By Michael Caduto
The growing awareness of climate change and its impacts on the world around us is often accompanied by thoughts and feelings that color the perspectives that influence how we live each day. When was the last time you experienced a hot summer day and simply thought about taking a swim, or going out for some ice cream, without worrying whether the heat was due to global warming?
Climate change is a real existential threat, in the midst of which it is crucial that we each find some sense of balance between concern, taking action and still being able to appreciate and enjoy each day. That said, many people have trouble enjoying even routine daily activities and recreational pursuits because they feel guilt that such activities could contribute to climate change, often experiencing grief over what has come to pass, and anguish over what they anticipate is still to come.
According to the American Psychiatric Association, one out of every two residents of the U.S. expressed concern over the impact that climate change is having on their mental health. The number of patients seeking therapy for issues related to climate anxiety has grown significantly. A recent book by Dr. Britt Wray, who holds a Ph.D. in Science Communication, is about how to maintain and sustain oneself in the midst of the long-term challenges presented by climate change: Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis.
Our struggle to adapt to a constantly changing world, and the information flooding in with each new wave of the news cycle, frequently centers on tension between our survival instincts and our more resilient, adaptive behaviors. The threats, both real and perceived, presented by global warming are regularly triggering the kinds of fight-or-flight feelings that arise in the region of the brain located near the spinal cord. After some years now of dealing with the survival brain’s responses to the environmental, social, economic and political challenges that we face due to climate change (and the coronavirus pandemic), many are experiencing a heightened sense of anxiety and all manner of coping behaviors, most of which are neither healthy nor helpful for actually, well…coping.
Meanwhile, the higher-functioning part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex—which is located behind the eyes and forehead—is constantly trying to digest the news we’re receiving each day. This part of our brain helps us to absorb new information and react accordingly, based on what has worked constructively in our previous experience. But this rational footing is not able to find traction when forced to navigate the constantly shifting sands of the global-warming news cycle. As a result, many of us have become caught in a negative feedback loop of anxiety caused by our brain’s inability to chart a predictable path forward in the midst of long-term uncertainty. As neuroscientist Judson Brewer points out in his excellent book Unwinding Anxiety, when fear and uncertainty overwhelm our brains, our rational thinking starts to break down and irrational behaviors take over. Sound familiar? Chocolate, anyone?
According to Brewer, when we focus on this dynamic between our survival instincts and our higher-level rational thinking—becoming more aware of what is causing our anxieties—we are then in a better place to step back from impulsive behaviors and choose to make wise choices. We can detach from reactive thoughts and actions and instead chart a path forward that is rational, healthy and even calming.
Taking this road to rationality will better enable us to endure and take good care of ourselves and those we love, even in the midst of climate change angst. There’s a reason that airplane passengers are directed to put on their own oxygen masks first, before assisting others: We need see to our own needs in order to be available to take care of others. It is important to be able to step back from heated discussions about climate change (pun intended) and tend to the fundamentals of good health care during these times: eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep and seeking emotional support by all means safe and available (interpersonal and digital).
Focusing full-time on climate-change related issues can be demobilizing. Even on a warming planet, we all need to make time to count our blessings and find joy in life. By relying on well-informed, steady, methodical planning to fight climate change, we are making progress. And perhaps the best way of all to cope with our own anxieties is to reach outside of ourselves and do something good for those in need, and for the health of the planet. Our salvation lies in appreciating what we have, and deriving satisfaction from the act of helping others.
Watching a monarch butterfly emerge from its chrysalis is a late-summer balm for the soul. You can also plant milkweed to start a monarch waystation for future generations. Monarchs were recently declared endangered by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). Photo: Michael J. Caduto
- Become empowered by taking meaningful action to contribute to efforts to fight climate change, such as those suggested online by the Environmental Defense Fund: https://www.edf.org/you-are-not-alone-we-deal-climate-anxiety-too
- Seek counseling if you’re finding that climate anxiety, grief or other related thoughts and feelings are impacting your emotional state and mental health.
- Support individuals and organizations who are actively working toward eco-justice for those who are being most heavily impacted by climate change, including residents of income-challenged communities and countries who contribute the least to greenhouse gas emissions but often suffer the greatest impacts of climate change, as well as indigenous peoples who have a long history of being treated unjustly.