Around the world, climate change is unarguably, one of the most debated topics of our time. But more than just another “topic”, it has been roundly described as the singular greatest challenge that mankind has or will ever face; a fact that the media has spared no bones in repeating to us every chance they get. Now it can be argued by some that climate change has not received enough coverage, that there are many facets of this subject yet unexplored or exaggerated for profit but I think we can agree it is communicated in ways that spells nothing but doom for many concerned individuals.
From headlines touting the extinction of the world’s baronial animals to timelines flooded with news of the melting ice caps and the possibility of incurable diseases lurking just beneath their surfaces; the news on climate change is almost always downright depressing. This of course is designed to spur us to action (or just sell newspapers depending on how you see it), but along with this pressure to act comes with the unwanted companion most don’t talk about; anxiety. If you find yourself deeply anxious about the future of mankind and the survival and welfare of animals and the planet, then you just might have climate anxiety.
Although there is no widely accepted definition of the term yet, the closest term I have found is solstagia and it essentially refers to “the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment”. Even though I know –and suspect that you do too– that climate anxiety is as real as can be, there are no clear statistics on the prevalence of this feeling in individuals today. Regardless, organisations like American Psychological Association have recognised its existence and agree that it is on the rise.
So how do we deal with the fear, grief, stress and anxiety associated with climate change? How do we lead full lives and not be overly depressed by the doomsday theories sprung daily from the adverse effects of climate change on our environment? Below are a few of my tips on how best to take care of ourselves in the wake of the environmental crises that rocks our planet.
1. Learn as much as you can about climate change
I believe strongly that knowledge breeds understanding. The more intimately you know a person, a thing, a place, or a concept, the easier it ultimately becomes to manage any worries that may come with it and vice versa. Now the average person does not know a lot about climate change and the science behind it; all that he or she can say about the subject most times, is that climate change is really bad. This lack of knowledge and understanding creates the stage for fear, increased panic and anxiety. As the American therapist Celeste Viciere puts it; “anything in the unknown can cause us to feel scared”.
Understanding the climate crisis includes asking yourselves questions like:
What exactly does climate change mean for me? Will the air be poisoned and we all die on our beds? Will we have to move to Mars? When will this happen? Next year? In ten years? What can be done about it?
Answering these questions more often than not will require more detailed conversations with people that know better in addition to unbiased research work. As you answer these questions, a manageable picture starts to form, generated by your own balanced knowledge and not just the negative information being exploited by tabloids to spread fear.
2. Take action
One of the most troubling aspects of climate change is the feeling of crushing hopelessness that comes with it. It generally leaves us feeling as though the problem is so large, so complex, that we can’t do anything about it and that our individual efforts don’t matter; and that someday, we are all going to drown in the rising ocean inspite of our efforts. Cue in anxiety.
The best way to counter this is by taking action. To start doing something, anything from wherever we can. To actively participate, even in very little ways, in the activities that can help, because regardless of how hopeless you feel, your choices actually matter. They always have and they always will. When you are committed to a line of action geared towards salvaging the planet, then the cloud of helplessness and anxiety that comes with it can be gradually lifted. These efforts may range from simple actions such as choosing to walk, cycle or travel by train rather than drive your car or it can be as involved as committing to zero waste living and eco-activism; what counts is that you are committed to it. And that you start.
3. Understand you are not alone
With the vastness of the climate crises, individual efforts seem to be negligible drops in an ocean. It is important to understand though that there are millions of people like you, scattered across the globe and making very dedicated efforts to save our planet, just like you. They may not be in your family or office, or in your community but they are there. And you are not alone.
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A practical step to get out of your climate funk is to share how you feel with family and friends. It’s also important to get in touch with others who feel as strongly about climate change as you (thank God for the internet). Being part of an online (or offline) community of like-minded individuals will help in changing your perspective and drive home the fact that there is still hope for humankind because there are people just like you, doing small and big things to make a difference, and who are working towards saving our world, one day at a time.
4. Be kind and patient with others, as well as yourself
The climate is changing and we’ve known about this for many years; and it is being caused by a number of factors. Now seeing as Rome was not built in a day, ending climate change will not happen at the snap of a finger or the instant you decide to take action about it. It is an excruciatingly slow process, revering the wrongs we have done to our environment over the course of the century. While it can seem that despite your best efforts, positive change seems far from the horizon, just remember where you started. Remember how far you’ve come. Applying empathy and compassion to others is crucial when educating and leading by example.
And remember where we were a decade ago, or even three years ago. Today, more people are using reusable cups, more people are saying no to plastic, more people are embracing electric vehicles, more governments are implementing plastic bag bans and committing to renewable energy targets. We will eventually get where we need to be if we don’t give up.
5. Live in the present
My final tip is to live in the moment. This is a quality I have come to admire growing up in Nigeria and Africa. Most of us know all too well the horrors of climate change and if anyone has a reason to be anxious, it would be us on this continent, unequipped with the requisite technologies to survive the impacts of climate change if it ever comes knocking at our doors. Still, on top of everything else on our plate, we know that anxiety would not help us out here, because it never has. We know that anxiety over ‘maybes’ of tomorrow would only rob us of the ‘certainties’ of today. So, we live today, wholly present in every moment, in our communities, while planning for tomorrow but not worrying over what it will bring.
I figure this is what the fancy lifestyle coaches call mindfulness. And I figure we need more of that to survive climate anxiety, our neighbor next door.
If you or someone you know needs help, make sure to seek professional advice. In the United States, the American Psychological Association created an in-depth 69-page guide on mental health and our changing climate. In Australia, the Australian Psychology Society also has lots of resources.
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Feature image by Daria Shevtsova. Images via Pexels and Unsplash.