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Does Climate Change Stress You Out?

The benefits of engaging in climate-friendly activities often extend beyond supporting a healthier environment, according to an emerging sector of mental health professionals known as “climate psychiatrists”.  The field of climate psychiatry is new. But as media coverage of climate change and related natural disasters such as hurricanes, tornados, wildfire and flooding increase, and more people are directly impacted by these events, there is heightened public awareness and anxiety about the planet’s unstable conditions.

 

The Journal of Environmental Psychology and the Climate Psychiatry Alliance have begun publishing research describing and explaining the link between mental well-being and the health of the planet. The studies find that climate anxiety is being felt much more powerfully among the young, by first responders to climate-related natural disasters, and climate scientists and activists who are exposed to information about the threat more than most, and therefore may need psychological support. A recent, 2021 multi-national survey designed to assess climate anxiety found that in ten thousand respondents aged 16-25, 59% felt very or extremely worried about climate change, and 84% felt moderately worried. The report – backed by multiple universities including Stanford and NYU – found more than half of respondents felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty, with over 45% stating that worry over climate impacts negatively impacts their daily life and functioning.  Furthermore, 75% said that they think the future is frightening.

 

The psychoanalytic model suggests that the threat of climate change leads to two types of climate anxiety: first, the ‘apocalyptic’ fears (of death, annihilation and extinction); and second, complex feelings around loss, grief, dependency and guilt for losses that have already occurred and those that are to come (‘pre-traumatic stress’, ‘anticipatory mourning’). Climate anxiety can lead to symptoms such as panic attacks, loss of appetite, irritability, weakness and sleeplessness.. Some individuals seek treatment by climate psychiatrists to overcome fears of an uncertain future – they cannot escape from constant worries about predictions of hotter, more dangerous weather, sea level rise, etc. Others seek help dealing with more tangible impacts of climate change.  Many of these patients have lost loved ones, homes or livelihoods to climate-related disasters – and are working to re-balance their lives.

 

It’s normal to feel anxious or overwhelmed by climate change, says psychologist Renée Lertzman. We all have a “window of tolerance” or a threshold in which we stay responsive and resilient. Much like the climate, when pushed past a healthy “comfort zone”, individuals may stop functioning optimally.  Many respond by “freezing”, denying the issue, or acting out in anger, none of which set the stage for positive activism and resilience. Using scare tactics to inspire action against climate change backfires by inducing a “shut down” response and inaction. Instead, treating climate-driven psychological issues, human and environmental health seem to converge in a place of positive action beneficial to both parties.

 

Psychiatrists Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger speculate that showing people that there are steps they can take enabling them to participate in reversing climate change will “reroute” the freezing response and produce meaningful action and advocacy.  This means that countering the negative emotions often linked to climate change can be achieved by carrying out simple climate-friendly activities like planting trees, recycling, and purchasing goods and services from sustainable businesses.

 

This April, celebrate planet Earth and find peace of mind by adopting simple actions; drive less, reduce meat consumption, or grow a backyard garden.  At Growing Climate Solutions we aim to continue providing guidance and expand opportunities to engage in climate friendly actions.  It’s time to celebrate this shared planet by becoming part of the solution, meaningfully reducing emissions, and feeling empowered to take on more.

 

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