If the first thing you do in the morning is check your phone or switch on the television, then you’ve no doubt been waking up to a barrage of cataclysmic news: bushfires tearing through drought-stricken land, half a billion animals incinerated, images of wind-swept, desolate paddocks and desperate farmers, drinking water shortages, flash floods and dust storms, scorching temperatures and rising oceans. The stories are all too familiar; indeed, it’s been a difficult couple of years to hide from climate change.
To read the news is to be filled with existential dread. Will the town you live in be ravaged by bushfires? Where should you live if it is? Is it ethical to bring children into this world? This sort of daily uncertainty about the very safety of your future has no doubt taken its toll on your wellbeing.
According to the UN, we now have less than 11 years to prevent catastrophic climate change. For some, this devastating fact spurs action, evident in Extinction Rebellion, Generation Greta and climate “strikes” across the globe, but others report feeling powerless, disconnected or “stuck” in the face of unmoving governments, and many experience a crippling level of guilt (Did I bring my keep cup? Can I go abroad for a holiday?), or a debilitating sense of doom.
Disconnect or despair
For those not living in the rural areas hit by drought, fires and flash flooding, the disconnect makes sense. It’s human nature to live in the present(ish) moment. Once the challenge of COVID-19 has passed, the reality of climate change will remain. Given the choice between the alarming abstraction of climate apocalypse and the comfortable present day of Netflix, work days and headlines covering political feuds, it’s natural to focus on the latter.
Perhaps before the latest bushfire season smothered the country’s cities in a haze of smoke, you had the notion the planet was still happily intact; hotter temperatures meant extended beach days, droughts meant vegetables were a little more expensive, but the planet’s impending collapse seemed as far away as an alien invasion.
For most, climate change lacks the immediacy usually ascribed to apocalypse; doomsday seems so at odds with the regular ticking over of daily life. The summer of smoke made it all the more real, but this time, at least, the rains came and most of us happily went back to normality.
In other words, it’s still possible to feel as disconnected from climate change as ever, particularly (and somewhat ironically) in the age of 24-hour news, where disaster stories are simply a part of daily life.
No matter how outraged or heartbroken the endless bad news makes you feel, eventually those emotions are bound to plateau. It becomes increasingly difficult to summon a response to disasters that appear on our screens day in, day out.
You might have donated money to the Rural Fire Service, knitted booties for koalas with charred feet, or taken to the streets with a “No Planet B” sign last summer, but up against seemingly motionless governments even the most well-intentioned action feels useless. Even if you try to stay activated, you may feel yourself beginning to detach, or “running out” of emotions.
The clinical name for such a response is compassion fatigue. Symptoms include chronic physical and emotional fatigue, difficulty sleeping, irritability and feeling numb and demotivated.
It is an important framework in medical professions, where overexposure to trauma can lead to health problems, but can be applied to the general public too, especially during times of multiple disasters.
At the other end of the spectrum, a 2018 US study linked concerns about climate change to depression and anxiety, with symptoms including restless nights, feelings of loneliness and lethargy. New data from ReachOut, a youth mental health organisation, found that four in five Australian students aged between 14 and 23 are feeling anxious about climate change, with close to half of those experiencing these emotions on a weekly basis. Meanwhile, a survey from the UK’s BBC Newsround showed children are losing sleep and experiencing nightmares over climate change.
Younger millennials and Generation Z are facing a future that is very different from the one they were promised, while parents are wondering how to raise a generation to look to a future that seems ravaged by messages of hopelessness. Eighty-two per cent of respondents from the ReachOut survey agreed with the statement “Climate change is going to diminish my quality of life in the future.”
For some, this uncertain, unstable future is causing spirals of panic, anxiety and depressive episodes, and this is especially true of those who already suffer from an underlying mood disorder, like mild anxiety.
Social media feeds full of turtles with straws wedged down their throats and the ever-pervasive disaster stories can catapult you into a constant state of stress, where your adrenals are overworked and exhausted. This can lead to difficulty sleeping, a clouded mind, depression and even a weakened immunity. It’s hardly surprising that in 2017 the Australian Psychological Society released a guide for psychologists to help patients “come to terms and cope with the profound implications of climate change.”
Activated, not alarmed
In many ways, alarm is the appropriate reaction to the events happening around us. It activates responsible behaviour, but only in the right doses. If your alarm turns to dread, despair, overwhelm or avoidance, it is no longer useful. There is no benefit to allowing that sort of panic or denial into your life.
Paralysing terror does nothing to oppose those in power, does nothing to change the course of our future, does nothing to protect our children. It is simply another way of turning your back on reality, and you can’t just give up in the face of bad news.
It is less about “moving on” in spite of this burning world — there is little place for “bright side” flippancy — and more about taking concrete action because it is the responsible thing to do, despite the planet’s fate. Adopting a solutions-oriented attitude is not only the ethical thing to do, it is the only choice we have.
Action, not withdrawal, is the best cure for climate anxiety, because when you face the dark reality, you recognise this planet is worth fighting for, even if that fight looks futile. It is possible to promote hope while preparing for a future that is very different from the one you were promised. And if you’re looking for endorphins, there is no better place to find them than within the atmosphere of activism, safe in a community of like-minded people, doing something to fight for a safe future.
