If you find yourself feeling down when you think about or read about climate change, don’t worry: there’s a scientific explanation.
It’s called climate anxiety, and it’s a real mental health condition that can take time to resolve, according to Portland, Oregon-based environmental psychologist Thomas Doherty. At the Aspen Ideas Festival in Aspen, Colorado, on Monday, Doherty spoke about the “learning curve” it takes to deal with anxiety or frustration over climate change.
Doherty, who specializes in the intersection of psychology and ecology, tells clients to “try and try to get away from the media, to go outside, to reduce stress, to step back from all kinds of feelings of hopelessness.” Things like this.”
Part of coping, she noted, is taking the time to accept that you can only do so much as a person. “I think the key to coping is to make sure we don’t get stuck on certain emotions, but to really develop all emotions, it’s a process and it takes practice,” she said.
Both the United Nations and the American Psychological Association (APA) have found that humans are at increased risk of mental health problems caused by climate change. According to the APA, climate anxiety can manifest as people reacting to news of climate change developments with “negative emotions, including fear, anger, feelings of powerlessness, or exhaustion.”
Those feelings aren’t uncommon: In 2021, a global study found 45% of 16- to 25-year-olds said climate anxiety was affecting their daily lives. The Climate Psychology Alliance also offers a directory of “climate-aware” therapists.
Doherty argued that those negative emotions are not inherently bad, because “we are able to experience all of our emotions in a healthy way”. Sometimes, she said, it’s helpful to talk through your feelings with other people — whether you’re upset about the environment or charged about your ability to help.
“Sometimes, we … feel good and inspired,” he said. “One of the biggest risks is being alone in the process, because when we’re alone, there’s no one to help us through the down cycle.”
Doherty noted that climate anxiety can be fueled by the sheer volume of negative news on the subject. Alaina Wood — a sustainability scientist and one of Doherty’s fellow Aspen panelists — is where people like that come in.
Wood is popular on TikTok, where her 300,000-plus followers tune in to hear her list of the latest positive climate developments or perspectives — scientists recently discovered an enzyme that breaks down environmentally-damaging plastics in 24 hours.
In Aspen, viewers try to focus on the positive to help address their own climate anxiety, and Wood said it will take optimism to mobilize enough people to make a real difference against climate change. She also struggles with weather anxiety, and usually follows a simple process to cope.
“I log off my phone,” Wood said. “Whether it’s in my backyard or in the mountains, I take time to get out in nature and relax. And take a moment to remember why I care, why I feel the way I do.”
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