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From worry to willpower: 5 ways to conquer Climate Anxiety
Lifestyle

From worry to willpower: 5 ways to conquer Climate Anxiety

January’s weird weather is another reminder that climate change is here.

If you’re feeling weather whiplash, you’re not alone. Let’s recap January:

During the second week of 2024, the city got drenched with flooded rivers, shut-down roads, and wind that knocked out power.

Photo: Rebecca Gibian

The next week, Philadelphia got its biggest snowfall in two years, with over 7.9 inches, freezing temperatures, and winds that led to a snow emergency. This is followed by temperatures topping 60 degrees.

Flooded Schuylkill River
Photo: Rebecca Gibian

As we’re experiencing the effects of climate change, we can also experience “eco-anxiety,” feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, dread, burnout, despair, and more.

What is climate anxiety — and why do I feel it?

“[Climate anxiety] is worry or fear about an existential threat—the climate crisis—that you feel is beyond your ability to control,” said Dr. Michael Mann, a Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Pennsylvania University and Director of Penn Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media.

There’s a valid reason for this: 80% of adults in the city understand that climate change is happening, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. 2023 was the hottest year on record. Since last November, there has been twice the usual amount of rainfall in Philly. And the city has seen devastating consequences of climate change like Hurricane Ida and the Canadian wildfire smoke last summer, when “Philadelphia had the worst air quality in the world for several days,” according to Dr. Mann.

These concerns lead to a challenging mental state as we try to figure out what happens next to Earth and our future. “We’re sort of hardwired to care about the natural world,” said Tallessyn Grenfell-Lee, CEO and Founder of Climate Resilience Leadership. 

We also have new levels of global awareness, a constant 24-hour news cycle, and a younger generation that is constantly online, worsening divisiveness when it comes to communicating about sensitive issues.

“All of those things come together to increase a sense of franticness, panic, and despair. It just exacerbates the unprecedented nature of the actual challenge that we’re facing,” Grenfell-Lee said. “All of that is creating a snowball effect on climate anxiety and stress.”

What can Philadelphians do to manage their climate anxiety?

Talk about it.

Whether with a professional (you can find a climate-aware therapist using CPA-NA’s directory), or a friend, the first step is to voice your concerns.

Murphy says that people don’t always know how to talk about climate anxiety, which then leads to them being afraid to have feelings about it.

“When we know someone is listening to us, there are certain forms of emotional processing that we’re only really capable of doing when we’re in conversation with another person,” said Dan Murphy, a licensed psychologist in Pennsylvania and the chair of regional coordinators for Climate Psychology Alliance North America (CPA-NA).

It can be as simple as saying: “I am worried about the planet. I’m worried about my community. I’m worried about my kids or I’m furious at the inaction that has led all of us to a really precarious position,’” Murphy.  “Or, ‘I have no idea what the answers are. And I feel helpless about that.’

Finding ways of having difficult conversations is the first way to figure out how to have therapeutic conversations with our loved ones and communities.

Build your community.

Talking about your feelings can also help you make meaningful social connections, which is important when modulating stress.

Other climate-concerned friends can share tips to navigate stress, and you can build mutual support systems with others.   

Start doing: No matter how big or how small.

Taking action and having a sense of efficacy and agency makes a difference in your mindset. According to Dr. Mann, there is an “existing body of research that says that the antidote to doomism is doing.”

There are plenty of actions you can take that will lower your carbon footprint, save you money, and make you healthier, while also providing a good example for others to follow.

“The answer is to get involved, in some way, and this can certainly be attending lectures and events, or joining local groups,” he continued in an email interview.

Think about what you can do today that would feel good — and take it day by day.

“What do you love? Just make a big list of all the different things that you enjoy, even if they seem small and insignificant. At the beginning of every day, or whenever you want, you can take a look at your list and say what’s calling me today, [what] feels like a thing that I can do,” said Grenfell-Lee.

“Everything that we do is an act of justice. And we can really see it as an opportunity to come together and not bicker about what’s better or worse or what we should or shouldn’t be doing but rather see it as all hands on deck all people needed,” she continued. “Let’s just join hands and realize that we all need each other as never before.”

Elect candidates focused on climate change locally and nationally

Though individual actions do matter, there is more that needs to be done at a higher level to fully affect the change we need.  

The “most important thing you can do as an individual is help elect policymakers who will put in place the policy vehicles that we, as individuals, cannot, policies to create incentives for renewable energy, to put a price on carbon, and to help collectively move us away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible,” said Dr. Mann.

The first step? Educate yourself about what Philadelphia’s elected officials are doing regarding climate action.

Did you know that Pennsylvania’s Constitution has an amendment that guarantees Pennsylvanians a right to clean air? Holding those in power accountable to both current amendments like this one and future changes is important for the future of climate change and can help mitigate climate stress.

You can volunteer, phone bank, sign petitions, or just call a climate advocacy group to see what they need.

“Bold climate action is needed at a systemic level,” said Brooke Petry, Field Organizer at Moms Clean Air Force Pennsylvania.

It is also important to remember that a lot of work being done directly affects climate, so there are many ways to get involved, even if it’s not directly environmental action.

Whether people are taking on health, peace, or housing issues, there are relations in everything to climate, especially in cities like Philadelphia where high childhood asthma rates are often driven by elevated air pollution.

“People who are working for peace and an end to militarism in the world are taking climate action, as reporters work to assemble data on military greenhouse gas emissions globally, or rental affordability and accountability from landlords when a house with a collapsing roof or unsealed windows is unable to use heat or cooling efficiently,” said Emily Abendroth.

Finally, allow yourself to feel joy, in whatever way that may come.

Focusing on positive emotions while working on such an enormous problem may seem counterintuitive when the time seems scary.

“We should recognize that the work is not all just doom and gloom because there are small and large moments of good feeling that come along with it,” said Beth Mark, a psychiatrist and a steering committee member of Climate Psychiatry Alliance.

Mark enjoys the work she does and recognizes that although it may not feel good “forever,” it’s important to stay focused on the good for long-term success.

“Humans can’t experience intense bad reactions and stress for an unlimited amount of time, we burn out. So being able to ensure that we’re having a good habitat diversity, good emotional diversity as we go about our lives, that’s how we’re going to stay sustainable,” explained Mark.

Header photo: Joice Kelly on Unsplash

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Rebecca Gibian is an international freelance journalist and author. Her work has appeared in The Associated Press, The Guardian, The Atlantic, VICE, PRI’s The World, The New York Times, and The Washington Post, among others. Her reporting focuses on women nationally and internationally and she has reported from countries including Iraq, South Africa, and Indonesia. View all posts by Rebecca Gibian
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