Episode 22: Eco-Anxiety with Professor Susan Clayton

 

 “While optimism is certainly associated with individual well-being, it’s what allows us

to take action. If you’re a pessimist, then why bother?”

In this episode, Dr. Joe speaks with Susan Clayton, Professor of Psychology at the College of Wooster. Susan is a globally-recognized authority on the mental health impacts of climate change. She is the lead author of the American Psychological Association (APA) report on Mental Health and Our Changing Climate and a contributor to the upcoming report of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. She is also the author and editor of the Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology and Identity and the Natural Environment. Her work focuses on the intersection of mental health, environmentalism, and social psychology.

In this episode, Dr. Joe and Professor Clayton explore:

If you’d like some support in coping with your concerns about climate change, Numinus can help. We are launching an eco-anxiety support group in January and we have a few psychologists who specialize in this area. Please visit numinus.com/eco-anxiety for more information.

For more information on eco-anxiety check out Dr. Joe’s article on the Numinus blog and his interview on Radio-Canada.

Connect with Dr. Joe on Facebook, Twitter,LinkedIn, Instagram.

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Here are some highlights from their conversation:

Building Resilience, Taking Action, and Social Connections

One of the things that I recommend to people is that they take action to cope with their eco-anxiety. What kind of action do you recommend people take if they’re experiencing eco-anxiety?

I definitely encourage people to take action. But I leave it to them to decide what they’re comfortable with. I could certainly offer people my opinion about what would be the most effective thing to do. But some people might want to focus on changing their own lifestyle. Some people might want to get politically involved. I think getting actively engaged in some way is more important in terms of personal resilience than–

So why is taking action helping build resilience?

Two reasons.

One of the things that I think underlies a lot of this anxiety is helplessness. So if you do something, you don’t feel as helpless. You feel like you have been able to make a difference at some level. And that’s really important.

I think another fringe benefit is–particularly, I encourage people not just to get engaged, but to find ways to engage with other people. So they’re strengthening their social connections.

There are all kinds of positive social experiences that can be involved. I think anyone who has participated in a rally or some sort of group organized event knows that fellow feeling, that self-congratulation in a good way when you actually succeed in getting something done or just that you’ve all experienced this together.

So those positive emotions and social connections also contribute to resilience.

Just for the record, the third recommendation that I do give people is to stay connected to friends, family, and colleagues around these issues because it’s important to not suffer alone. 

 

A Possibility for Transformation

Is there anything else you wanted to add?

Just an emphasis on the possibility for transformation.

It’s always hard to believe that change is going to happen. But actually social change has happened enormously in my lifetime, just in terms of the internet and smartphones, which are relatively new. I mean my students got them when they were in middle school or high school, but they didn’t grow up with them. And yet, I think we would all agree that smartphones have completely changed the way we live our lives. And inventions are happening faster and faster. So I think more and more things are on the way.

I think it’s helpful to think not just ‘Oh my God. This terrible climate change stuff is happening. And we’re going to have to change our lives, and it’s all going to be bad.’ But to recognize that this is kind of an opportunity to change society in hopefully some ways that will be good because I think most people would say there are ways society can be improved right now. And maybe the kinds of changes that climate change will force us to make will be changes that actually have other benefits.

Eco-Anxiety: What It Is and What To Do About It

About a year ago, a friend of mine mentioned to me that she was interested in attending a “climate change bereavement group” in our neighbourhood. I’d never heard of such a thing, but on reflection it really made sense. People are really upset about climate change and don’t know what to do about it. I’m seeing more and more clients show up with these concerns in my office. I’m seeing more and more news and social media stories about it. And I’ve even begun speaking about it in the media myself. The technical term for this upset feeling is “eco-anxiety” and it’s definitely a thing.

