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Coping With Climate Change Distress


By Simon DuBois, Psychologist

Psychologists are working very hard on ways to get individuals and governments to address the issue of climate change with increasing urgency. Knowing about climate change is not enough for most people to take action. There are many, many ways in which people can ignore climate change or choose to do nothing about it. But when we do feel the threat, we are more likely to be motivated to take action. It’s also then, of course, that we feel the most distress and worry. Feeling the threat of climate change involves a host of difficult emotions. But coping with the feelings we have about climate change is very important so that we:

  • don’t become overwhelmed

  • don’t try to avoid the problem

  • don’t burn out

  • can keep functioning well in our everyday lives

  • can stay engaged with climate change and with the changes we are making to reduce the threat

A large percentage of people surveyed about climate change report appreciable distress about the issue (Reser et al., 2012). These might be people who know the facts, who see their world changing irreparably, who understand what is necessary for change, or who are living in places which are very vulnerable to climate impacts. This might be the case particularly for professionals or volunteers engaged in the field of climate change and environmental issues. Burnout is a significant risk for these latter groups.

Things we can do to manage distressing feelings include:

Taking action

Doing something to reduce your carbon footprint is a significant coping strategy, with the actions that people take seeming to help them manage their experienced distress – participating in climate action groups, lobbying politicians and industry leaders, changing individual or household behaviours.

Taking a break

Taking a break from thinking about climate change is another important strategy. Keeping up with a constant stream of information doesn’t actually solve the climate change problem. And it takes a huge psychological toll to be constantly exposing yourself to these chronic, intangible and global environmental stressors. Taking a deliberate break is different from putting one’s head in the sand because you know you are only downing tools for a breather; not quitting altogether. Taking a break can include – turning off the 24/7 news feed or taking a break from emails.

Having fun, feeling good

Positive experiences are critically important for inspiring and motivating yourself (and others). Because, when we feel good, we are also more likely to show personal qualities that will help progress our causes. For example, researchers have found that people who feel good are – more willing to look directly at threats, better at negotiating, better able to find more efficient, effective, creative, novel solutions to problems (see Harré 2011 for more examples). If the fun is going out of the work, it is important to take a break and prioritise activities that cultivate positive emotions like: fun, playfulness, passion, expansion, excitement, joy, or satisfaction. We have to make sure we maintain positive emotions both in general and with regard to sustainability (Harré, 2011).

Focusing on only a few issues

Working in too many movements or on too many climate projects may become unwieldy and overwhelming. Focusing will lower stress levels. Specialisation is a good behavioural strategy for coping.

Ways we can use our thinking to help cope with distressing feelings

When we are stressed our capacity to think flexibly often diminishes. At these times, we rely more than usual on mental short cuts and can fall into a host of unhelpful thinking patterns. You are likely to recognise a few of them in yourself, which is normal. Common examples are black and white thinking, where one thinks in terms of all or nothing about an issue (e.g. ‘all humans completely bad for the environment’), or overgeneralising, where one infers an overriding principle from a single event (e.g. this drought confirms that we are all doomed from climate change’).

The aim of cognitive coping strategies is to identify and then replace unhelpful thinking patterns. This is not just positive thinking or looking on the bright side. It might even be that some of the thoughts we have about climate change are actually quite rational and realistic, given the state of the environment. They may not, however, be particularly helpful, if they are leading to overwhelming feelings of despair or anger, for they get in the way of you coping and getting on with the important work that you want to do.

Rather, the aim of cognitive coping strategies is to attain a more realistic and empowering way of thinking about the problems. This can involve replacing helpless/hopeless or catastrophising thinking patterns with thoughts like:

Cultivating hope

Hope is an important part of keeping engaged with the necessary work to protect our climate. People need to see: that change is possible, that a low carbon world would be a welcome transformation from the current reality, that we know what to do and how to get there, and that we have some efficacy and agency (i.e. we know that we can do it). Cultivating hope is about transforming fear about the fate of the planet into a positive experience. Fear is often a useful starting place but it needs to be transformed into a plan for action.

Ways we can work with emotions to help cope with distressing feelings

Engaging with climate change can evoke many raw and painful emotions about ourselves, but also as we empathise with others. This willingness to imagine and feel the pain that others experience can sometimes add to our own suffering. Humans have some, but not complete, capacity to regulate our emotions. We can ‘up’ regulate if we’re feeling down, and ‘down’ regulate if we’re feeling anxious or overly excited. Get in touch with your body. The more aware of your physical body, the more attuned you become to the subtlety of emotion. Bring awareness to your physical sensations – of touch, movement, heat/cool, mass. You can practise this anywhere doing anything, however meditations that focus on body scanning will rocket-fuel your skills!

Let yourself have a cry from time to time if it helps. Some people find that expressing their sadness by crying can be a relief. It is sad that our planet is struggling to cope with overpopulation and overconsumption. These feelings are real, so let them out.

Approach painful situations and painful emotions with kindness and compassion. Allow yourself to feel for the suffering or pain you are experiencing, wishing yourself well in that pain. Compassion is characterised by generation of warmth, kindness and care towards us and others. Acknowledge how you feel by labelling the emotion (“I’m feeling shame, guilt, anger, hurt, pain, overwhelmed, apathy…”). Putting feelings into words will activate the part of the brain that enables regulation.

Simon DuBois is a Psychologist at The Health Lodge with more than 20 years of experience supporting people in the Byron Shire. He has developed a reputation for helping his patients explore psychological distress in a relaxed and supportive manner. Find out more about Psychology at The Health Lodge here or book online for an appointment with Simon. You can also contact our Client Support Team on 02 6685 6445 for more information.

*This blog features the views of the writer and is for educational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always consult your doctor or other qualified health practitioners before acting on information on this article.

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