While there is every logical reason to be concerned about the impact of climate change, for some people so-called “climate change anxiety” can be a real mental health issue. But how do we deal with it?
What is Climate Change Anxiety?
Detractors might scoff at the notion of anxiety over climate change, but it isn’t simply a fear about rising global temperatures. Rather, it’s the effects that climate change may have that are the source of fear and dread for some. If you already live in a state where tornadoes are a seasonal reality, the promise of more frequent storms and more severe storms might not just give you pause for thought, but could start to keep you up at night.
Similarly, if your livelihood depends on a good crop yield, worrying about rising temperatures, rising pest numbers and drought conditions, and what they could all add to your financial and emotional wellbeing, could take its toll. Another example might be if you suffer from asthma and are worried about what the rise in insulating gasses and air pollution might mean for yourself and for your children who are also likely to also suffer the condition.
While it should be said there’s no formal diagnostic criteria, those examples demonstrate why so-called climate change anxiety is a recognized and possibly growing concern.
In fact, there is concrete evidence to suggest that climate change does worry a significant proportion of Americans. Gallup polls suggest that about 24 percent of Americans worry “a great deal” about global warming. While that 2014 figure is down from those published in 2006, about the same proportion of people believe that climate change could “pose a serious threat” to them and their way of life. It may not be a majority concern, but it’s enough for researchers and psychologists to believe we should start formulating responses to climate change anxiety.
Responding to Climate Change Anxiety: Giving People A Sense of Community
One such report, published in June of this year called Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change, found a range of mental health issues relating to climate change.
As we might expect, if people have been caught up in a natural disaster like flooding, they would obviously fear increased storms and may suffer things like post-traumatic stress disorder.
However the report, which was created by the American Psychological Association together with ecoAmerica, a nonprofit focused on how we can prevent and manage climate change, found that mental health workers were reporting increased rates of people who have never been caught up in natural disasters using mental health programs and reporting anxiety (or “eco-anxiety” as the media has rather disdainfully named it). This is because many people feel that we’ve now past the point of no return when it comes to climate change and that conditions are now only going to get worse. That fatalism may permeate everything, from family planning choices to greater substance abuse issues, and people simply report feeling powerless.
At particular risk from these anxieties are the elderly and young people. Other groups can include those with existing medical conditions, and people on low incomes. Those issues are going to get worse as climate change’s severity deepens, and we will probably start to see some of the more extreme emotional changes manifest more often, such as hot weather-linked violence — and then fear and anxiety relating to that phenomenon.
Dr. Norman B. Anderson, CEO of the American Psychological Association, said about climate change and its link to our mental wellbeing: “The effects we are likely to see aren’t just trauma from experiencing natural disasters. We can also expect increases in long-term stress and anxiety from the aftermath of disasters, as well as increases in violence and crime rates as a result of higher temperatures or competition for scarce resources.”
Yet, far from being a hopeless scenario, the report says that while the doom and gloom of media reports on climate change (when we’re not seeing flat-out denials of man-made climate change’s existence) aren’t the whole picture. Indeed, there is a lot we can do in our own small ways to mitigate the effects of climate change as we face them, or at the very least feel a sense of preparedness as we look to the future, and it probably starts with building relationships with our neighbors.
Says the report:
Knowledge about climate change or climate impacts is unlikely to lead to action unless people also appraise their own potential to cope and act positively. In the absence of positive coping appraisals, recognizing the threat of climate change is likely to lead people to focus their energy on managing their negative emotions by denying or avoiding the problem. But the more that people feel able to address the issue as individuals or collectively, the more likely they will be to feel a sense of hope (Koerth, Vafeidis, Hinkel, & Sterr, 2013) and overcome the denial and passivity that undermine effective response (Ojala, 2012; van Zomeren, Spears, & Leach, 2010).
Among other things, the report says we need to start emphasizing that while climate change is a reality, it doesn’t mean that we should feel a sense of helplessness in its looming shadow. Indeed, one of the major factors the report stresses is that a greater sense of community can help us overcome some of the anxieties we face: in effect, the sense of having a safety net of people willing to help in a crisis will lessen our anxiety of what we will do if a climate change-related problem does arise. That might be especially meaningful to our elders who may be reliant on some assistance if something should happen.
This all leads to an increase in what’s known as our climate resilience. While it’s true that in the face of increased wildfires or tropical storms we may have very little that we personally can do to prevent those natural disasters, we can at least control how we prepare, how we act in those emergencies and how we help others after those emergencies: and doing all that together seems to be our best chance at remaining emotionally healthy.
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