Everything is connected. We are a big old mass of energy, all tethered together by invisible threads. Though we cannot see these threads, we can feel them, especially when they fray or are pulled so tightly we feel like they might snap. We can feel this when we are at a party with an enigmatic and positive person; their energy radiates onto us and envelops us. We can feel it when we’re faced with a sad friend who has just been dumped for the thirty sixth time in a year. We rise up, we sink down, we ebb and flow depending on what’s going on for us or the people we surround ourselves with. If we come from the earth and return to the earth (the old “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” concept in that pretty popular book) then surely we are directly connected to it, in fact, we ARE it. Sometimes in the past when I have talked with my friends about “saving the planet” and punctuated it with semi-patronising head-tilts and sympathetic forehead-creases, I was mistaken in placing the planet far away from me, as a separate entity. It was as though I thought we’d somehow be totally alright but poor old Mama Nature is up s**t creek without a paddle. I was sadly mistaken and ignorant. If Mama N is hurting, so will we…so ARE we. I believe the effects of climate change are not only a threat to our physical wellbeing but also to our minds. Here’s why..
We can feel it directly or indirectly
There are a few ways that people all over the world will be suffering the effects of climate change in very different ways:
- The physical and emotional trauma of directly experiencing acute events such as hurricanes, floods, and wildfires (i.e. loss of loved ones, homes, jobs)
- Slow and long-term changes such as drought and heat stress (which can lead to increased anxiety and even violence within communities)
- The existential and psychological threat of long-lasting changes, including higher temperatures, rising sea levels and a permanently altered and potentially uninhabitable physical environment, which has been linked to high stress levels, depression and hopelessness.
For some people it’s very much happening
After Hurricane Katrina, for example, 49 percent of survivors developed an anxiety or mood disorder. Plus, 1 in 6 developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicide and suicidal thoughts doubled.
Following natural disasters, psychologists have seen a rise in distress reactions, which include things like insomnia, irritability, increased substance use and depression.
Even if you’re not yet feeling it, you are seeing it
Watching the news or reading about climate change and natural disasters (or hearing from loved ones who experience the more ‘front-line’ effects of severe weather events) can have an impact on your mental health
Healthline states that “in 2019, 66 percent of people surveyed by the Yale Program on Climate Change mentioned being at least somewhat worried about climate change — a 10 percent increase from 2014.”
Elissa Epel, vice chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a faculty lead of the Climate Change and Mental Health Task Force at the University of California, San Francisco agrees.
“Climate change is creating a generation of climate distress and hopelessness,” says Epel. That climate distress, she continues, is a “complex conglomeration of aspects of emotional distress, including depression, anxiety, and hopelessness.” She goes on to explain that “our youth are already more emotionally vulnerable to news that is about things we cannot control. Anything that sounds apocalyptic, the younger the child is, the more vulnerable they are to feel distressed by it because they’re not emotionally equipped to handle the weightiness and the burden of the climate crisis.”
When we think about climate injustices, and the suffering that will be felt by the earthly inhabitants in the coming years, it can be easy to absorb the suffering ourselves and feel a heck of a lot of guilt. We can fall into the trap of telling ourselves about how none of this should be happening, or of how bad we are, and how much the previous generations messed it up. This kind of thinking can make us feel powerless, angry and is generally pretty dire for our heads.
Enough misery, let’s talk solutions
It’s so important to understand that any of these feelings we experience are okay. If we can acknowledge and accept that we may experience pain and regret due to this issue and stare it in the face, we have completed step one of the process. Talk. Talk lots. Talk to your friends and family and do not suffer alone. For all the questionable things humans have done, in general we are also pretty kind and we want to help each other. Expression can breed stronger and more durable connections. Connections strengthen these little threads that bind us together, and this can only ever be a positive thing for this interlinked web of energy we call our planet.
Allow yourself to grieve and feel sad for what we have done and what we are doing, however, the mistake is glueing yourself to these emotions. Lingering suffering and regret can get us stuck in misery, despair, judgement, outrage, or righteousness, all of which can foster inaction. When attempting to cope with our personal suffering and regret, we may forget that engaging in pro-social behaviours focused on others can provide relief.
What’s done is done and the past cannot be altered. We must look to what comes next, and fight current battles instead of rehashing old ones. The good news is that so much can be done to change the future for the better! If it feels overwhelming, start small, but definitely start. We’re not not alone, we are bound to each other and our home, and one small positive action has far-reaching ripple effects. You matter.