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Stressed About the Environment? Here's How to Channel Climate Anxiety Into Positivity

·6-min read

It's no secret that we're experiencing some concerning changes in our climate, from rising global temperatures, extreme weather events, and rising sea levels. On a local level, we're seeing landfills overwhelmed with plastics; air pollution in our communities from burning fossil fuels; and our drinking water contaminated by heavy metals and chemical byproducts from manufacturing and agriculture. So is it any wonder that more and more Americans are starting to experience a new form of anxiety around environmental issues?

Climate anxiety—also sometimes called "eco-anxiety"—is a term used to describe the feelings of distress, anxiety, or fear surrounding environmental issues. Regardless of the term you choose, we can't ignore the mounting effects that the climate crisis is having on mental health.

But rather than focus on only the doom and gloom, how can we take our worries and feelings and not only cope with them, but actually use them to propel us into action? We asked an expert on the subject to help us navigate these new, challenging emotional times: Renee Lertzman, a renowned climate psychologist, consultant, and founder of Project InsideOut, a new resource designed to help bring emotional intelligence to climate action.

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What Climate Anxiety Means—and How It Manifests

According to Lertzman, climate anxiety is the understandable anxiety many people feel as they become aware of the realities of climate change. And as is often the case with generalized anxiety, each person experiences these feelings in a different way depending on who they are, where they live, their life circumstances, and many other factors that make their lives unique.

"We may have anxiety about the future. We may feel anxiety about our own role and contribution to the issues, and unsure how to navigate that," Lertzman says. "We may have anxiety about how others in our lives are relating to these crises, from denial to outright hostility. We could have anxiety about how we can live our lives more in alignment with the future we want. We might feel anxious and not even know why—or maybe we feel more despair or anger than anxiety."

It's important to remember that no matter how our climate anxiety is manifesting, the feelings are a signal of our connection with our world, both on a local and global level. "It means we care," explains Lertzman. "It is natural to have anxiety about these issues, and importantly we bring curiosity, compassion, and acceptance to our experience."

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Why People Feel Climate Anxiety Now More Than Ever

"Climate anxiety has been around since humans became aware of human-generated climate threats and environmental issues," says Lertzman. "It's simply now more recognized and felt by so many more people." Lertzman herself started becoming interested in the psychological effects of climate change 30 years ago, as an undergraduate student studying both psychology and environmental studies. While she felt distressed and saddened by what she was learning about the issues facing the planet, such as climate change and species loss, she was surprised at the lack of conversation around the emotional impact these profound phenomena could have on individuals. Now, many years after piquing her initial interest, the realities of environmental change are even more well-known, and the general population is collectively starting to feel the emotional effects.

"After so many years of studying and working in this area, I started to notice this real uptick a few years ago, first when An Inconvenient Truth came out, but then after a series of truly horrific, severe weather events around the world—from flooding in Alberta, Canada, to Hurricane Katrina, to the wildfires in the Amazon and Australia, wildfires in California, and so on," Lertzman says. "I believe that climate anxiety is pervasive and underlying many communities around the world."

Lertzman doesn't buy the idea that people who don't take action on sustainability issues don't care; it's much more complex than that. "It's more about proximity, and what additional pressures and crises are taking place," she continues. "I notice more acute anxiety about the threats to ways of life, along with complicated issues of guilt and shame. This can lead to heightened anxiety, as well as increased levels of denial, because it's just really painful stuff to face."

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The Best Ways to Cope With Climate Anxiety

In her TED talk, "How to Turn Climate Anxiety Into Action," Lertzman stresses that oftentimes, when faced with stress beyond what we can tolerate, many people either shut down or go into a space of denial and anger. While this is natural, it limits our ability to adapt, be resilient, and move into action.

Air your anxieties with a supportive person or group.

"The first thing I always say is to bring compassion and curiosity to our own experience," Lertzman says. "Second, I encourage people to find others they can connect and talk with in a judgement-free zone. This is harder than it sounds, because often our own anxiety may trigger others, and they can become defensive or just not know how to handle it. So find people who won't criticize you, judge you, or tell you to be more positive or upbeat."

While it may sound simple, one of the most profound ways we can start to cope with our own feelings of climate anxiety is to begin to talk about them and normalize the conversation around the psychological effects of environmental issues. "This is about recognizing that humans need to talk about our experience in order to change our world. It is that simple," she continues. "All social movements and change come from us talking with others about what's happening and what we want to do about it. We need to accept this is hard, messy, and complicated stuff, and find ways to build a new world together."

Channel those feelings into positive actions.

The final piece in coping with feelings of climate anxiety is to join forces with others who feel similarly to you and start to channel your emotions into productivity. This could be through joining forces with other groups or organizations, or forming an alliance at your workplace to work on sustainability issues. Whatever you choose, Lertzman reminds us to remember to rest and take breaks amid our efforts to avoid feelings of burnout.

Ultimately, coping with climate anxiety is not about turning only to action and ignoring the underlying feelings that are driving us. "Our feelings are what drive us to take action, and are the crucible for engaging with the world. It's about listening to what it has to tell us, learning how to not let it paralyze us, and channeling this into our source of strength, power and capability," says Lertzman. It is vital that we define what "action" means for us, and that it draws on our strengths, unique offerings and gifts. Each and every person has something to offer. It may be modest or it may be big, it doesn't matter. It all counts."

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