Climate Change Getting You Down? Here Are Some Coping Strategies
Climate change is not just a problem of atmospheric physics and chemistry. As the planet’s average temperature rises, we can feel its effects on food and water, the economy, politics — and even our mental health. A growing number of people are feeling alarmed by climate change, according to the New Yorker, and a 2018 study shows that people who think global warming is happening are more likely to feel helpless, afraid, and angry.
In recent years, Columbia Health clinical psychologist Wendy Greenspun has noticed more patients bringing up the topic of climate change during therapy sessions. So, in February, she worked with the Earth Institute to host a workshop for sustainability students, who are on the front lines of the climate emergency, to help them manage the difficult emotions they face and to prevent climate burnout. There will be a follow-up workshop for sustainability students on April 8.
Greenspun’s philosophy is that the human psyche, like the environment, needs sustainable practices in order to face difficult challenges; being able to cope better and build resilience will allow these students and other scientists to keep doing their important work. Below, she shares some of the coping mechanisms that help her patients stay resilient when confronting the monumental challenge of climate change.
How did you get involved in this workshop on climate change resiliency?
As things have gotten worse in terms of the climate, I’ve become so much more aware of how much stress I personally feel, and the people around me, and yet no one was really engaging with it as much as I thought could be helpful. I came to realize that psychology has a lot to offer in terms of helping people to manage these emotions, because I think sometimes our emotional distress around this actually prevents us from taking necessary action. I’ve worked at the counseling service in Columbia Health for many years, so I’ve also heard students talking about their distress about our changing planet and the threat to humanity and the ecosystem, and I had the idea that maybe the students who are really on the front lines of this, who are studying sustainability and ecology, might be feeling this a lot more than other people who are less immersed in the harsh realities. So I proposed it, and did an initial workshop and hope to do more follow up.
Do students ever come to you specifically because of their feelings around climate change?
Generally not for that specifically, but it usually comes out in the process of talking. I think sometimes that people don’t even identify it as a source of big anxiety, or that it’s one among many things that they’re anxious about. People don’t talk about climate anxiety specifically, but sometimes when you ask ‘What keeps you awake at night?’ or ‘What do you worry about?,’ that’s when there’s an outpouring of emotion about this.
What are the symptoms of climate anxiety or distress?
It can be a wide range, from sadness, depression, anxiety, terror, feeling overwhelmed, feeling hopeless or helpless. Sometimes there’s guilt — you know, feeling like ‘I’m part of the problem.’ And anger, frustration over why there’s not more being done.
How do these feelings of distress lead to lack of action on climate change?
When any of us feels any kind of distressing emotion, there are defense mechanisms that come into play that help try to stabilize us so we don’t feel so much distress. Those defenses are things like denial, numbing, minimizing the problem or intellectualizing it in some way. These help us emotionally on one level, but they also mean we’re more disconnected from the reality, from feeling the energy to want to engage. So the very thing that protects us also prevents us from taking action. And I think we certainly see this on a larger scale, in terms of our culture where people don’t want to think this is such an immediate, urgent issue to engage with, and so we sort of just push it away because it feels too big. Pushing it away means we don’t really do things that might actually help break into this problem.
What are some of the ways people can deal with this?
One of the first steps is really naming some of these feelings — getting people to feel like it’s ok to talk about them. Because one way to break into the defense mechanisms is to not feel so alone in the distress. The act of sharing and talking together is a positive first step. And that could be with friends, with groups of students or other scientists who are studying these things and feeling it acutely. It could be talking to a therapist.
Sometimes people don’t even identify climate change as a source of big anxiety.
After that, there are a number of ways to build resilience in the face of this kind of distress. There are all kinds of coping strategies. Good self-care, regulating your sleeping and eating, getting exercise, identifying things that are calming or soothing, being with people you care about, going out in nature, listening to music. And then there are more specific strategies, like when you feel distress, engaging in practices that help calm the nervous system can be really helpful. Deep breathing, as cliché as that sounds, engages the parasympathetic nervous system, the calming part of the nervous system. That begins to down-regulate the emotional reactivity, so that can be a helpful practice. Meditation practices do a similar kind of thing.
Generating positive emotions and practicing gratitude can help. In terms of climate change, it might mean thinking of things in your own personal history or in the history of the world where people engaged with difficult problems that felt impossible but they started to make changes. That allows you can draw on examples to combat that helplessness and hopelessness.
And then focusing on solutions as opposed to just the dire urgency and terribleness of what’s happening — looking at where organizations are making solutions or fostering change.
What have been some of the reactions so far?
The students in the workshop expressed a lot of gratitude for the space to be able to talk about all of this. They said they didn’t feel like there had been much discussion around it. Some said things like, ‘We learn all about the economic and political and scientific factors that are at play, but no one has really been talking much about the psychological factors — both how we’re affected and also how we can understand our psychological reaction to try to help with the problem.’ They seemed to be really interested and wanted a lot of follow up.
I’ve also taught a course for other therapists who are interested in this, and we had a similar experience. And with individual patients that I’ve worked with, it’s very similar: they say things like, ‘I have felt so alone. It feels so good that someone is actually willing to listen to my feelings about this,’ because people are not talking about it enough.
Do you feel like you’re making a difference in terms of the fight against climate change as well?
I hope so, in my own way. We all have our own areas of expertise and we have to use what we know to make a difference. This is what I know how to do, and I’m trying to take my knowledge of psychology and helping people, and extend it into this realm.
Where should this go from here?
In the first workshop, we did a lot of sharing of emotions to not feel so alone, and I think the students found that really helpful. My intention in the follow-up workshop on April 8 is to do some actual exercises around building resilience. So, teaching them a breathing practice, doing some exercises around building hope and cultivating gratitude, and then having them share with each other some of those experiences to help feel positive, and identifying some of the solutions that they’re engaged with.
I would hope that this will generate wider interest as well, whether in support groups or workshops, and individually in counseling sessions, and even just getting people to start talking to other people about it. Because there’s kind of a ripple effect — when you start opening up about this, it gets other people interested and starting to talk, and that’s how change happens.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.