Climate change and mental health

So what is it exactly? The term has emerged from an increasing concern for the diverse set of mental health problems that can arise from climate change. Superstorms, floods, droughts, heat waves, wildfires and other extreme climate events can have disastrous consequences on people’s lives. Individuals can be killed, injured, or forced to leave their homes and this can be devastating to families and communities. Mass migrations can disrupt lives at a larger scale. Post-Traumatic Stress following extreme climate events is becoming more common, as are spikes in fear, anxiety, depression, and irritability. It is worth noting that climate change events are more likely to affect the lives of the vulnerable, such as the poor, and therefore these populations are more susceptible to the acute impact on mental health.

What is eco-anxiety?

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom” (report). As the definition suggests, eco-anxiety not a response to an acute event, but a state of mind that arises gradually as we watch the slow and frightening consequences of climate change unfold. Eco-anxiety can manifest in intense worry and rumination, generalized anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, feelings of sadness, loss, guilt, hopelessness, and irritability – in other words, symptoms of anxiety and depression. The term has not made it into the most recent edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (2013), but it will surely be considered in future editions as the magnitude of the problem becomes clear. A 2018 Yale survey estimated that 70% of Americans are “worried” and 29% are “very worried” about climate change, while 51% feel “helpless.” While little data is available, eco-anxiety appears to affect younger generations (e.g. Millennials, Gen Z) more than older (e.g. Gen X, Baby boomers). The mental health community is increasingly engaged with the impacts of climate change: The APA assembled a task force in 2008 and published this 70 page report in 2017 to build awareness and educate professionals.

The emergence of the term eco-anxiety has been met with some resistance. Some skeptics roll their eyes at yet another buzzword for navel-gazing complainers. Others object to medicalizing a very real and appropriate feeling. As someone who counsels clients with eco-anxiety (and experiences it personally), let me tell you that it is real and causing a lot of suffering. I also believe that, whether there is a diagnostic term for it or not, anxiety is a perfectly rational response to a real threat to our way of life on this planet. And labeling the response with a diagnostic term should not invalidate or diminish the scope of the problem nor the person suffering. All of that said, we need to learn how to cope with it and get on with the job of finding solutions.

Understanding anxiety

Fundamentally, eco-anxiety is a form of anxiety like any other. It is a psychophysiological response to a threat to our safety or well-being. While fear involves a specific reaction to an imminent threat, anxiety is a diffuse response to a non-specific or uncertain threat. So if you’re an antelope in Africa and a lion jumps out at you from the bush, you feel fear. If you have health anxiety (aka hypochondriasis), you worry about aches and pains being signs of serious or fatal health problems. In eco-anxiety, the threat is broad and abstract and therefore hard to contain and resolve. It is somewhat similar to the anxiety many people felt in the 60s when they believed the world was on the brink of nuclear war. The content of anxious thoughts may vary, but the underlying mechanisms and emotions are the same. And that’s good news because many of the same coping strategies are helpful.

The key to coping with eco-anxiety is to build psychological resilience. That is to say climate change is happening right now and it is affecting people all over the world. We all need to find a way to be with the difficult emotions that arise in consequence and continue to be engaged with the process of finding a solution. Here’s how to get there:

What to do about it

1. Manage your mood

Because climate change is an abstract threat, whether you experience eco-anxiety or not will depend on how you think about it. Unfortunately, it is also complex, multi-faceted, and highly technical, which means it’s difficult to get your thoughts straight about it. Our brains prefer information that is packaged in simple, concrete narratives and therefore rely on heuristics and shortcuts to cope with complexity. This pragmatic bias can be helpful – necessary even – for surviving and getting things done. But it can also create biases and distortions in our thinking, especially in the face of threat. People fall victim to a number of classic Cognitive Distortions when stuck in an eco-anxiety worry loop, such as catastrophizing, black and white thinking, and emotional reasoning. For example, I worked with a client who became very preoccupied with death following the release of a major climate change report last year. We were able to get him unstuck by unpacking all of the automatic appraisals he made of the danger. It’s not that there isn’t any danger, it just that the danger needs to be appropriately contextualized.

