Climate anxiety is normal but not inevitable – we need to learn to cope better

This week was a corker for heart stopping headlines: January was the hottest on earth on record (great start to the year); Antarctic hits 20C for the first time (on brand though, #2020); oil companies enjoy $2trillion in profits while costing the global economy $8billion a day in return. Classic “it would be funny if it wasn’t true” territory. 

Of course, it’s not funny, it’s completely terrifying. A week doesn’t go by without yet more climate news to make us worry. And worrying we are. In fact, climate anxiety has become a pretty standard way to feel. Of course you’re anxious, who wouldn’t be? And so, we just throw it into our shopping basket of daily worries and get on with it. Don’t mind me. I’m just quietly terrified about an impending apocalypse. And on we go, washing up the dishes while barely holding together our screaming emoji faces.

Carrying on with our lives is fair enough, but climate anxiety is something we need to take seriously and tackle head on. Being beside ourselves with guilt and anxiety, besides feeling terrible is also bad for our health, sound decision-making and having the energy to take action – pretty much all the things we need if we’re in with a chance of turning this particular tanker around. Thankfully, while completely natural, feeling anxious needn’t be inevitable – there’s plenty we can do to help ourselves and others feel a whole lot better.

How we respond to any situation decides how we feel about it. Up until recently, my worried thoughts led to a curious combination of behaviours – doing a really good job of ignoring climate news and taking actions at random to do the right thing. Neither response was enough to make me feel better, in fact I found myself worrying most days. So, I decided to change tack. Based on what I know about brain and behaviour science I’ve made a few changes, and (thankfully) it’s working.

Here are my top five tips for keeping climate anxiety in check now and in years to come:

Do your research (not loads but some)

Our brains don’t like uncertainty, and some of us struggle with handling unknowns more than others. In the absence of an answer, we tend to fill in the gaps, with, well, stories. So, it’s definitely worth knowing your facts on how good or bad things really are. It will make your heart beat faster at times, but it will also give you more certainty and control over your imagination which so often leads to worrying thoughts and anxious feelings. So Google away and find reputable sources to answer those worries and questions. It sounds counter intuitive but it works.

Take a few (more) meaningful actions

Work on giving yourself more confidence to be able to say: I am doing enough. First it’s worth working out how you’re doing already – WWF’s environmental footprint calculator tells you your current carbon footprint and identifies hotspots to change. Once you’ve established where your room for improvement lies, consider changing one or two things – big or small – to move you even further in the right direction. Taking positive action (i.e. fighting the threat) is the most appropriate response (running away or hiding don’t really cut it) the result is a relief from anxiety and guilt that you may not have felt in a long time.

Give yourself a break

While the future of the human race depends entirely on individuals from all walks of life taking action, there is also a limit to what each of us can do and accepting this sometimes frustrating paradox as okay is half the battle to feeling more at ease. What do you have control and influence over? Focus your thoughts, efforts and energy on that. If you are making changes in your sphere of influence, then really, it’s time to give yourself a break. It’s going to take us a good few decades to get ourselves out of this particular pickle so being hard on yourself is only going to leave you feeling rubbish, and for a long time. None of us are going to get everything right tomorrow – making positive changes every year will slowly add up to the sustainable lifestyle we all need to adopt this decade.

Talk it out

Getting people talking about climate change is basically impossible, but giving your worries air time will always help if done right. So, how to do it? Most obviously, choose someone who you’d chat to about something that’s bothering you any other time – it’s likely they care about you, you trust them and they’re good (or at least passable) listeners. Second, make them aware how it’s affecting you so they know where you’re coming from and how to respond appropriately. And third, ask questions. Monologuing about your concerns will help, but engaging in a conversation will help more – a proper two-way conversation will leave you both feeling better.

Take your eyes off the polar bear

If there’s a massive polar bear in the room, it goes without saying, you’re not going to take your eyes off it. And the same goes for climate change – consciously or not, you’re keeping an eye out for evidence of the threat on a daily basis. That makes sense. The problem is we tend to notice things that match what we already believe – if you are already worried, you are more likely to spot, read or listen to a worrying story. Of course, this bias is amplified by the fact the media focuses on the infinitely more compelling negative angle any day of the week. Be aware of bias, your own and the media’s. For every negative news story seek out a positive one, it may well not grab top of the page headlines but in my experience it is nearly always there.

These actions combined have eased my climate anxiety – I know what’s going on, I’m confident I’m doing my bit and I make sure keep in check who and what I listen to. Sound a bit smug? To be honest, I’m just relieved. If you’re feeling anxious, consider trying out these changes – remember, you have more control over how you feel than you realise. Ask yourself, how do I feel about climate change? How am I responding? What helps? What doesn’t? Then use this insight to change up your response and, in turn, how you feel. Good luck!