How to Turn Climate Anxiety into Action
It is deeply painful to see and experience what is happening on the planet right now. Pakistan, for example, has been bearing the brunt of the global climate crisis this month, experiencing devastating floods that have destroyed a whopping 1.2 million homes.
In the face of this and other similar news over the past year, it is easy, even expected to feel anger, grief, anxiety, and disconnection, maybe all at once. It is an existential issue that pushes us past our window of tolerance.
And yet, there is the possibility to turn this anxiety into the one thing that might get us out of this situation: action. But before that, we need to talk about climate anxiety.
What is climate anxiety?
It is the widespread perception that the ecological underpinnings of existence are disintegrating, along with concern about our reliance on these crumbling environments. This anxiety about the future results in a persistently depressed mood, a sense of powerlessness, and hopelessness. Your body could also exhibit signs of anxiousness, such as trouble falling asleep, difficulty unwinding, tense muscles, and appetite loss.
Researchers have identified two major drivers of climate anxiety. The first is the depletion of nature itself. When there is a chance of a catastrophic disaster, people who are deeply connected to nature might get anxious about the climate because their connection to nature may be broken. Events that cause damage to the environment, such as floods, fires, and deforestation, may trigger climate anxiety in such people.
The second major driver is the methods used to convey climate change. Every day, we doomscroll on social media and are treated to images and news of climate horrors from remote corners of the world. It is often a lot more information than we can handle, which triggers climate anxiety. It doesn’t help that while reporting on climate change, mainstream and social media tend to adopt an “alarmist” and apocalyptic tone.
Climate anxiety has been a top concern for many psychologists, especially when dealing with young adults, teens, and children. This becomes more concerning when coupled with the fact that the responsibility for climate action— or cleaning up— is always made to fall on the shoulders o the younger generations. Climate anxiety needs to be taken seriously because the socio-economic effects can add considerably to the global costs of dealing with the climate crisis.
How to turn anxiety into action
To begin converting climate anxiety into meaningful action, researcher and educator Dr. Renée Lertzman recommends starting with ‘attunement’. It means feeling in sync with ourselves and understanding exactly what we’re feeling and how much we can tolerate. When we’re wholly attuned to our window of tolerance, we are so much more capable of being creative and adaptive and turning anxiety into action.
Find your community
Climate anxiety can generate a very overwhelming “me against the world” feeling. The first way to combat that sense of isolation is to find like minds who share the same feelings and also want to spark action. It’s helpful to surround yourself with people from outside your immediate echo chamber, which means you can hear diverse voices and get to more creative solutions, together. Being grounded and maintaining the awareness that you are not alone is critical to lessening the hold of some of these negative feelings on you.
Develop more connections to what does exist
Nature can exacerbate our feelings of anxiety, but it can also heal them. It’s important to remind ourselves that while we have lost quite a bit, we have a lot more waiting for us to find them patiently. Take a day to explore your neighborhood parks and national forests. Consider exploring an ecosystem you don’t know much about, like forests if you live in cities or the sea if you live in farmlands. It’s a simple yet profound way to re-accustom ourselves to the world outside our bubble.
Lead with attunement
Once again, borrowing from Dr. Lertzman, to lead with attunement is to be honest about fear and anxiety around climate and to use those to build solidarity and move towards collective action. It may seem counterintuitive — who wants to see a shaken leader, right? — but, doing so shows that climate anxiety is a human condition and one that can be channeled positively with a few steps.
Engage with books and media that revive your hope
Looking up anything related to climate on the internet can lead to a torrent of information that does more harm than good. Instead, I’ve created this list of media and books that fills you with hope and can energize you towards climate action.
- Active hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone
- Generation dread by Britt Wray
- A field guide to climate anxiety by Sarah Jacquette Ray
- Learning to live with climate change by Blanche Verlie
- All we can save, an anthology of 60 women in the climate movement
- Not Too Late
These resources aim to help people transform helplessness into hopefulness.
Understand that the future is not yet written
In the face of all the doomsaying, it can be easy to write off the future and assume everything is doomed. But to quote writer Rebecca Solnit,
“People who proclaim with authority what is or is not going to happen just bolster their own sense of self and sabotage your belief in what is possible.”
It’s happened time and time again: things that the naysayers said will never happen, have come to pass. Costa Rica is close to 100% clean energy. Gay marriage is not only accepted but legal in many countries all over the world. A whopping 192 countries came together to sign a climate treaty in Paris, a feat that even the leader of the cause, Christiana Figueres, once considered impossible. If we make the changes we want to see right now, the future won’t be set in stone at all.
Remember our ancestors and our history
To repeat a cliche, ‘history repeats itself.’ And while our ancestors may not have gone through an existential threat of such a global magnitude, they have repeatedly undergone life-threatening situations throughout their lives. And yet, their successors (us!) continue to walk the planet today. It is important to learn about and understand how they overcame their battles and stood their ground so we might be inspired, too.
Today, we sit on a goldmine of millennia-old knowledge — about living in symbiosis with nature and striking a balance between growth and harmony. When we look back to see how the people before us have adapted flexibly, we open the doors to more creative solutions, the awareness that we’re not resigned to our fates, and a way of life that isn’t anxiety-inducing, but life-affirming.
The final word
It is possible to transform the suffering we feel inside ourselves into a powerful force of action — which is consistent with the adage that you should never waste a crisis.
To do that, we must strengthen our “moral nerve,” a phrase writer Joan Didion coined to describe the non-negotiable virtue we can still display even as we stand on the precipice of fear. It does not mean seeing things through rose-tinted glasses or shutting our eyes to climate catastrophe. It means acknowledging all of this while still holding on to the hope and belief that we have what it takes to change our world for the better.
It’s the first step towards rebuilding a thriving future for ourselves and our planet!