Metabolise your anxiety into demonstrations, harness that overwhelming sense of dread and use it to engage in civic actions, take to the streets, celebrate the positive solutions, donate to other possible solutions, make small changes at home, wean yourself off plastic, boycott companies without transparent supply chains, demand transparent supply chains, write letters, make posters, talk to your friends. There is so much you can do and you don’t have to do it all at once.
This is not to say that keeping on top of your recycling will deliver the far-reaching changes that are needed, but small changes lead to bigger ones, and if you can adopt the sustainable mindset at home, you will feel empowered to fight for broad government and corporate policy reform at the scale required. Living like climate change is real, and somewhat preventable, signals not only to others in order to shift cultural norms, but shifts your very mindset.
Will it all be for nothing? Perhaps. There are no resolute answers to how the story ends, and doomsday may well arrive in this lifetime. But we can find happiness in the interim, we can learn to live in this new world, we can help each other along.
If this all sounds too pregame pep talk, think of it like this: fear, anxiety and panic will only lead to retreat, to denial and to inaction. If the sky is falling on this world, wouldn’t you rather it did on a world where we at least tried?
In the age of 24-hour news, it can seem there’s no escape from the destructive stories that grab hold of your amygdala, the fear centre of the brain, but it is possible to unplug from the news every so often while staying informed.
When consumed improperly, news can rob you of the very thing you need to fight against it; sometimes, seeing an emaciated polar bear isn’t the image you need to motivate yourself. While important that we feel the gravity of the climate crisis, terrorising yourself with disaster stories first thing in the morning or last thing in the evening — when your mental state is at its most vulnerable — will most likely lead to anxiety and withdrawal.
We don’t have the luxury of giving up, but you can shape the way you digest the news in a more productive way. Swap passive consumption for intentional choices about your news diet: take an occasional “news fast”, seek out publishers who don’t use clickbait fearmongering to sell advertisements and search for the good news.
Remember that doomsday headlines sell papers, and journalists are not known for sugar-coating the truth, and nor should they, but this is a story with many faces, and some of those faces are taking concrete steps to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.
Under intense opposition from climate activists, the Norwegian oil company Equinor scrapped its proposed drilling in the Great Australian Bight earlier this year. In Mexico City, more than a hundred urban gardens have been created to attract hummingbirds that have seen their natural habitat destroyed as cities sprawl. In the US Congress, bipartisan efforts resulted in passing an ocean debris clean-up bill, while Ethiopia planted 350 million trees in one day last year. Plant-based substitutes for meat products such as Beyond Burger and impossible Burger are being adopted by well-known fast food chains. In the UK, heat pumps installed in canals are addressing fuel poverty and carbon emissions by heating hospitals and council housing.
Last year, Costa Rica derived 98 per cent of its electricity from renewable sources. Waterborne urban farms are being created to boost food security, politicians are putting climate action at the core of their manifesto and millions of people across the globe have taken part in climate strikes, fired-up by “Big Greta Energy” and demanding far-reaching reform from those who have the power to make it happen.
The point is, the positive news is there if you look for it. Try to balance one piece of negative news with three pieces of positive news to soothe and motivate you. Climate action is leaking into the mainstream and gaining momentum quickly. It might not be enough yet, but it’s certainly something.
The nexus between climate change and mental health has mostly been overshadowed by the more tangible physical impacts, but we must begin looking at climate change as an emotional and personal phenomenon, not merely a scientific one. This means processing climate-based disasters as we would personal tragedies. After all, our collective erosion of the environment is an erosion of our very personal futures.
If we cannot give ourselves the space to grieve for the future we had imagined, we cannot expect to reach a place of hope. Embrace the pain, but don’t stop there, don’t allow despair to creep in. Forge gratitude and compassion, and do the things that sustain you. Rest and good nutrition are the pillars of reducing stress-related issues such as panic and anxiety. It’s age-old advice, but clocking eight hours of shut-eye and eating nutritious meals are often the first things to be eroded in this fast-paced world. Take fasts from the news and cultivate calmer pursuits instead, like knitting, dancing, gardening and meditation.
Remember this is a universal grief, so be kind to each other, take care of your community, because it’s going to be a difficult slog. The most effective responses to climate change are collective, and feeling connected to others is an antidote to feeling powerless.
Disaster forces us to acknowledge what is lost in a society that extols the individual: that we need each other. Cling to the lifeboat of your community and offer a sympathetic shoulder to revive another. Allow yourself and others the space to acknowledge and process your feelings, whatever shape they take.
Practise gratitude to remind yourself what it is you’re fighting for, not just against: pay attention to the rustling trees, lie under a magenta sunset, swim in the ocean, sit in your local park, walk through the woods, climb the mountains. If there is one good thing to come out of the climate crisis it will be that we are forced to reconnect with the natural world.
Charlie Hale, the Deputy Editor of WILD and WellBeing, is an English-born journalist based in Sydney. She writes about a plethora of things women care about – from pasta to politics and everything between.