Research shows that the majority of people in the US believe in climate change and are somewhat to very concerned about it. However, the majority of us are not talking about it. This makes sense—climate change and its destructive effects is a gigantic problem and it is easy to feel helpless or hopeless. Some of our most common defense mechanisms (or coping strategies) are distraction and avoidance. However, trying to not think about what is happening or feel the natural emotions related to climate change only compounds the problem. This post will focus on helping you turn towards the issue of climate change so that you can cope effectively and with compassion.
1. Find Your People and Keep Them Close.
Finding other people who share your concerns and who want to make changes can help feelings of isolation, anxiety, and despair. We know that a “burden shared is halved.” Social support helps. If you feel alone, or lonely in your climate distress, there are many ways to connect with others who share your concerns. For example, Fridays for Future is a youth-led global climate strike organization and 350 is another global climate movement with a local Chicago chapter. The Climate Psychology Alliance has started offering Climate Cafes, which are small gatherings where people can talk openly about their concerns about climate change and the environment.
Some of your people may be friends and family you know or get to know by joining organizations or groups. But you can also think about the many scientists, psychologists, and leaders in the world talking about climate change and biodiversity loss and what we can do about it—these are also your people and can be part of your emotional support system. There are now an abundance of fascinating, thought-provoking, and even solution-based books, podcasts, and articles on climate and biodiversity. Listening to and reading what others are thinking and doing can ease loneliness and inspire hope and creativity.
2. Take Care of the Planet and the Planet Will Take Care of You.
Being in nature is one of the best things that you can do to manage and reduce your stress—including anxiety and distress about climate change. There is a very large amount of research showing that being in nature is good for our mental and physical health. Research shows that even looking at pictures of nature scenes helps our brains and bodies relax. There are small and big things you can do to cultivate a relationship with nature, like planting flowers or a garden, going for frequent walks or hikes, sitting in the park, or just taking your earbuds out and listening to the birds and looking at the leaves on the trees or the sunlight glinting off the snow, or the clouds in the sky. You might also make small changes that align with taking care of the planet, like composting or eating less meat or driving or buying less. These activities nurture a positive relationship with the earth and increase your sense of agency, which can, in turn, have a positive impact on your stress level and mood.
3. Don’t Turn Away-But Engage Mindfully and Tend to Your Emotions.
We know that overreliance on distraction and avoidance leads to inaction and can perpetuate the cycle of distress. But overdosing on bad news and doomscrolling can lead to overwhelm and paralysis. It’s helpful to monitor and be mindful of what and how much you are taking in from media. You may need to limit your dosage. Also, notice what emotions you are experiencing when you do engage so that you can take care of yourself. All of the emotions are appropriate, including sadness, anxiety, anger, hope, and determination. One of the many lessons from the Civil Rights Movement is helpful when thinking about the distress related to climate change, and that is: anger can be useful, especially when it develops into conviction and purpose.
4. Avoid Blaming and Shaming Yourself and Others.
As with most things, compassion helps. Blaming and shaming yourself or others will only activate the threat systems of everyone involved, and this tends to increase resistance, guilt, rage, and the likelihood that someone will shut down or turn away from the problem. Your inner critic is not helpful here and will only increase your suffering. Tara Brach’s RAIN exercise, Kristen Neff’s Self-Compassion Break, and the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg are all great resources to help quiet the inner critic and talk to ourselves and others without shaming and with nonjudgement and compassion.
By Sara Dittoe Barrett, PhD