others around us, where we live and work, and can help mitigate the feelings of loneliness, helplessness, and loss of control caused by climate change. Being generous to others brings a sense of abundance, gratitude and the confidence to do more. It is not about how much money is donated but the act of giving without expecting a return. Being nice to someone else has the effect of immediately lifting our spirits.
Climate change may seem like a problem that we can’t solve on our own and that our individual actions don’t make a difference. However, suppose we develop connections and networks with others who share the same values as us. In that case, we could better manage our climate anxiety and perhaps even create business value.
Performing a random act of eco-kindness or picking up the phone to share a piece of eco-positive news may seem trivial. The effort may seem small and the effect invisible. Still, it is the power of many that can bring about sustainable and long-term change. Helen Keller said it best, "Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much."