An Rx for Climate Change Anxiety

 kwest/shutterstock

kwest/shutterstock

By Laurie Casey

First, the good news.
There is hope.
There is love.
There is solidarity.

It’s hard to remember these things, because each day’s news seems to pitch us deeper into the pits of despair: climate change action feels stalled, or worse, rolled back.  

According to the latest report by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (a body of the world’s most respected scientists from 195 countries), climate change is here, and it’s accelerating faster than many models predicted. What’s more, climate change will usher in catastrophic food shortages and natural disasters by 2040 unless we change course.

Scary, right? It’s an emergency, but we can’t dial 9-1-1. No one’s on the line to save us. This disconnect is frightening. Recently, psychologists have coined a new term to describe this type of climate-related anguish: climate anxiety. It affects climate change refugees and disaster victims, as well as others who simply worry about climate change.

“Worry about actual or potential impacts of climate change can lead to stress that can build over time and eventually lead to stress-related problems, such as substance abuse, anxiety disorders and depression,” according to research reviewed in a report on the psychological effects of climate change by the American Psychological Association.

Symptoms include ignoring the issue, according to Krista Mikos, Adjunct Faculty Member at DePaul University where she teaches classes in Advocacy and Environmental Justice. “People shut down about it,” says Mikos. “We’re not reacting to it. We’re not acting in the ways we should be to work toward solving these issues together.”

Sound familiar? Remember…

There is hope.
There is love.
There is solidarity.
And there is a future if we choose it.

It’s tempting to pull the covers over our heads and just let the world go by. And yet, there is cause for hope and plenty of time for action. Pastor John Pavlovitz calls for your energy and commitment in his book, Hope and Other Superpowers: A Life-Affirming, Love-Defending, Butt-Kicking, World-Saving Manifesto, “The world you and I are standing on is in desperate need of people still willing to reach and do and believe and, most of all, to be fierce caretakers of hope.”

That’s one doozy of a job description: “fierce caretaker of hope.” But, you know, there’s something powerful in the idea that we can guard our mindset, however wobbly and unsure. That we can actively protect – maybe even nurture -- this delicate and thin-as-silk idea that things can get better.

And they can, of course. Nothing is yet written in stone…or coal … or thawing permafrost. Rebecca Solnit, writing in The Guardian, says, “The future hasn’t already been decided. That is, climate change is an inescapable present and future reality, but the point of the IPCC report is that there is still a chance to seize the best-case scenario rather than surrender to the worst.”

Her essay goes on to catalog many big successes, such as the dramatic transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, and the divestment of $6 trillion from dirty energy companies.

We can add to these successes in the coming years. But not if we languish in despair.

Here are some things we can do to break free:

Connect with others. You know that saying, “there’s strength in numbers”? Plug into a resilient community of people who see the problems ahead with clear eyes, brave hearts and a strong sense of solidarity. Green Community Connections is one such group, but there are many groups throughout the Greater West Side and Chicagoland, from Sierra Club to Blacks in Green to Go Green Illinois. If you are involved in a faith community, consider joining your congregation's Green Team or the Interfaith Green Network.

Seek positivity. There’s no need to be a Pollyanna; acknowledging the problem is important. But lots of well-respected leaders and thinkers see cause for hope. Seek out viewpoints that express joy, courage and strength. If the news gets too dark, put yourself on a media diet by avoiding cable TV broadcasts. Other mindset-changing tools include meditating, music, a spiritual practice and being in nature. Try forest bathing walks by Mikos and Kim Ruffin.

Take action. Use your anxious energy to fuel concrete action. Be smart and dig into solutions that can change the equation quickly. Get active politically – voting in the election comes to mind – to hold elected officials accountable. Lobby them for good policies that can quickly put us on the right path. “Lobbying isn’t as scary or hard as some people think it is,” says Mikos, especially if you do it with a group, like Faith in Place or Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Another impactful step is to get involved in making your town’s sustainability plan a reality. Finally, put the One Earth Film Festival on your calendar for March 1-10, 2019. Plan on inviting others who can join the fight.

Remember…

There is hope.
There is love.
There is solidarity.
There is a future if we choose it.
And now we get to work.