Climate change is making individuals anxious as they navigate their day-to-day lives in an era of escalating climate-change concerns. Experts describe this anxiety as a pre-traumatic stress disorder, with few existing precedents. This uncharted territory of climate anxiety is challenging for unprepared counsellors as they deal with individuals, particularly young people, trying to navigate this complex emotional landscape. What exacerbates the problem is that rational fears underpin climate anxiety.
Climate anxiety is not a pathological condition, but an expected, adaptive response to a real and enormous threat. In this scenario, traditional talk therapy, which aims to help people identify and replace irrational thoughts with less stressful thinking, may risk alienating those who feel their worries are being dismissed. Experts argue that aiming to simply reduce climate anxiety would be a dangerous goal that might be best achieved by promoting unawareness or misinformation. As such, emerging coping strategies aim to validate these concerns, encourage meaningful engagement, and foster a sense of agency amidst the overwhelming scope of climate change.
Ground Report spoke to Manavi, a counselling psychologist and the founder of Karma Centre for Counselling and Wellbeing. Manavi says that there is a general lack of dialogue and research in the country when it comes to the intersection between environment and mental health.
“People do bring worries about the future and climate change into the counselling room. For some, they may deliberate about long-term plans like babies and bringing them into this world, and for others are worried about its effects on health, like breathing issues in Delhi today,”Advertisement
Kanika Soni, a clinical psychologist from the same organization points out that anxiety exists on a spectrum, with some stress considered as essential for driving our behaviours. But beyond a point, it interferes with an individual’s day-to-day functioning.Advertisement
“People who are predisposed to high anxiety and other underlying mental health problems will be more prone to climate anxiety as well,”Advertisement
Kanika also observes that grassroots-level awareness measures are imperative to help these people, especially the vulnerable sections.Advertisement
“The people from low socio-economic status bear the mounting costs of climate change. They are suffering under looming uncertainty but might not even be aware of what anxiety is in the first place,”
Counselors acknowledge that climate anxiety is rooted in rational fears. The first step then is to validate these feelings rather than dismiss them. Andrew Bryant, a clinical social worker based in Seattle, Wahington, told Harvard Medicine the significance of openly acknowledging and expressing these emotions.
“We’re not saying that anxiety is good or bad,” he says. “We just want to bring those feelings out into the open. It’s more about validating that climate concerns are reasonable given what we’re reading in the news every day.”
He emphasizes that individuals can deal with the emotional burden of anticipatory anxiety better when climate concerns are recognized in the context of daily news reports.
Experts acknowledge that problem-focused coping, characterized by proactive engagement with climate issues, offers a societal benefit through pro-environmental behavior. Young people who engage in it typically spend a lot of time learning about climate change and focusing on what they can do personally to help solve the problem. Maria Ojala, an associate professor in psychology at Örebro University in Sweden, highlights that climate change however is far beyond any one person’s control. Hence, problem-focused coping can leave people frustrated by the limits of their own capacity and make them unable to rid themselves of resulting worry and negative emotions.
In her 2019 paper published in Environment and Behavior, Ojala delves into how younger people think, feel, and communicate about global environmental problems. Ojala and her colleague, in the paper, describe emotion-focused coping, whereby young people ignore or deny climate change as a means of avoiding feeling anxious about it. In Harvard Medicine, she notes that emotion-focused coping involves de-emphasizing the climate threat, which often precludes actions young people might take against it. Therefore, has no environmental upside.
Considering the pitfalls in problem and emotion-focused coping strategies, experts advocate what is called meaning-focused coping as one of the most preferred coping strategies to deal with climate anxiety. This approach seeks a balance between acknowledging negative climate emotions and having faith in collective social efforts to combat climate change. The idea is to find strength in personal actions while trusting broader societal initiatives, where individuals can maintain their hopes for the future. This strategy allows for the coexistence of negative and positive emotions, ultimately bolstering resilience.
A central theme that emerges from all the above coping strategies is the importance of cultivating resilience. When individuals find meaning in their actions, they empower themselves to take meaningful steps towards addressing climate anxiety. This sense of agency, coupled with a belief in the effectiveness of collective endeavors, fuels a drive to persist despite the overwhelming challenges posed by climate change.
Do not anticipate short-term rewards
Experts have previously advised against anticipating swift rewards for individuals taking action against climate change. Ann-Christine Duhaime, a professor of neurosurgery at Harvard Medical School, delves into this aspect in her book "Minding the Climate." Duhaime explains that the brain's reward system, a fundamental component of human decision-making, has evolved over centuries to reinforce connections between actions and outcomes that promote short-term survival. This system is attuned to the immediate consequences of our actions.
Seeking a community
The challenge with addressing climate change, according to Duhaime, lies in its vastness and complexity. Individuals cannot assume that any single action will distinctly alter its course. Rather than anticipating rapid climate improvements, Duhaime suggests that young people must find value in seeking a community - a collective movement dedicated to advancing actions that safeguard the planet's climate. She emphasizes that social rewards hold significant power in the fight against climate change, particularly for the younger generation.
Acknowledging the disparity between the brain's reward mechanism and the unprecedented complexities of the climate crisis could empower individuals to persist even when progress appears frustrating and less immediately noticeable compared to causes with more visible effects. Duhaime emphasizes that the absence of immediate climate improvements or policy shifts should not diminish the significance of engaging in these endeavours.
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