April 22nd 2022 is Earth Day! It has never been more important to love and respect our Earth – our mental and physical well being is intrinsically tied to the state of our environment. That’s why we’re talking about climate anxiety to celebrate Earth Day this year.
The past few years have been marked by the effects of climate change: from extreme weather events to a warming climate, our planet has undergone a series of devastating changes. There are regular reports on climate change-induced wildfires, microplastics in the ocean, and deforestation on a large scale. These reports are likely to make anyone and everyone nervous, but those who already live with an anxiety or panic condition are far more likely to dwell on these disasters, as well as carry that fear with them into their daily life.
There is a well-studied relationship between declining mental health in the US and the rise of the effects of climate change. This relationship has been a frequent topic of discussion in the past few years: can the massive changes to our planet actually impact our mental wellbeing? The answer is yes – as our planet experiences the effects of a volatile and changing climate, the mental and physical health of our population has experienced a drastic decline.
Mental health and the climate are intrinsically connected: studies show that the worsening climate crisis has had an adverse effect on people living with post-traumatic stress conditions and anxiety, as well as disproportionately affecting Black, Brown, Indigenous, and non-white communities. It is important for us to recognize that the climate crisis does not impact everyone equally – in fact, those with lower socio-economic standing are disproportionately affected by climate anxiety and displacement. The groups that feel the effects of climate change the most acutely are often the groups with the least access to mental and physical health resources. The climate crisis is only compounding an already problematic issue for those in historically disadvantaged groups. In this way, the climate crisis is an intersection of racial justice, environmental justice, and mental and physical health equity.
What is climate anxiety?
Climate anxiety is a phenomenon that has surfaced in the past few years in the wake of worsening climate disasters. It is a layman’s term used to describe the overwhelming sense of fear, panic, and distress that many people experience in the face of climate change. Climate anxiety is a well-studied and well-documented phenomenon that has developed in many people: in those who have existing mental health conditions, as well as in those who don’t.
With the climate in a precarious place, we often don’t know how to cope with the effects. From witnessing extreme weather events to making behavioral changes like recycling, limiting air travel, and buying more sustainably, the landscape of our lives has changed significantly in the past decade. It’s no wonder that these massive changes have affected us: studies show that nearly half of people ages 18 to 34 experience some level of climate-related stress and anxiety that affects their daily lives. More than half of US citizens believe climate change is the most important issue facing our society today.
How is it connected to our health?
There is no conversation about mental health that can take place without simultaneously considering the larger structures that govern our lives. This includes the state of the environment. Our mental and physical health is impacted by our world. We cannot remove our experiences from the context they exist in: a worsening climate will undoubtedly affect our sense of safety. We are intimately connected to our environment: our mental and physical conditions do not happen in a vacuum, but instead happen within their contexts.
The 24-hour news cycle constantly feeds us new information about the world: which parts are burning, which companies refuse to go green, and how much time we have left before the effects are irreversible. We are inundated by endless reports of wildfires, deforestation, and the deterioration of wildlife populations. These reports only serve to solidify our sense of fear: what if there is nothing that we can do? To top it all off, we all feel the weight of helplessness when it comes to the climate. How can one person, or even a few people, make the difference that saves our planet from climate change?
Coping with Climate Anxiety
It’s incredibly difficult to exist in a world where we feel powerless to make a difference. Often, we feel like hypocrites for eating what we want to eat, throwing away things that could be saved, and ignoring the state of our environment when it matters most. It’s hard to watch the news or log on to social media just to see the effects of climate change all over our feeds. We care so much – how could we not? Our hearts break as we watch this happen to our Earth, but at the same time we feel helpless and powerless to stop it. You might feel like there is no point to resisting – the damage is already done. You might feel like there’s nothing you can do that would make a difference.
The more we learn about the corruption and misinformation circulating about climate change, the more we feel frustrated. We don’t know how to protect ourselves from feeling the weight of climate change – if we take it upon ourselves to care deeply, then we are exhausted and emptied out by the process of caring. If we choose to ignore it, we feel guilty and hypocritical. No matter what we do in terms of climate change, it feels like we’re doing everything wrong.
