According to multiple research studies, a significant part of citizens around the world is worried about climate change (link). So if you feel this way, remember you are not alone - dealing with complex and often difficult emotions related to climate and environmental crisis, is a permanent element of our reality.
That is why on September 29, together with the Climate Psychology Alliance, we conducted a workshop on climate anxiety and building resilience. The session consisted of a presentation on climate anxiety by Dr Nadine Andrews, former chair of Climate Psychology Alliance Scotland, followed by facilitated sessions in breakout groups that provided the participants the space for reflection and exchange in the format of a climate cafe. You can access the recording of the first part of session below (link) and read a short overview of Dr Andrews’ presentation below.
What does climate change mean to us?
We perceive climate change and its impacts as an existential threat that naturally brings about various emotions, such as anxiety, worry, compassion, sadness, and anger, which are often accompanied by elevated stress levels. These emotions have a profound impact on our well-being, both mental and physical, as prolonged tension affects cognitive functioning and causes serious problems, for example, exhaustion and immune system issues.
Moreover, when confronted with the scary reality of raging climate change and the misery that humans brought on themselves, we begin asking some challenging questions: Who do we think we are? What lives do we think we or our children will have? What will the future bring? These questions cause even more distress to individuals living in the regions most impacted by climate change,
As human beings, we try to alleviate stress levels through some defense and coping strategies, some of which are adaptive - that is, improving our functioning levels - while some are maladaptive, that is, decreasing those levels. The latter includes, among others, avoiding thinking or feeling and suppressing emotions. Such strategies defend us from having to feel difficult emotions, taking action, and often enhance our self-esteem instead.
What will help us deal with climate anxiety and build resilience then?
We need to understand that all emotions have a purpose - they are cues that direct our attention, guide behavior, and are integral to decision-making. They are not an evolutionary mistake. However, the key question remains on how to engage with them. To illustrate this, Dr Andrews compares emotions to fire - you don’t want to be IN it, but want to be around it to feel its warmth, so it can serve as a cue.
Additionally, we should remember to be attentive to the signals coming from our bodies. When the nervous system is in a threat response state, it will let us know about it. These cues include, among others, shallow rapid breathing, increase in blood pressure, insomnia, fatigue, pre-menstrual syndrome, skin problems, irritability, impulsivity, social withdrawal, poor concentration, and memory problems. If we detect even some of those and connect them with emotions we’re experiencing, we should turn towards adaptive coping mechanisms, like connecting with people and nature, prayer, religious and spiritual practices, movement practices, or art. We need to bring the emotions to conscious awareness and work with them through healthy, self-soothing activities.
Many people across the world experience conflicting emotions when it comes to climate and environmental crises. Yet we often stay in a form of denial, and thus nobody is coping with it perfectly. Nobody’s fully right or wrong in the way they are responding to this. What matters is that we create a sense of emotional safety and hold spaces for expression and vulnerability.