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How to cope with eco-anxiety

How to cope with eco-anxiety

Gen180’s Designer, Bri Graves, wrote this piece for us to share her strategies for coping with the stress of climate change.

My little sister and I are 17 years apart in age. I’m like the cool aunt that swings by with gifts and games, while my parents take on the daily tasks of raising her. That being said, we as adults all share the burden of thinking about her future. Having her in my life has made me think of the future of our home—earth—in a deeply personal and emotional way.

In some ways, I feel a sense of relief now that the most prominent piece of climate legislation in a generation isn’t just being talked about, but finally becoming action. The Inflation Reduction Act is a 10-year investment in averting the worst of what we anticipate climate change to look like. However, anticipating the worst is a strange outlook to have and I know millions of other Millennials feel the same. 

Facing climate change is just one of many global (and personal) crises we are all navigating while attempting to fully live every day.

“Eco-anxiety” is the new term for this widespread fear of the planet’s future, and it can be debilitating. The problem isn’t going away tomorrow, so I rounded up some tools and strategies to cope with it.

What is eco-anxiety, and who does it affect?

The American Psychological Association defines it as a “chronic fear of environmental doom.”

A Gallup poll showed that 70% of 18 to 34 year-olds “worry a great deal/fair amount about global warming,” while just 56% of those 55 and older had the same level of worry. A similar poll, which surveyed 10,000 young people in 10 different countries, found that nearly half of respondents believe “their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning.”

Many of these anxious young people (AKA me), are resorting to therapy for relief.

Dr. Thomas Doherty, a psychologist who specializes in climate, was one of the few therapists who recognized how a bleak environmental future could negatively affect people’s psyches. His area of expertise is in such high demand that he’s built his own practice to help those suffering from eco-anxiety. Many of his clients report frustrations with other therapists who dismiss their climate worries and advise them to focus on themselves instead.

Besides a pervasive sense of “environmental doom,” there are big life questions that people are struggling to answer in the face of an uncertain future.

Am I complicit in climate change if I travel by car or plane? Should I avoid living in coastal cities due to flood risks?

A common ingredient in the eco-anxiety stew is a healthy dose of guilt. Many recognize that everyday activities like driving to work or eating red meat are worsening the problem, and feel shame for not being able to fully eliminate their carbon footprints.

It’s actually fossil fuel conglomerates that triggered the shift in blame from companies to consumers. British Petroleum (BP), one of the biggest oil companies in the world, hired a PR firm in the 2000s to promote the idea that individuals are to be blamed for climate change, not big oil companies. Thus, the concept of a “carbon footprint” was born, and the company set up a footprint calculator so consumers could see just how much damage they were responsible for.

I’m not trying to say here that the idea of a carbon footprint should be thrown out the window, but you shouldn’t have to entirely give up traveling while fossil fuel companies continue to make billions with far greater planetary impacts. Making more informed travel decisions (ie., fly less, take the train or bus over flying, carpool) is a great place to start.

The decision of where to live in a changing climate also is a tricky one. The University of Maryland has a website that estimates what the climate of various cities will look like in 60 years. Unfortunately, cities like Miami are at high risk for frequent flooding in the future and I worry about my loved ones there. I think about where my parents are going to retire with climate projections and longevity in mind.

What about having kids? I always thought that skipping this step was the most impactful climate decision I could make.

My generation is having second thoughts about bringing more people into a rapidly-worsening environment. Eleven percent of childless adults point to climate change as a “major reason” for why they don’t currently have children. More people means more emissions, the logic goes.

But is that really the case? Scientist Kimberly Nicholas doesn’t think so. She doesn’t deny that having fewer kids could reduce our collective carbon footprint, but thinks that couples that want to start a family shouldn’t hesitate to do so.

We only have a few more years to avert the worst impacts of climate change, and the timeframe for when babies will become significant carbon emitters is much longer than this. Many studies show astronomical climate impacts from having children, but these studies largely ignore changes in government policy in the future, which are highly likely.

Plus, children raised in an environmentally-conscious household could grow up to be government leaders, or entrepreneurs, or breakthrough scientists. So, if you want to start a family, do it! But if the feeling still nags at you, and if adoption is on the table, there already are lots of children that need a home.

Strategies for coping

There are several strategies that therapists like Dr. Doherty recommend to cope with eco-anxiety:

  • Focus on resilience. When anxiety has us in its vice grip, focusing that energy on growing more resilient can be a relief. As medical and mental health practitioners Cook-Shonkoff and Tummala explain:

“Think about personal resilience like a rubber band: If you stretch it a reasonable amount, it naturally springs back to its original form when released. But if you keep stretching, it will snap. With the climate crisis here, we must choose to stretch ourselves, pulling on our resilience as much as we can.”

  • Look to groups like the Climate Psychology Alliance and the Good Grief Network for support. They focus on alleviating eco-distress. Connecting with others who have similar feelings can be comforting.
  • Acknowledge difficult emotions, and give them space to breathe. Emotions can be like whack-a-mole—if you try to keep pushing them down, they’ll just reappear later. Meditation has gone mainstream and is a wonderful way to clear and open your mind. If sitting in Lotus position for long periods of time isn’t for you, a simple walk around the block or a 10 minute journaling session works, too. Try these exercises, track what works for you, and develop your catered-to-you routine.
  • Schedule a “worry break” into your day. During this time, give yourself space to identify your fears of the future, and feel them fully—accepting emotions and can actually help you process them, especially painful emotions like fear and anger, more quickly.

Acknowledging how eco-anxiety affects us isn’t a sign of defeat for yourself or the planet. Remember what flight attendants tell us before takeoff—be sure to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others with theirs.

One of the best ways to combat anxiety is to take direct action.  Joining Generation180 has alleviated much of my climate-anxiety by giving me purpose and a voice in the movement. Check out the many ways you can help accelerate the transition to clean energy—trust me, it will help.