So, how do we cope with climate anxiety? Psychologist Maria Ojala has identified four main ways of coping that people, especially young people, use to coexist with their climate anxiety:
De-emphasizing involves minimizing the importance of climate change in your life in order to escape from the personal responsibility that we often feel. This coping mechanism relies on a person’s assumption that climate change is not their problem, nor is it a problem that they can do anything about. This removes the person from feeling connected to the issue, and therefore they effectively ignore it until it goes away.
Emotion-focused strategies involve ignoring or distancing yourself from information about climate change – this strategy revolves around a person’s emotions, and their attempts to avoid negative emotions about climate change through distraction.
Problem-focused strategies center around an individual’s belief that any one person’s actions can have an effect on the climate. The person who uses this strategy will likely make behavioral changes, i.e. stop eating red meat, regularly advocate for climate justice, and research ways to take action in their day-to-day life.
Ojala proposes this fourth category to describe those that celebrate small victories, place their trust in environmental entities and organizations, and stay contextually involved in climate justice by remaining aware of their role and their meaning in the vast network of the environment.
What Can I Do to Help?
It is important for us to recognize that no one person can change the trajectory of climate change. Rather, we must work together as a society to hold corporations, world governments, and other entities accountable in order for real, transformative change to happen. But this doesn’t mean that there is nothing we can do: in fact, there are many ways that we can take action in our daily lives to support the environment and each other, as well as keep ourselves mentally healthy. Here are some ways that we can support ourselves, our Earth, and each other through the climate change crisis:
- Contact your politicians, representatives, and local government officials:
When you vote, make sure the candidates you support in turn support proper measures to ensure climate justice. Advocate for these changes on every level of your government: from local to federal, tell your representatives how much climate justice means to you, the impact that our failing climate has had on your life, and what measures you would like to see from them in the future. Click here to find your local representatives!
- Tell your government to preserve our last wild places:
Tell your local and federal governments to expand national parks and preserve more sections of the ocean, our forests, and our last wild spaces. Conservation is a major part of achieving climate justice: when wild spaces are preserved, endangered animal populations are able to recover, wide swaths of land are able to bounce back, and forests and ecosystems are able to regain their balance.
- Support national parks and reservations:
Support local and national parks, as well as reservations! Donate either your time or your money to these organizations that work year-round on conservation. Our national parks are extremely important for our ecosystem: they help maintain the balance of the planet by absorbing massive amounts of CO2 and restoring endangered populations to safer numbers. If you are looking to support a new cause, consider supporting our national parks and preserved wild spaces.
- Stay off of social media:
When you notice that you’ve been scrolling for too long, try to put your phone away. Doom scrolling can contribute to major burnout and frustration, which puts your mental health on a decline. Make sure that you’re taking long breaks from social media and the news to rejuvenate yourself: read a book, take a walk, or find a friend in the meantime. When we focus too much on the negatives, we lose our sense of hope – protect yourself by staying off of social media when you feel yourself getting worked up. Find the balance between being informed and being anxious: you don’t have to be on top of everything all the time.
- Acknowledge your role:
We have been told that it’s every individual person’s responsibility to stop climate change. While we should take all the action that we can, it’s important to recognize that we can only do so much. Think about what is in your sphere of influence, and take action based on those spheres. You can only do what is in your power to do – acknowledge the role you play in keeping our climate healthy, and don’t ask too much of yourself.
- Have hope:
The most important thing you can do to help further environmental justice is to have hope. Hopelessness, helplessness, and anxiety benefit no one – having hope and staying positive will help both you and our Earth in the long run. We must believe in people. There are beautiful and amazing things happening in our environment that should give us all hope: forests are regenerating in protected spaces, new technology to clean our oceans is forthcoming, and we are finding increasingly creative ways to generate the green energy that we need to sustain our lives.
We remain hopeful and excited for what the future holds – it may be scary to contemplate the reality of climate change, but there are so many ways that people are coming together to promote environmental justice. It is just as important to focus on those hopeful things as it is to contemplate the scary things. As we celebrate Earth Day this year, aim for hope rather than anxiety. Fear can only take you so far; hope can take you as far as you want to go.