How to deal with climate anxiety, according to psychologists


You don’t have to look too closely to know that climate change is one of the dominant – and most anxiety-provoking – stories in our lives. This summer, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a landmark report detailing the terrible future of the planet, one that United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres called “a code red for humanity.”

Without immediate and drastic action, it is unlikely that we can avoid a warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius over the next 20 years, a so-called climate tipping point that will cause irreversible impacts on our planet. weather situation, food supply and health. Young people expected to experience an “unprecedented” number of natural disasters, according to a study by the journal Science. Simply put, climate change may seem like an impossible load to carry.

This thing you might be feeling right now is called “climate anxiety” – the fear and stress of the climate crisis – and it’s a growing phenomenon, explains. Thomas doherty, a psychologist specializing in an environmental approach to therapy at Sustainable Self in Portland, OR.

There are practical and helpful ways to confront and calm him down, says licensed psychologist David H. Rosmarin, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Center for Anxiety. And working to resolve eco-anxiety can also help us overcome other forms of anxiety that we face every day, Doherty notes. Here’s how to fight climate anxiety, according to experts.

1. Focus on the present

The greatest risks to humanity are not immediate, but long term, explains Rosmarin. The IPCC report is written in urgent language designed to stimulate action by world leaders; it does not say, however, that we must prepare for the end of the world.

So remember that even in the worst-case scenario, it will take us two decades to reach that climate tipping point – urgent, yes, but a time frame that we can work with. When you’re obsessed with how the environment might crumble over the next few years, Rosmarin recommends trying to retreat. “Being aware and taking reasonable action against a distant risk is good, but being concerned is usually not productive,” he notes. At such times, take a walk, write down your thoughts, or do something else that calms you down and helps you refocus on the present. it will only make you more anxious.

This strategy is not perfect — some people are already living with the effects of climate change (such as those who breathe forest fire smoke in the West), and many people are refuse to have children because of fears for the future. But it’s worth it, Rosmarin says, if you’re caught in vague and overwhelming ecological anxiety.

2. Remember you can live with anxiety

“Anxiety is a normal, healthy emotion,” Doherty says. At a basic level, anxiety is “fear shrouded in a cloud of uncertainty”. It happens when we are faced with a situation that may or may not threaten us – and he describes it as useful because it prompts us to step into that cloud and take action to protect ourselves. “It’s normal for people to feel anxious about climate change or disruption because it has so many potential threats,” Doherty explains.

But as with others prolonged stressors like, say, chronic disease, divorce, or a pandemic, you can go on living – even thrive – with the anxiety it causes, Rosmarin says. “Such anxieties don’t need to take hold of life,” he explains.

Rosmarin remembers a patient who worried about her health in the same way many others worried about the environment; it is natural to worry about the big issues that are affecting you. He encouraged her not to try to push aside her anxiety, but to learn to live her life by his side. “She noticed that it was very empowering to think that she didn’t need to let go of her anxiety to have a happy life,” he says.

“Anxiety is a normal, healthy emotion.”

So don’t immediately try to bury your anxiety about the environment; delve into this so-called cloud, Doherty recommends, and find out what you can do to tackle climate change in your life. This way, your anxiety will help you build something positive, instead of turning your head and focusing on the negatives.

3. Pay attention to your other emotions

It’s easy to get caught up in a whirlwind of sad, scared thoughts about the surroundings. But eco-anxiety, by its very nature, comes from loving the world around us. “I try to get people to have a 360-degree view of emotions in general, as well as the environment, so that we’re not limited to a few different emotions,” Doherty explains.

“Once you start opening that up, you develop more of the ability to deal with your anxiety,” he says. “People realize that they have more emotions in it, such as hope, curiosity, empowerment or compassion. Once we activate many emotional channels, this anxiety has a better context. “

While this can apply to any anxiety, it applies particularly well to climate change. Reconnect with why you love nature in the first place, especially when going out (which has mental health benefits in itself), can help you associate your negative thoughts with wonderful thoughts.

4. Develop an environmental identity

Many new to eco-anxiety aren’t environmental experts, Doherty says, so he recommends exploring climate issues to create what he calls an “environmental identity.” It is based on your values, your connection to nature, life events and research, the same way people come to understand their gender or cultural identity, he notes. With a firm grip on it, anxiety is much more manageable and personal growth is more likely.

You can use this identity to channel your anxiety into action, whether it’s pressuring your elected officials or your bosses to adopt. greener practices or volunteer with an environmental organization. But you have no mandate to do these things, Doherty. After all, no one can do it all on their own; pace yourself to avoid burnout.

5. Ask for help if you have any problems

Confiding in someone you trust is necessary for all of us, says Rosmarin, whether it’s a loved one, family member or professional. Sharing anxieties, he notes, can help strengthen the bonds between us, leading to happier and more fulfilling lives in general. Plus, verbalizing your thoughts can help you understand them better.

This is an especially important step if you are truly struggling with climate anxiety. “People who cannot think or focus on other things are likely to suffer from an anxiety disorder,” Rosmarin cautions. “If someone can’t control their worries, if they feel like they can’t stop worrying, it’s worth having a conversation with a mental health professional.

Doherty agrees, saying that while “most people” will experience some form of climate anxiety, a smaller group suffers from climate anxiety disorder that requires professional help. (Finding the right one can be difficult, but this guide is a great place to start.) There is a new contingent of psychologists and therapists identified as climatologists like Doherty, but it is not completely necessary to contact one, he notes.

“Thinking of this as a normal 21st century situation is helpful,” Doherty says. “Any good therapist can help people manage their anxiety. “

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