Depending upon where you live in the world, climate change can be either a stark reality, a fear for the future, or perhaps even a myth.
At Humantold, we refute the notion that climate change isn't real. We fully support the scientists and activists fighting to get governments to take an active role in combating and lessening the impact of future climate catastrophes.
As mental health professionals, we need to look no further than our own work to see the impacts of climate change. In a variety of ways, climate change is already significantly impacting the mental health of many.
Mental health concerns have gone overlooked as our society grapples with other emerging climate change-related health issues. But the emotional component is equally as pressing and, if not addressed, could further delay solutions to this crisis.
Direct and Indirect Climate Stress
There are two ways that you can experience mental stress from climate change: directly or indirectly.
Direct exposure to a natural disaster or another climate-related event can result in PTSD, major depression, increased drug and alcohol abuse, and higher suicide rates. It also leads to an increased risk of child and spousal abuse, homicide, and physical assault.
Indirect exposure comes from reading or viewing media that shows climate disasters, environmental degradation, and even human suffering. Similar to how watching a horror movie about clowns can give you a lifelong fear of them, watching climate change unfold on the news can cause lasting emotional stress.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the results of indirect climate stress are similar to that of direct. A 2018 study found that children who experience indirect climate stress are at an increased risk of PTSD, depression, anxiety, phobias, sleep disorders, attachment disorders, and substance abuse.
The Impact of Our Psychological Responses to Climate Change
Climate change is a human-caused event, which is more challenging to come to terms with than non-human-caused events. When we are faced with things that aren't easily solved, we engage in a range of psychological responses.
Few people can truly claim a neutral response to climate change. Even climate change "deniers" are engaging in a psychological strategy to help them cope with something that feels too frightening, too untrue, or too out of control for them to confront and deal with productively.
Common psychological responses to climate change include conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness, hopelessness, resignation, and feelings of loss. Things like ecomigration and a changing physical environment disrupt communities and lead to a loss of identity within their members. For example, Inuit communities in Labrador, Canada, have a culture based around snow and ice. With warmer winters, less snow, and quickly disappearing ice, these communities have to grapple with dramatic changes to their daily lives, cultural identity, and spiritual and mental wellness.
Imagine, for a moment, how stressful it would be to have your whole way of life threatened by something that is essentially out of your control. While the Inuit communities are experiencing this as we speak, it's not difficult to see how something similar could happen in your community—whether through rising sea levels, wildfires, or droughts. Looking this truth in the face and not feeling threatened or triggered or paralyzed is incredibly difficult. Trust us: no one expects you to be able to do this.
Our psychological responses to this kind of information influence our ability to comprehend information and participate in potential solutions. As one study notes, "These responses are keeping us, and our nation, from properly addressing the core causes of and solutions for our changing climate, and from building and supporting psychological resiliency."
What We Can Do About It
As we move forward into a future with an uncertain climate, we must recognize and name the emotional distress that it is causing us. Becoming aware of our feelings around this topic is the first step in caring for our emotions. If we can take care of our own mental wellness, we can influence others to do the same. Connecting with a professional therapist is one of the best ways to build emotional resilience and cultivate healthy coping mechanisms.
It's important to remember that these emotional responses are perfectly normal. Your friends, family, neighbors, and community members are also likely to be experiencing them. Talk to them about it! Share your feelings and thoughts with them. We are all in this together. If you want to connect with a larger community, communications strategist Rachel Malena-Chan created a website where people share their fears, anxieties, art, and personal experiences with eco-anxiety. It's called Eco-Anxious Stories.
The size and the scope of climate change can easily make us feel like our actions won't make a difference. But that's not true. Every action—regardless of size— counts. For example, doing something as small as riding your bike to work can help. We're not suggesting that this will solve the climate crisis. However, adopting small habits like this is one way to help manage feelings of helplessness and stress and help positively lessen climate change consequences.
If you're feeling stressed or overwhelmed by the climate crisis, consider connecting with a professional therapist. We can teach you tools to manage your emotions and help you get clear on what ways you as an individual want to contribute to the healing of our planet.