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4 tips for dealing with climate anxiety

As the new book Turn the Tide on Climate Anxiety is released, its co-author Megan Kennedy-Woodard shares some practical advice on channelling fears into action…

Were you troubled on a deeper level by transport cancellations during the UK’s recent bout of extreme weather? Do you experience despair when entering plastic-filled supermarkets? Are you unable to stop scrolling and making yourself feel worse? Then you may be suffering from climate anxiety.

The term ‘climate anxiety’ or ‘eco anxiety’ has only been in circulation for a few years, but its triggers can be constant. A pair of psychologists – Megan Kennedy-Woodard and Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams – noted such an uptick in clients troubled by symptoms related to the climate crisis, that they researched and specialised in climate psychology, and have now published a book titled Turn the Tide on Climate Anxiety which addresses it.

Kennedy-Williams (clinical psychologist) and Kennedy-Woodard (a coach) run a psychology practice in Oxford and began to specialise in climate psychology after initially not knowing how best to support their clients reporting feelings of grief, depression and helplessness related to the climate crisis. Kennedy-Woodard, who is originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico learned much from activists, including her lifelong friend, the supermodel Arizona Muse, who is the founder and trustee of Dirt Foundation for the Regeneration of Earth, and who wrote the foreword to the book. 

WHAT IS CLIMATE ANXIETY? 

“Firstly, it’s not a formally diagnosed health disorder,” says Kennedy-Woodard, “and we don’t want to pathologise these emotions. But it’s very important to speak to someone, like a therapist or your GP if you’re feeling distress.”

The symptoms or ‘psychological responses’ to climate change include “conflict avoidance, fatalism, fear, helplessness, and resignation,” as well as generally feeling the situation is hopeless. But those reactions can hold us back, both in terms of our mental health and from making positive changes for the planet. Kennedy-Woodard describes clients feeling “anxious, having trouble sleeping, worrying so much they can’t focus” and facing a common dilemma: “whether or not to have children – due to the carbon footprint a child would create and fears they’d have an uncertain future on an uninhabitable planet”. She counsels clients to come to their own decision, adding, “It’s the fault of the system, not the responsibility of the individual to be faced with this question.”

The original challenge faced by her and partner Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams, is that with traditional anxiety issues, giving the example of hypochondria or fear of spiders “we would unpack negative thought patterns,” supporting people by showing their fears are much worse in their head. When it comes to climate change, fears are based in reality, so climate anxiety is actually a rational response to a real situation, not a neurosis. Given that, the duo developed a new approach to support its sufferers. Here are their tips:

1. UNDERSTAND AND ACCEPT THE FACTS

Even if thinking about climate change makes you feel anxious, don’t avoid the subject. Validate and normalise the psychological impacts of these facts. Know you aren't wrong, or alone in feeling these emotions. Know that you don’t have to be a scientist to talk about climate, we are all able to contribute to the response. We need to look at the news, social media, etc for understanding and knowledge but at the same time, this content can bring us down. Kennedy-Woodard reminds us to “think about how confirmation bias impacts your thoughts. Meaning: when your brain has a belief, you might seek out content to confirm it, ignoring the rest. But we can retrain ourselves to seek out the positive also.”

For positive news and reports of solutions, Kennedy-Woodard recommends resources; The Daily Climate, The Good News Network, or positive images from Climate Visuals.

2. COMMUNICATE PRODUCTIVELY AND POSITIVELY

Start by forming connections. Kennedy-Woodard says that “all the activists profiled for the book spoke of how comforted they felt by ‘finding their tribe’, feeling supported and motivated by joining a deeper commitment to following through.” Either find a local grassroots group or online connections – “one activist had contacts on every continent, friends she’s never met IRL.” Some places to start are: Fridays for future or XR + its subgroups. If you’re a designer, photographer, or can do accounts, you could volunteer those skills to a climate organisation. Creatives for climate is a group that channels people’s professional skills.

Take individual action: be willing to talk to people who are not interested or educated in climate. “Don’t be disheartened if you don’t convince them to go vegan – just use every day conversation to get them to think. Zero-waste chef Anne-Marie Bonneau is good on this,” says Kennedy-Woodard. “Think about the following – ease, impact and meaning; find something you are good at, and suits your skills, lean into that to have the biggest impact. Even going for a run, – you could raise money,  making it relate to climate action.”

3. STOP DOOMSCROLLING

Schedule and put boundaries on when you use the internet for climate research, including social media or news blackouts at certain times, like at the weekend. Going down the rabbit hole is hard to override, so if you find you go into a fugue state while online, “set a loud alarm to remind you to stop, or enlist someone else to tell you to get off the internet,” advises Kennedy-Woodard.

Tell people you’re not going to be on your phone, get other people involved, make yourself accountable. When your allotted 45 minutes (or whatever) is over, make the deadline something nice, like FaceTiming a friend or cooking dinner while listening to music. Add in positive news outlets to your feed to break it up. Kennedy-Woodard says, “my favourite platform is Instagram because I follow positive, uplifting feeds. Twitter is more stressful, as it’s full of horrific stats and can also get quite screamy. So, seek out the positive.”

4. TAKE TIME FOR YOURSELF

Immerse yourself in nature. Schedule when you will and won’t do climate stuff and when you’ll take time just for yourself, being outdoors. You might think, "why should I be relaxing when I need to save the planet?’ but many activists have really worked on this balance.  Kennedy notes, “I often receive email OOO’s that say – ‘I take time to reply to my emails so please bear with me.’ It’s very positive.” She adds, “don’t forget to celebrate your successes,” giving the analogy of ‘taking care of ourselves before the marathon’. She mentions activists who like to ‘hibernate’ in winter and also say no to certain projects in order to avoid burnout. If you’re totally depleted, you won’t be much use to the movement.

Turn The Tide On Climate Anxiety; Sustainable Action for Your Mental Health and the Planet is out now, published by Hachette