Getting on top of eco-anxiety is possible, and we can’t afford to have too many players on the bench…
Have you ever found yourself crying without warning when you’ve been reading or watching or listening to something about climate change?
It might be a piece in the newspaper about government inaction, or corruption, or complete lack of care about our future or that of our kids.
It might be an interview with a young couple who’ve decided not to even have kids because to them the climate-riven future just looks too bleak.
It might even be from that sense of dread when your instinct tells you that COP26 hasn’t been the silver bullet that many hoped.
Well, I have.
Not full-blown hysterics mind you, but a tear or two will often creep out during unguarded moments. I count myself lucky in the sense that this sadness doesn’t paralyse me. I’m grateful that what we know as ‘eco-anxiety’ doesn’t get the better of me, particularly given that my life is laser focused on climate action and the bad-news data is part of the territory.
There is a great deal of new research emerging about eco-anxiety and it’s quickly becoming clear that a sense of dread about our climate-changed future is pervasive. A recent study from the UK (Medical News Today article by Robby Berman) has found that around 75% of 16–25 year olds feel that our future is frightening.
Lately I’ve had more and more people asking me how I cope with eco-anxiety. Not only younger people from that 16–25yo age group but people in their 30s, 40s, even 50s and beyond. I’ve noticed that their own eco-anxiety takes many forms and tends to take on different hues depending on their age.
And it’s happening often enough that I’ve felt compelled to share more widely how I cope with my own eco-anxiety.
To be clear, I am NOT a clinician, I have zero training, qualifications, or experience in any medical or mental health fields whatsoever, and I’m most definitely NOT about to give anyone clinical advice. If at the end of reading this you feel like your eco-anxiety is an issue, PLEASE reach out to a healthcare professional.
Whilst I’m not on the clinical side of the ledger I am deeply involved in creating more sustainable and resilient hospitals and healthcare facilities, and I know for a fact that the clinical fraternity most definitely have eco-anxiety on their radar and know how to help you.
What I’m sharing here is what has helped me cope over the years, and it’s still a work in progress…
- Playing my Position. I now recognise that I can’t save the world. Just as it’s not my fault alone that we’re in this ecological mess, it’s also not entirely in my hands to stop climate change. It’s taken me many years to get comfortable with the realisation that I can only achieve so much, that I only have a certain amount of influence. But I’m also at the point where I see this as a potential super-power — I may just make that final nudge, create that final piece of the puzzle, ask that one final clever question that helps someone else achieve something incredible. It’s a team effort, and I play my position like a boss.
- Finding the Levers. Once I realised that climate change is the symptom of a very complex and complicated human-capitalist-market-driven system and that there are more elements than we can possibly count, I started looking for the root cause of each symptom and finding ways to press that one lever. It’s meant that I can be comfortable with ignoring many of the elements that are only the result of the root cause. I keep my eyes on the prize and don’t get distracted.
- No Judgement. I’ve stopped judging others. Well, mostly. I’ve recognised that we’re all trapped in this same messy complicated system and to varying degrees we’re all victims of what we’ve created. I’ve given up trying to change others’ behaviour and now focus on those levers instead. If I can’t get someone to make recycling a habit, for example, I just accept it, and make sure that I keep looking for those levers that remove the need for recycling in the first place.
- Leave Blockers Behind. I accept that not everyone accepts the climate science. They’ll trust science in general, like driving through traffic lights when they’re green, or eating food from a microwave, or taking medicine, but they just insist on politicising climate science and looking for ways to verify their own biases. Where once I might have argued and tried to ‘educate’ them, I now just move on. Let them catch up when they’re ready. Time is too precious, and I’m needed on the frontline.
- Self-Kindness. I manage my energy. If I try to solve everything and hit burnout then I’m no good to anyone, so I regularly check in with myself to reflect on how I’m feeling, what are my energy levels, how strong is my motivation, what’s frustrating me at the moment and what’s inspiring me. Self-awareness. It’s ok to take a break, to stop for a while, to disengage. You’ll never win the race if you don’t take a rest from training.
- Connect. The more I reach out to connect with others who are also playing their own parts in climate action, the more I realise I’m not alone. I share ideas, thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears. There is strength and solace in numbers. When I’m feeling down, I know that some others in my tribe will be on top, and they’ll help me back up with care.
- Learn. I’m a lifelong learner, and the more I learn the more I’m able to find those levers, inspire others, call out BS when I need to, and most importantly be even more effective through my work. Knowledge is empowering and builds confidence, and I can’t help but wonder if eco-anxiety gains a foothold when there’s a lack of it.
- Help Others. Maybe it’s just the way I am, and it’s not really conscious — but I find great comfort in helping others on their own journeys toward climate action. And I’ve discovered that when I see how other people have amplified their own climate action because of something I’ve done or said or shown, my own eco-anxiety is quietened for a while.
- One Step at a Time. As I’ve mentioned above, climate change is a wickedly complex and complicated problem with literally millions of moving parts. I know I can’t solve everything and I can’t be everywhere at once. And that’s ok. What I can do is choose the next action I want to take in my climate action journey then give it the full court press. Research, learn, test, troubleshoot, test again, move forward. Do each thing well, then move onto the next. Step by step I can walk miles, which builds the sense that I’m making a difference and getting somewhere.
This is what’s worked for me. It’s my own peculiar journey, and this particular collection of attitudes and hacks has helped me deal with my own eco-anxiety. Rather than try to fight it I acknowledge it for what it is, I understand where it’s come from, and I let it float on down the river. I still shed a tear every now and again, but I know that’s ok.
And please please please, if you’re suffering eco-anxiety, ask the right people for help.
We need you on the court.