There’s no way around it: learning about climate change is draining. It’s frustrating. And it’s frightening.
I’ve thought a lot about it lately, and it’s been eye-opening, but it hasn’t exactly benefitted my mental health. Reading articles about ocean acidification, watching videos of natural disasters, seeing plumes of pollution rising from factories — all of these things make my throat clench tight. They make my heart skitter rapidly, make me realize how strangely hollow my head suddenly feels. But more than anything else, they make me desperately afraid of what the future will bring.
As a citizen of a developed nation, I feel obligated to learn about climate change, understanding that not paying attention is a luxury that the planet just can’t afford anymore. And the more attention I pay, the more I want to do something. That’s why I’ve recently kickstarted new eco-friendly habits and encouraged my family and friends to do the same.
After all, something tells me that climate change makes plenty of people feel just as worried as I do. In fact, more and more researchers are studying the effects that climate change has on mental health. They already know that people displaced or otherwise affected by disasters often experience anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse disorders, depression, and suicidal ideation. But new studies are suggesting that the general population can also develop strong negative emotions from watching climate change unfold across the globe. Some psychologists are even starting to write about “eco-anxiety,” although this classification is still very informal.
As Dr. Molly S. Castelloe explained in a 2018 article, “there is immense pain involved in recognizing the realities of global warming.” It’s not easy for us to watch as climate change takes human lives, destroys homes, ruins livelihoods, endangers wildlife, and alters the face of the planet itself. And it’s excruciating to realize that we — the privileged people living comfortably and using resources somewhat carelessly — brought this upon ourselves.
Calming my own anxieties has proven difficult, especially with fresh headlines trumpeting bad news about the environment every day (and with the head of my country refuting the idea that climate change is even occurring). But my panicky feelings have quieted as I’ve found ways to balance my mental health and environmental stewardship.
So, if the mental health struggles I’ve discussed sound all too familiar, here are a few ideas that will hopefully help you take climate action as you face your climate anxiety.
Remember that you can make a difference
All too often, people have a tendency to feel helpless — and, consequently, hopeless — in the face of climate change. We tell ourselves that individuals just don’t have the power to make a difference, and we use that excuse to shrug off our harmful actions. We justify our bad behavior and bat away our guilt by telling ourselves that nothing we do will even make a dent. We cover up our confusion and fears with feigned indifference.
But these attitudes are damaging. Can you imagine how different the world would be if everyone cared as much as you do? Can you sense how much cleaner and healthier your life would become if you made helping the environment one of your guiding motivations? Can you calculate how much freer you would feel if you treated the Earth as kindly as you could, occasionally messed up, and kept trying anyway?
Nothing is scarier than feeling powerless. But when I remind myself that my choices have an impact, when I take back control and remember that my actions are mine to do with as I please, I breathe a little easier.
If it helps, take a moment to visualize a four-quadrant graph with an x- and y-axis. The x-axis represents how you feel about the environment itself, running from a doom-and-gloom sense of despair on one side to a rosy feeling of hope at the other. And the y-axis represents how you feel about your own actions: measuring to what extent you believe they can make a difference. You’ll probably find yourself at a different spot on this graph every single day, but on days when you’re feeling discouraged about the environment and your effect on it, try to find ways to move just a notch or two closer to believing that there is hope for the planet and that you can help.
This visualization provides a simple way to stop, breathe, and gauge how you feel on any given day. Hopefully, it will keep you from running away with your anxieties and help you move to a healthier place when you need a boost.
Regardless of how you do it, remember that you can help the environment. Even the way you travel, eat, and dress matters — so do your mental health a favor, and use your decisions as a positive influence in the world.
Look to other people’s examples
If you’re still not convinced that you can make a difference, you might benefit from learning about incredible people taking climate action around the world. These environmental role models will reinforce that your decisions matter — and inspire you to do your part for the planet.
For example, Sonam Phuntsho, a forest caretaker from Bhutan, has planted about 100,000 trees during his lifetime — by hand. At 60 years old, he’s still going strong, often setting course across the countryside while wearing a basket of foot-high saplings on his back. His actions don’t just beautify his homeland; they help maintain its status as the world’s only carbon-negative country. Although Bhutan is a small nation, it’s a peaceful place, and a haven where more than 60 percent of the land is forested. Sonam is part of the reason why.
You can find another bout of inspiration in Zaria Forman’s approach to environmental activism. The American artist creates stunning pastel artworks of melting glaciers, educating people about a crisis that is changing the face of our landmasses and challenging the way we live. Through it all, Zaria encourages her fans to protect the glaciers they see in her work. After all, she believes that art touches people’s emotions and changes their habits more effectively than news reports — a refreshingly positive outlook in a landscape of dire reports and pessimistic op-eds.
Or, turn to Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, who has become another tireless advocate for climate action over the past few months. In August 2018, Greta began striking from school in front of Stockholm’s Parliament House, hoping to raise awareness of environmental issues. Before long, thousands of students around the world were following her example in their own cities, all with the goal of prompting their governments to take vital steps toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Greta recently gave a TEDxStockholm talk, where she reminded her audience that the only way to feel hopeful about the environment is by making climate-friendly choices. So, next time you’re struggling to stay positive, do as Greta suggests — make a change — and see what happens.
“Yes, we do need hope — of course we do. But the one thing we need more than hope is action. Once we start to act, hope is everywhere. So, instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then, and only then, hope will come.” — Greta Thunberg
Take care of yourself like you want to take care of the climate
Leading a sustainable life is great, but it’s even more important to do what you can to safeguard your mental health. Dealing with anxiety, depression, PTSD, OCD, or any other mental illness is not easy, but things like therapy, medication, and self-care really do save lives. Before you take on global problems, please make your mental health your first priority and do whatever it takes to spruce up your headspace. Treat yourself kindly and remember that you matter.
Unfortunately, there’s no blanket piece of advice that can help people who are experiencing climate anxiety. But eco-therapists recommend everything from volunteering to taking frequent walks, reducing your carbon footprint, always carrying a piece of nature with you (like tree bark or a rock), and periodically disconnecting from the internet. Essentially, they prescribe finding healthy ways to reconnect with the natural world, as this will prompt you to combat the climate crisis in your own community and feel your best as you do so.
For me, hiking, snowshoeing, and spending time outside help. So does reading. So does minimizing my time spent on my phone. You’ll probably have to try several different strategies before you figure out the best way to tackle your climate-induced anxieties, and you might need professional help. That’s okay. But don’t wait too long to get started — finding ways to help the environment and improve your mental health are some of the most important things you’ll ever do.
You’re fighting for yourself, and you’re fighting for your planet. It’s going to be the battle of a lifetime, but we need every soldier we can get.
We can make a difference together.
Remember — you’re not alone in this fight. If you’re on Planet Earth’s side, then we at Passion Passport are on your side. Head to our Sustainable Travel page for more information on environmentally friendly living, and check out the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America for additional mental health resources.