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How to Handle Climate Anxiety

11/02/2021 10:00AM ● By James Gaines – Knowable Magazine
This story originally appeared in Knowable Magazine and is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

The Earth’s average global temperature is now warmer than any time in the past 125,000 years, according to a sobering report recently released by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The effects are already being felt around the world in the form of extreme heat, drought and flooding. To head off the worst, the report warns, it will take immediate, rapid and sustained cooperation. And that’s from a world that has repeatedly failed to tackle less urgent crises.

No surprise, then, that feelings of anxiety, guilt and grief around the climate and environment turn out to be common, surveys find — including one, not yet formally published, that polled thousands of 16- to 25-year-olds in 10 countries. These powerful emotions can easily spiral into feelings of helplessness and depression, but they can also be potent motivators for good, says Maria Ojala, an associate professor in psychology at Örebro University in Sweden.

Ojala studies how people, particularly young people, think, feel and communicate about climate change and how these emotions link to our health and well-being — a topic she and her colleagues explore in the 2021 Annual Review of Environment and Resources. She spoke with Knowable Magazine about what we know about eco-anxiety and worry in young people, healthy and unhealthy coping strategies, and what remains to be researched. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become interested in studying environmental guilt and anxiety?

It was 20 years ago, when I was starting my doctoral studies. Even then, at the beginning of the 2000s, young people seemed to be worried a lot about global environmental problems and climate change. But there were almost no studies in this group and I was interested in studying emotions, so I thought, yeah, I’ll do studies about this. And then, coincidentally about the time when I got my PhD, Al Gore’s movie (“An Inconvenient Truth”) came out, which made climate change a really hot topic. Since then, I’ve been responsible for several different projects around this issue, specifically with regards to young people.

Does this kind of ecological anxiety and guilt seem to affect young people more than older individuals?

Some studies that I haven’t performed myself suggest that people in general are rather worried about climate change, but there is a little bit more worry in young people. There are also studies that suggest that for a long time, young people have had a rather dark picture of the global future.

But what can be interesting is that, then, when you talk about their personal futures, these young people say, “Oh, it’s going to go well for me.” So at least until recently, there has been a kind of disconnection between worry about the global future and worry about your own personal future.

And has that been changing?

There are some indications that this is the case, even for people in the Western world. We can see it with regards to more personal aspects, like people thinking about their children and whether they should have kids in the future, things like that. This may be because people are personally experiencing more extreme weather, which can raise anxiety, or seeing reports about it. When that gets a lot of media attention, people start to get more worried.

What is also kind of scary — and I cannot say for sure, there are a lot of studies going on right now that aren’t published yet — is that while worry about the environment has been rather high for a long time, it seems that hope has gone down. A person can be worried but also hopeful at the same time. But if hope is dropping, it’s problematic, because then you don’t do anything when you worry — you just argue that it’s too late to do anything.

Do levels of worry differ around the world, depending on where you are?

Where you live may change things, if you’re in a place where there are a lot of weather-related events or if you’re directly dependent on nature. People in cities may see things differently compared to indigenous people, farmers or folks like that. It also depends on if you have the resources to cope economically.

If you live in a place like Sweden, where you mostly hear about climate change through the media, then it’s related to what we’d call other-oriented values. If you value justice, equality and peace, or if you value animals or nature, then you tend to be more worried about climate change. But this can be different from country to country and it’s very difficult to compare. There’s cultural context.

Have there been many studies looking at the differences between people in richer, Western countries versus developing countries?

That’s the problem. Like with many things in science, the studies that have been performed have focused on places like Northern Europe and the United States. We have very few studies in African, South American or even Asian countries. It’s unfair. I do have some contact with people living in these places who are performing studies, but we don’t have many results right now.

That said, we might expect that the more natural catastrophes you have, the more you may worry about it. And it’s countries outside the Western world that are suffering more often from climate change-related hardships. So for those people, their worries might be more immediate and personal, compared to the more abstract worries of someone in a rich, Western country.

This kind of gets back to global versus personal worries.

