Climate Anxiety Should Be The Call To Collective Action

Photographed by Eylul Aslan.
Anxiety is generally understood as a natural human response to feeling threatened. For some, the experience of this mental health condition can be fleeting; for others, it can be so profoundly distressing that the body might veer into dysfunction
On the whole, Western treatments for anxiety tend to focus on finding solutions within the individual (behavioural therapy or medication) rather than addressing the issues triggering the anxiety response in the first place. Yet the rise of 'climate anxiety' – a popular term describing the acute stress response to the palpable destruction of our habitats – throws into question these long-accepted individualist narratives surrounding mental health conditions, scrutinising their effectiveness and practicality in dealing with the problems causing them.
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Pathologising the entirely logical anxiety brought on by the climate crisis as a unique medical condition within the individual, and therefore positioning it as a mental health problem that needs curing, creates obstacles to the urgent collective action required to stop the planet from heading towards a sixth mass extinction event. Focusing on the anxiety rather than the crisis itself shifts priorities. Instead of throwing everything we can at resisting the scientifically certain destruction that is currently ahead of us, at times it feels like the mainstream messaging around climate anxiety is that people just need to calm themselves down first. 

Embracing the beauty of the world around us is so important, reminds us what we are fighting for, and evidence shows that even 10-20 minutes in nature every day improves your mental health.

Dominique Palmer, climate justice activist
The most extensive study ever conducted on climate anxiety was published last year and found that six out of 10 people aged 16 to 25 are very or extremely worried about the climate crisis. Half of this group reported that climate distress affects their lives, and four in 10 are hesitant to have children. In the UK alone, a survey found that three-quarters of adults are worried about the impact of climate change. This sort of data proves that climate anxiety is a widespread societal response to environmental issues rather than one which takes place on an individual level. So why, then, do our solutions to climate anxiety often focus on individuals adopting 'sustainable' lifestyles rather than pushing for collective action?
When you type 'how to stop climate anxiety' into an internet search engine, some of the top recommendations are that sufferers 'focus on what they can control', 'take time out from climate news' and 'practise self-care'. These well-meaning tips might be helpful temporary measures to stop burnout or a depressive episode caused by an overload of negative information but rarely do they seem to empower people to get angry and channel their valid negative emotions into direct action. 
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They also position change as something that can be achieved only through the prism of the self rather than an immediate extension of solidarity with those whose lives have already been dramatically shaped by the climate crisis and will continue to be on a disproportionate level. The answers to climate anxiety are not to be found within; they are already out there and take the form of solutions to environmental injustice. Not only is climate anxiety a call for an interruption of the status quo, it is also a form of communication. Pacifying our body’s sophisticated alarm system forces us to forget that we too are animals, intent on surviving in our rooted habitats.
Surely devoting more attention to managing the symptoms of climate anxiety results in less of it being afforded to fixing the causes? The tepid advice inside SEO-driven articles on the topic typically reads something like this: 'Whatever it is, try not to put too much pressure on yourself and remember you can’t change everything – but you can make changes in your own way.' Why shouldn’t we be putting pressure on ourselves? Why can’t we change everything? And why should we accept the limitations posed on us by increasingly authoritarian states, which more often than not seek to protect the same groups that are destroying the environment for profit? Of course, doing something about climate anxiety is better than nothing and it’s undeniable that taking care of yourself is crucial to sustained activism. Yet if this looks like assuaging climate-related guilt by engaging in corporate greenwashing, the sources of collective climate anxiety will remain the same. No amount of daily Headspace meditation sessions will stop polluters in their tracks if effective political organising doesn’t take place. 
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"Therapy probably won't help a lot because what you're worried about is real," says Peter Kalmus, a Nasa climate scientist. "Doing something about [climate anxiety] is the key to overcoming the sense of powerlessness and aloneness." Kalmus shares that when his sense of anxiety is sharp, he feels ineffective both as a scientist and activist and that it robs the joy from his life. To counter this, he focuses on meditation, activism, music and hope. "Humanity has barely started to act. I hope that as more people feel climate urgency, humanity might transition quite rapidly toward treating this like an emergency. We need to go into climate emergency mode."

Therapy probably won't help a lot because what you're worried about is real. Doing something about [climate anxiety] is the key to overcoming the sense of powerlessness and aloneness.

Peter Kalmus, NASA climate scientist
Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and cofounder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, also recommends the solution-based approach to climate anxiety. "Generally speaking, a problem-solving attitude is likely to be significantly more helpful than having a catastrophising or nihilistic approach. Otherwise, you are likely to become passive, which can spur on feelings of helplessness," she says. Dr Touroni would still encourage people to adopt a mindful approach to decide what course of action they can take but insists that taking action is critical. "It will help you exercise your responsibility and give you a sense of ownership and control."
Political organising doesn’t stop climate anxiety completely but it does refocus our energies on enacting solutions, as Dominique Palmer, a climate justice activist organising for #FridaysForFuture, has found. "I still get climate anxiety," she says. "It can be really difficult, not always seeing the results we hope for, or still seeing leaders selling our futures for profit."
But the thing that snaps the 22-year-old out of such anxiety is taking action. "Community is a crucial thing that has gotten me through my climate anxiety. My beautiful friends, combabes, and fellow activists fighting for the same thing gives me the courage to keep going. We lean into revolutionary love: love for our planet, and each other." Spending time in nature instead of doomscrolling is also crucial for Palmer. "Embracing the beauty of the world around us is so important, reminds us what we are fighting for, and evidence shows that even 10-20 minutes in nature every day improves your mental health. Look at the trees, listen to birdsong, smell flowers and lay on the grass."
Climate hope comes from action and Palmer would advise anyone suffering from climate anxiety to join a local climate group or environmental organisation near them. "Choose an aspect you're really interested in and focus on that. Think about what skills and experience you can bring or learn along the way, the list of what we can do collectively is endless."

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