Current affairs

How to deal with climate change anxiety

23 Sep 2022 | Written by By Catherine Nasskau

Photograph of a dry, cracked mud, with a barren tree on the right

As part of our ‘Conservation’ month, our resident wellness guru, Catherine, has some advice for us on how best to deal with climate change anxiety. Whilst it is important that we take urgent action to protect our planet, we must preserve our wellbeing in order to effectively do so. 

About twenty-five years ago I was travelling in Turkey with my lovely dad during one very hot summer. Towns often had displays showing the current temperature. On one particularly hot day, I recall calmly saying, “Look, it’s 45 degrees”. We had barely heard of climate change at the time and when we noticed the temperature, it was simply just hot. 

What added to my stress this summer when I read about wildfires, especially when staying in a remote forest in Montenegro, was all the thoughts and emotions I had when considering the heat – something I simply did not have all those years ago. We cannot always do something about what is happening, but we do have some control over the attitudes we bring to a situation. I found I needed to bring some kindness to myself, and also refrain from reading too much news during the heatwaves, to protect my wellbeing.

Many people in the world are thankfully becoming more aware of the increase in climate-related events like the fires all over the world this summer and the horrific floods in Pakistan. When considering what is happening now and also what the future holds, many of us have feelings of fear and powerlessness. This anxiety can affect how much we enjoy our days, relationships and sleep. 

Mindfulness training can help us experience events as they are, and see our thoughts and feelings as separate from whatever is causing the stress in the first place. The effects of climate change are and will be challenging enough to manage, but we will be able to do so more effectively if we are not caught up and lost in our anxiety about what is happening. 

We can use climate change anxiety to inspire us to take action – and at the end of this article I include links to various organisations and some reminders of things we can all do. However, the primary aim of this article is to help us cope with the anxiety, so that we are then able to take effective action.

Mindfulness is rooted in acceptance and allowing whatever arises in our experience, however unpleasant, to simply be – even the anxiety and unhelpful, catastrophising thoughts. Once we acknowledge what is actually happening, we can find ourselves in a calmer place to take wise steps for change. Given the human mind has a tendency to focus on the negative aspects of our lives, it is no wonder we are likely to feel depression and anxiety when we consider what is happening to the planet. So do be kind to yourself with whatever you are feeling.

Mindfulness techniques to alleviate climate change anxiety

To be mindful means first acknowledging your present emotions. You then have three choices:

  1. Stay with those feelings, (explore your emotions with a friendly curiosity, such as where you’re feeling it in the body). Then divert your thoughts to the actual sensations in the body. Tara Brach, one of my favourite meditation teachers, likes to say: “Let the waves belong”. That is, rather than resist or push away what you’re feeling, (which only makes those emotions stay around longer), see if you can allow your feelings to be there, to come and go. Perhaps place a hand on your chest, or where you are feeling the emotion most strongly. Maybe imagine you can send a kindly breath to that place. 
  2. Take your attention elsewhere (using the senses), maybe your feet, exploring the sensations of the feet against the floor. Find something to look at or feel: maybe a flower, part of your clothing, a cup or part of a table or chair – anything that you can take a moment to really explore, noticing colours, textures and shapes. Or do some movement, noticing sensations in your body as you move. Could be just some arm swings, shaking your hands or arms, shoulder rolls.
  3. The third option is to mindfully take action to make a difference. If your actions are to help with climate change, you might need to also use mindfulness exercises to help with the actual anxiety.

Reminders of things we can do to take action

Small steps can make a difference to the problem and also make us feel better, simply because we are actually doing something.

  1. Try and drive less. Can you share a lift, get public transport, or maybe walk? Consider flying less, or for shorter distances.
  2. Get rid of clothes or other items you no longer want or need. Either take them to a charity shop or give to people in need.
  3. Take your own bag when shopping, to avoid needing to buy one.
  4. Change to a greener energy fund, or consider installing solar panels on your home.

Helpful resources on climate change

And to keep a sense of balance, remember to explore positive news

If you are struggling with climate anxiety – or anxiety of any kind – consider joining Catherine’s next mindfulness class, on Tuesday 27th September at 11:00am.

In 2018, Catherine set up Mindful Surrey, a charity which provides mindfulness training for all throughout Surrey, to help people be happier and find greater peace of mind amidst life’s challenges.

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