Climate change is one of the most important issues of our time. And while it makes sense to care about the state of the planet, the weight of the situation can become overwhelming.
Many of us are left experiencing eco-anxiety, a term used to describe the psychological impact of the existential despair and distress about the future of the planet. A Monash University study last year indicated that Australians are almost three times more concerned about climate change than the COVID-19 pandemic.
On Monday, the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published their AR6 Climate Change 2021 report, which indicated that global warming is not only a very real threat, but that it's getting worse and is now unavoidable. Dr Sally Gillespie, a climate psychology researcher with Psychology for a Safe Climate, says that it's not surprising that many of us feel worried and anxious about the future after the report's release — but there are ways to manage the anxiety.
She says we don't need to deny our feelings of distress and can use the IPCC report as "a stimulus for reaching out to others, to ask one another how we feel and what we fear losing." There are various sources of eco-anxiety, such as the fear of starting a family, the guilt of inaction or the feeling of an existential crisis creeping up on you. Here are some strategies recommended by Dr Gillespie to cope with each of these.
I'm Worried About Becoming A Parent
Being concerned about the state of the planet when our children or future children are growing up is understandable. Dr Gillespie says that it's important to firstly acknowledge the fear for what the world will be like for future generations.
"A lot of young people share this anxiety of actually going through the process of coming to make a decision about whether to have a child or not," she tells Refinery29 Australia.
"I think we need to acknowledge it as a collective situation. Many young people are going through this, and I think there's a lot of good in getting together with others to talk about that decision."
Dr Gillespie says "there is no right or wrong" in this situation. "It needs to be thoroughly acknowledged and explored, and along with that, all the feelings that are there from anxiety and fear, grappling with uncertainty and the unknown, but also the very powerful biological urge to have a child that's very real," she says.
I'm A Young Person Who Has Inherited The Greatest Existential Crisis Faced By Any Generation
Again, acknowledging this feeling is the first step, and then talking to someone about it. This could be someone similar in age or older, or even turning to a support group.
"It's important for young people to acknowledge what they feel and to talk to other generations," says Dr Gillespie. After processing those feelings, we can decide what action we can take to help the climate cause.
"I think for any of us who fully understand the situation, to be free of some sense of anxiety is not possible, but in the end, we have to work out what our role is, and what we can do."
An example of taking political action could be writing letters to government representatives to "make it very clear that our voting will be based first and foremost on deeply committed climate action."
"Some people are very ready and get a lot of energy from getting out on the streets and protesting," says Dr Gillespie, but highlights that "not everyone feels like" doing that, and there are also other ways to make an impact.
"I always say to people, remember to keep up your joy and your connection with the natural end of the world, because this is what ultimately we're coming to having a cultural change around," she says. "So finding ways to actually commit and put into action ways of caring for the environment."
Some examples include bush regeneration projects, cleaning beaches, working with community gardens or speaking to your colleagues about climate change.
I Feel Guilty For Not Having 'Done My Part'
From not using a reusable cup to driving to work, we may feel guilty about not having consistently taken individual eco-friendly actions up until now. Dr Gillespie says we can deal with the guilt by asking ourselves, "What else can I do?" and remembering that we're in this together.
"It's understanding that it's right to do the individual actions," she continues, "but the most effective things we can do are to join in with others and collective action – whether they be protests or action to change the waste practices in your neighbourhood, to lobby the council perhaps or if you're an apartment, is there a good system going?"
I Feel Despair Because The Policy Changes To Address The Climate Crisis Are Out Of My Hands
When it comes to policy changes that are enacted by the government, many of us may feel despair and hopelessness because we can't necessarily influence those big calls. Again, it's important to identify and acknowledge "feelings of fear or powerlessness or hopelessness," explains Dr Gillespie, "and to monitor them."
The other important thing to remember here is the interconnectedness between individual and systemic action.
"I think it's helpful to understand that we are part of an ecosystem, a biological ecosystem, a cultural ecosystem," says Dr Gillespie. "So that whatever we do matters, even in ways that we can't understand. We can orientate ourselves to be working in those areas which are most focused on systemic change. So it's not only about taking the keep cups back to the cafe, it's actually showing you've done that."
Regardless of where our eco-anxiety stems from, Dr Gillespie strongly recommends talking to someone. She says "anyone who understands the [climate crisis] situation will feel anxiety", but it's important to speak to a mental health professional if the anxiety begins to "interfere in your daily functioning."
"There are also increasingly more and more groups available for people to come together to be able to talk about how they feel," she says.
If you or anyone you know is experiencing depression or anxiety, please contact Lifeline (131 114) or Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636). Support is available 24/7.