Unfortunately, the news and social media are not necessarily helping in this respect. Our screens are perpetually showing us provocative content about climate change. Sometimes the information is accurate, but often it is distorted – one way or another – by some hidden agenda and designed to hijack our attention. So it’s important to manage your “information diet,” by assuring an intake of high-quality, nourishing content.

Climate change is stressful enough; you don’t need your brain piling on exaggerated or false beliefs about what’s actually going on in the world. So, you need to become an expert at catching and correcting these cognitive errors. If books such as “Mind Over Mood” and “Cognitive Behavior Therapy” aren’t sufficient, a direct plan of action with a Cognitive Behaviour Therapist can help. Once these patterns of negative thoughts become familiar to you, mindfulness can be a useful tool for letting go of the unhelpful ruminations churning in the background of awareness. Mindfulness can help with cultivating the clarity and focus required to make sense of all the news, social media, and chatter on the topic and then engage actively with what matters most to you. Check out The Mindful Way Through Anxiety or attend a Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy workshop near you.

2. Connect with others

Humans are social animals. We don’t have big teeth, strong muscles, or speedy legs. It’s our capacity to cooperate with others at a large scale that allowed us to adapt to basically every niche on the planet. As such, evolution has made us highly dependent on one-another for a sense of safety and well-being. This is especially true when we are upset. Nothing helps calm our nervous system more reliably and sustainably than a safe and secure connection with another human.

Unfortunately, withdrawal and avoidance are common features of anxiety and mood disorders. This is one of the cruel realities of the mood feedback loop. When we feel down or worried, we often turn our attention inward and seek refuge, rather than searching for a solution outside of ourselves. This internal shift pulls us away from others and we spend more time alone in our heads, ruminating and worrying. Overtime, our energy and motivation decline and the whole thing snowballs.

Coping effectively with eco-anxiety requires that we reach out to others for support. Do not suffer alone. The emergence of eco-anxiety in public discourse is raising awareness and helping people build a common vocabulary, which should make it that much easier to support one another. The appearance of support groups all over the world and the internet is a really good sign.

3. Stay engaged

Recall that anxiety is our body’s reaction to a threat. It’s essential to understand that all that uncomfortable activity that arises in our bodies and minds in the face of threat – increased heart-rate, muscle tension, surge of energy, hyperfocus, etc. – actually serves an important function: to help us rise to the challenge. If we stay home and worry all day, we just stew in our own restlessness. On the other hand, if we can find a way to leverage that energy and actively meet the threat, we’ll feel much better. This effect is not just about releasing some pent up energy. We may actually be able to solve some problems and enjoy a greater sense of self-efficacy. The benefits of taking action can go even deeper than that. When our actions are aligned with our emotions and our core values and sense of purpose, we gain access to a profound sense of meaning, wholeness, and peace.

Purpose-based coping is an ideal fit for eco-anxiety. In addition to reducing anxiety nerves, it also nurtures more prosocial values. Many of us feel compelled to help with climate change out of compassion. Taking action in this way aligns our nervous and compassionate energies, which really charges up our motivation. All of that said, it is important to balance a desire to do good in the world, with self-care and equanimity. There is only so much we can accomplish in any given day and a burnt-out activist is not going to be much help.

So, in addition to getting your thoughts straight and staying connected to others, here are some things you can actively do to reduce your eco-anxiety and contribute to our collective effort to combat climate change:

You could also get more involved with organizations that are actively working to fight climate change. Here are a few options in Canada:

There’s actually a lot of work to do on climate change and we need everyone’s help. Imagine if all of the energy stimulated by eco-anxiety is channelled into action directed at finding solutions for climate change. People will feel empowered and aligned and together, as a global community, we will be on our way to righting the climate ship. That outcome is incredibly inspiring to me and I hope you share my excitement.