Yeah, exactly. And there’s something that may be surprising here. For example, there were a lot of studies in Western countries in the 1980s and 1990s asking young people if they were worried about nuclear war and the effect of those worries on health. Some results suggested the people who worried the most actually had very good well-being overall.

It suggested that if you have other problems, you don’t have time to care about these larger problems — you need to focus on dealing with the one in front of you.

Do you feel like nuclear worry and climate change worry are analogous?

Not exactly. The nuclear-war worry was related to the idea that some politician would start it. People were afraid of what the politicians were going to do. When it comes to climate change, we are all part of the problem. This is where feelings of ecological guilt can come from.

So, what can we do with this anxiety?

Emotions like worry, anxiety and things like that are a normal part of your life. They’re part of a kind of defense system that tells you that “Something is happening, pay attention to this.” And this can be constructive. Studies have shown that people who are worried seek out new information, which can help them feel empowered to actually do something about the problem.

But people can also cope in a bad way, such as by denying the seriousness of the threat or by distracting themselves from things that make them think about the problem — like leaving the room if a report about polar bears comes on the TV. They can also get caught up in rumination, focusing on the negative emotions to the point where they feel that everything is hopeless, which can lead to low well-being.

So it depends on how you cope and your circumstances. It’s clear that anxiety and worry are associated with more engagement if you feel that you can do things. But there are also studies indicating that this worry is related to lower general well-being, as well as to anxiety and depression. They’re weak links, but they are there.

In our Annual Review article, we suggested that we, as scientists, should look more at how people cope, and at constructive ways to buffer this worry. We don’t want to take away worry, but what can we do to have people cope in a constructive way? What makes people feel empowered? That’s been the focus of my studies a lot, looking at coping strategies in young people.

What are some of those coping strategies?

There’s problem-focused coping and meaning-focused coping. Problem-focused coping doesn’t just mean focusing on the problem and getting caught up in that, but trying to find out what you can do, like saving energy, eating less meat, or writing and putting pressure on politicians or companies. This can be helpful. That said, many people get caught up in these small things and this can still become stressful. It can feel like even if you do these things, it’s not going to solve the world’s problems by itself.

That’s why it’s important to complement problem-focused coping with meaning-focused coping, which is related to finding constructive sources of hope. Being able to switch perspective and say things like, “The media is reporting on this much more now,” or “We’ve solved complex problems before and we will do it again,” can help. Trusting in other people’s actions is part of it too. We’ve found that young people who have this kind of hope often focus on other people who are doing their part, like scientists, people in the environmental movement or even politicians.

It brings to mind the pandemic and how we can think about things we can personally do, like getting vaccinated or wearing a mask, but then also think, like, “We’ve beaten polio, we can beat this.”

Yeah, exactly.

Do you feel like there are things being done on a large scale that are helping people to process climate anxiety?

I think one thing that can be very good if you want to increase people’s feelings of agency is to include them in participatory approaches. And now, we’re seeing places like the UN or big companies include young people in discussions or actions, such as when the UN hosted its Youth Environment Assembly. And that’s a good thing, because we need to listen to young people.

It seems like the best way to include people is not only to tell them what to do, but to include them in the decision-making. A UNICEF report a few years ago showed that even small children can be valuable to include because they can have knowledge — like knowing about things that are changing in their area or being done in their local community, like rainwater harvesting — that the grown-up decision-makers don’t have.

So, thinking about young people and small children, what should parents know about this?

Kids can get too caught up in this worry, just ruminating, and that’s not good. But generally, I think the most important thing is to not be scared when your children get worried. I think there’s a tendency today, at least in the Western world, to feel like negative emotions have no place in our society. When our children say they’re worried, we feel like we need to take them to a psychologist, things like that.

But most of the time, that’s not the case. We, as parents, teachers and grown-ups, need to accept that emotions are part of our lives. We should give kids time to talk about their concerns, to sit together and help young people put words to their emotions. Then we can talk about what can you do in the family at an individual level as well as a household or as citizens. How can you influence politicians? Or is there something you can do in school? What could a sustainable future look like?

It’s also important to show solutions that are taking place today and what you can do at different levels, like small things in everyday life or writing to politicians. As a parent, it’s good to be a good role model.

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