by Deborah Fleischer and Ana Toepel.
Well, we thought we were experiencing high levels of stress over climate change with symptoms such as anxiety, fear, obsessive or negative thinking, loss of appetite, depression, or insomnia. The eco-anxiety tips we wrote about late last year for UCSF are even more applicable now. Eco-anxiety, which the American Psychological Association (APA) defines as a “chronic fear of environmental doom.” has morphed into Corona Virus-Anxiety or Pandemic-Stress Syndrome
UCSF’s own Dr. Robin Cooper, a psychiatrist, was recently cited in Rolling Stone’s article on eco-anxiety, which recounts how climate change and extreme heat events can impact mental health. According to Cooper, feeling stress, grief, or anxiety over the state of the world is not a formal mental disorder—but a normal, appropriate, expected reaction to very real threats of enormous existential proportions posed by climate disruption. She stressed, “One should feel deeply concerned and worried (anxiety) in the face of real danger.” The American Psychological Association’s report Mental Health and Our Changing Climate explains there are worse impacts, too—major chronic mental health ones including higher rates of aggression and violence; an increased sense of helplessness, hopelessness, or fatalism; and intense feelings of loss. “When feelings reach this level of concern and people are not able to cope, clinical intervention may be appropriate,” explained Cooper.
Six Tips for Coping
The six tips offered below were focused on eco-anxiety. However, they are very relevant to our situation today.
Cooper stressed the inherent emotional complexity of facing the reality of the impacts of climate change. It’s important not to deny the reality we’re facing though it can blanket out the uncomfortable anxiety at times. There is a great sadness evoked by the losses associated with the destruction caused by climate change. It’s important to tolerate the “in-between” state—avoiding thoughts of “we are doomed no matter what we do,” which contributes to despair and retreat, while simultaneously not being soothed by the false idea that individual lifestyle changes and simple technological or policy solutions will resolve and eliminate this problem. What we do now does matter to reduce the inevitable depth of the impact on our world, but we will not get out of this unscathed. This requires some degree of recognition and grieving the true losses to the world as we currently know it. Meditation, prayer, yoga, and visualization can be helpful for staying grounded through this process.
#2: Fight Isolation
According to Dr. Alex Trope, a UCSF Psychiatry Resident and past CNI fellow, a key strategy for positively channeling eco-anxiety is to face the reality and then get connected with like-minded individuals who can engage practically and emotionally with climate issues. Finding like-minded folks to talk to about it will make you feel less isolated. Join a group that resonates with your style, interests, and time. This might be an established environmental advocacy group, or someplace you already have connections—on campus, at work, at your child’s school, or a religious or social group. Trope has been active in Sunrise, an advocacy group working with young people to fight climate change. Other possibilities include Citizen’s Climate Lobby and 350.org.
#3: Transform Anxiety into Action
Dr. Janet Lewis, who is on the steering committee of Climate Psychiatry Alliance with Cooper and Trope, explained in a Chicago Tribune article, “The goal is not to get rid of the anxiety. The goal is to transform it into what is bearable and useful and motivating.” A recent Live Sciencereport on the topic cites some mental health professionals who say that a healthy amount of anxiety can spur people to take action, which is one of the best coping mechanisms for eco-anxiety. At UCSF, the Department of Psychiatry has launched a Climate Change and Mental Health Task Force. Its first roundtable will occur in Langley Porter-190 on October 16 from 3-5pm, and all UCSF faculty/staff/residents are invited to attend. See the Climate Psychiatry Alliance’s list of Organizations for Action for more ideas.
#4: Get Out into Nature
Fostering a sense of connection with one’s environment can help with eco-anxiety symptoms, and recent studies show that even two hours per week in nature is enough to reap mental health benefits. Even though the Earth is in peril, it still is a wondrous and beautiful place, and recalling that truth can help inspire your efforts. Obviously this requires care with our current shelter in place situation. But as we detail in our Forest Bathing story, you can enjoy nature right in your own backyard. Dr. Trope stresses the importance of unplugging from our devices, as the daily news cycle and relentless exposure to ecological damage occurring throughout the globe can actually be counter-productive and demotivating and lead to burn-out. Climate trauma survival tips from Dr. Lise Van Susteren, also a Climate Psychiatry Alliance steering committee member, include: “Get out of doors as much as possible—connect with the forces that drive you and give yourself up to the beauty of nature in the present. Your energy to continue the battle will be rejuvenated.”
#5: Go Green
Your daily choices—diet choices, saving energy, reducing food waste (the single most significant activity that an individual can do to reduce emissions), recycling, using paper products with recycled content, etc.—still matter.
#6: Be a Climate Voter
All policies, including policies on environment and climate, derive from the political process, so who gets elected has a lot to do with how policies are shaped. Advocate for pro-environmental politicians at the local, state, and regional levels. And after elections, make sure your legislators hear from you either individually or collectively. Sierra Club publishes a guide to help voters choose candidates in upcoming elections who are committed to addressing climate change.