Climate change anxiety: How to stop spiralling and make a difference

Mashable article by Rebecca Ruiz.

If you don’t have time to read this great article, here is a summary of the main points:

After a personal emotional experience of climate change, the author sought advice from three climate mental health experts.

“Burying negative emotions is commonplace in a culture that discourages pessimism about the future. It’s hard to be the downer who talks about a world that could turn apocalyptic in a few short decades. What makes that conversation doubly difficult is the feeling that individual action can seem futile when politicians hedge their bets and refuse to act, whittling away the precious time we have left to stop releasing carbon into the earth’s atmosphere. We are led to believe that our pain belongs to us alone, when in fact the systems we live in — a government and economy built for the wealthy — create the conditions for our suffering.”

She spoke to some mental health and climate change experts to find out how to escape the cycle of living in denial and avoidance, and deal with debilitating emotions so that we can take meaningful action.

Firstly, Bob Deppelt, coordinator of the International Transformation Resilience Coalition, a nonprofit that focuses on creating capacity and resiliency for climate traumas.

He suggests two concepts for coping with the stress, grief and dread of climate exacerbated natural disasters and the threat of these events.

“Presencing” aims to help the body escape fight-or-flight-or-freeze mode. Doppelt encourages people to observe these responses in themselves and use self-regulation to restart their parasympathetic nervous system. Techniques can include coherent breathing, rhythmic exercise and body scanning. These shift focus from negative feelings to pleasant or neutral sensations, slowing the heart rate and restoring calm. Other options might include creating art or music, dancing or connecting with a loved one. These help to tame stress and allow wiser decision making.

This can be followed by “purposing” – a practice of clarifying values, finding new sources of meaning and seizing realistic hope. Helping animals, people or nature are common motivators, and this work can also enhance wellbeing and foster supportive relationships. For example, by getting involved in community organising efforts.

“Building community coalitions…is really the most powerful thing we can do right now to help ourselves and also help the environment,” he says.

Andrew Bryant, a clinical social worker and psychotherapist, runs Climate & Mind, and online resource. He suggests a “feel, talk, unite, act” approach. Rather than ignoring our emotions or skipping straight to action, he encouraged identifying the feelings and feeling them, not judging or pushing them away, and talking about them with others. After feeling and talking, find others who are working for positive change, and build the relationships you need for a supportive network, which will enable you to act meaningfully without burning out.

Bryant encourages people not to get bogged down by catastrophic visions – “After all, our fate isn’t written yet.”

He suggests we all have a “window of tolerance” for difficult emotions, and sometimes events above and below it will challenge us.

“”This isn’t easy,” he says. “It shouldn’t be easy because it’s a terrible situation.””

Dr. Britt Wray, PhD, talks about the human capacity to find meaning even in the darkest situations, “We’re being asked to do that now, but all together.”

The distress we feel is helping us see what we treasure. Realising this can help us to refocus on what matters, providing purpose and a way forward. Instead of ignoring our pain, bringing it together with our talents can lead to empowerment.

Yet she points out that having the time and space to deal with these emotions is often a sign of privilege. Those seeking to survive rarely have the time to stop and reflect – this is a justice issue.

Wray, Doppelt and Bryant all advocate increasing personal resiliency and also taking collective action.

“Pairing the two is essential, because one without the other leaves us less prepared to cope with the trials ahead while reducing our ability to prevent and respond effectively to climate change.”

Wray also suggests focusing on local changes, and small actions like planting trees within heat islands, which can assist with both climate change and mental health and resilience of the community.

Building relationships and social capital, for example through community organising, can also help communities to respond to disaster.

“Even though it never feels like enough when you’re doing it at first, recognize that [it] creates a sphere of influence,” says Wray, of small-scale actions. “It is true that when enough of us do it, we do start tipping the scales.”

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