Big Issues

How To Turn Your Eco-Anxiety Into Action

Climate change protest Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels

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Last year, when the IPCC report came out, I felt numb. It told us we had 12 years to stop the world from warming 1.5 degrees and cause irreversible damage. The United Nations extinction report followed: one million species facing extinction due to human influence.

I cried. I scrolled through news articles seeking solace and found none. I found it difficult to sleep. I felt powerless and was grieving, hard. While we have made leaps as bounds as a society when it comes to talking about mental health, when it comes to climate change anxiety or distress, we have no idea how to tackle this authentic and natural response of seeing our home, earth, in turmoil.

A study from Colorado University shows many of us tend to switch off when faced with an overload of negative information. Add leaders like our dear PM Scott Morrison to the mix, and you may think your feelings mean zilch. But they do. And your despair is useful — even powerful — when you know how to utilise it.

Climate distress is a real thing

Recent research by Triple J showed that climate change was the most significant issue concerning people aged 18 – 29, which has increased by 11 percent since last year. Youth mental health organisation ReachOut’s research shows four in five Australian students report being somewhat or very anxious about climate change.

These emotions transcend generations, but it is young people who seem to be carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders, which is seen by the thousands of high school students who have been leading the Global Climate Strikes across the planet. 16-year-old School Climate Strike organiser and activist Anica Renner said that young people’s response to the climate crisis was justified but also amplified.

“As a young person you are already grappling and processing so much information, your body is changing, your hormones are changing, your brain is changing and on top of that more unknowns: Will the house I buy get burnt down or blown down in a bushfire?. Will having kids be the right thing to do? What is the right thing to do in this situation where people are dying right now?” she said.

Scotty doesn’t know

But bless Scott Morrison. He wants young people to be happy. In response to the distress of young Australians and Greta Thunberg’s incredible UN Climate Summit speech slamming leaders like himself, our PM said this action was just “causing needless anxiety in young people.”

Coordinator of Tipping Point and environmental activist Charlie Wood said these comments were deeply insulting to everyone. “Young people’s reaction is completely natural: to feel scared and anxious when you see this terrifying thing playing out and the people in power doing nothing about it.”

Vice President of Psychology for a Safe Climate and psychoanalyst Charles Le Feurve said that Scott Morrison’s response created needless anxiety by not acknowledging the climate reality himself. “The PM compounds eco-fear by not showing good leadership. Telling worried people not to worry actually makes them feel dismissed, more worried and angry.”

But it’s not just in your head; it’s a global and systematic issue

So, you’re worried and angry, even though Scotty said not to be. What now? General self-care (eating well, sleeping, living your life) is essential to your wellbeing, but the comfort you truly need is not a simple one, according to Wood.

“While it’s important we have a space like counselling or a climate group to process these sorts of feelings; it doesn’t stop there. It’s very important when dealing with this stuff that we don’t see these struggles as coming from us when actually it’s a natural response to an issue out there, and it’s not anything that’s a failure or a weakness of individuals feeling that way,” she said.

It’s time for doom and ‘bloom’

But your feelings can be useful. According to activists and climate psychologists, the best thing to do is to translate your feelings of gloom and make them ‘bloom.’

The first thing you can do is find your people. — through a local environmental group, or a group of friends or family to meet weekly to talk about climate change. Le Feurve says feeling listened to and acknowledged is crucial for people going through climate grief.

“One way of having hope paradoxically is to feel despair and communicating that to others. Actually being able to talk about it and share it with others can create a lot of hope in itself,” he said.

Le Feurve found support through his group Psychology for a Safe Climate and also through the climate movement Extinction Rebellion, which successfully uses a combination of fear and hope for the present. The group led the UK to declare a climate emergency in May after weeks of protests and 1,000 arrests.

“We can’t be assured of a better future, but we can definitely have a better present,” he said.

The antidote to despair is action

Think you’re too busy or depressed to take action? You might want to add activism to your self-care list, according to Le Feurve. “Taking action is not just good in itself, but also good for your mental health.”

Wood understands that social movements are not an automatic response for people to be involved in, but can be extremely powerful. “One of the most disempowering feelings is that you’re on your own and there aren’t other people who care about this.”

Wood knows about feeling disempowered; she felt “lingering despair” as a teenager before finding the antidote through action. It didn’t happen overnight, but when she got involved, she went hard and is now a leader in the climate and environmentalist movement. And how does she feel now? “I don’t really feel distress,” she said.

Glimmers of spark and hope

It is easy to overlook the small wins amongst horrifying science and crippling politics, but they are there and deserve space in the demanding climate narrative.

When Renner first got involved in the climate movement a year ago, fuelled by the rage of climate injustice, she had no idea how large the Global Climate Strike would grow in that space of time. But as one of the main organisers for Melbourne’s recent Global Climate Strike, she found herself surrounded by 200,000 likeminded people and had 7 million globally.

“Being in a massive crowd where everyone is on the same page, coming from all different backgrounds, all for a common cause, with the roar of the crowd. It was really, really incredible,” she said.

For Wood, the positives are often overlooked because they are what was stopped or delayed. It is through grassroots actions that Australia’s largest coal mine Adani did not get bankrolled by major banks, which held the project back for nearly a decade. This has delayed the 4.6 billion tonnes of carbon pollution the mine is proposed to cause.

“Without social movements, there would be major fossil fuel projects happening all over the world, and the climate impacts would be far worse,” she said.

It’s complex and messy, but we’re in it together

We are still learning how to take care of our mental health in this brave new world, and the best way to look after ourselves and each other. But the important thing is to know that you’re not alone.

“We all have each other’s back and now is the time to rise to the occasion. It’s the time to act,” Renner said.

Shannon McKeogh is a freelance writer based in Melbourne. Her work has been published in The Big Issue, SBS Life, Daily Life and Meanjin. She tweets @shannylm (often angrily about fossil fuels). 

If you’d like to talk about any issues with your mental health and options getting long-term help, you can reach Lifeline on 13 11 14, or beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.