Managing climate anxiety in a time of constant climate crisis

Lifestyle Sports | Lifestyle

Advice and perspectives from local climate change activists 

Penguin and polar bear, graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.
Graphic by Sie Douglas-Fish.

Climate anxiety needs no introduction. Even if you haven’t heard of it by name, you’ve heard of it. Perhaps you’ve felt it. 

Climate anxiety can be defined as a great level of stress, concern, or foreboding about how the climate crisis is impacting people now and in the future. It can be characterized by feelings of fear, sadness, grief, or hopelessness in the face of existing climate change and climate change to come. 

For some students at UVic and young people all over the world in general, it’s almost impossible not to feel some sort of climate anxiety. News about climate change constantly runs in news feeds. From massive climate events like the record-breaking heat wave B.C. experienced last summer to the small but devastating daily occurrences like an animal species on the verge of extinction, climate change engulfs people’s everyday lives. 

“It makes it really difficult to see the future,” says Oliver James, a first-year political science and Latin American studies student. “People ask me, ‘So where do you see yourself in ten years?’ It’s like, underwater? It’s really hard to reconcile that.” 

Another UVic student, Jess Sherman, said that her feelings of helplessness around the climate have grown in her environmental studies classes, where she constantly learns about the dire consequences of climate change. But even students who aren’t studying the environment feel the constant background noise of climate anxiety. 

For James, the convenient connection to newsfeeds has led him to think about climate change frequently. “We are so connected,” he said. “Getting a little notification about, there’s been another hurricane, there’s wildfires springing up again somewhere else. It’s pretty frequent.”

Maya Gislason, an associate professor in the Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University, describes a moment where her child learned about climate change. “My daughter came home […] from her elementary school class with a picture that had on one side the planet today, which was the classic green and blue marble,” said Gislason in an interview with the Martlet. “In 2050, the planet was on fire and she said, ‘when is 2050? How old will I be when I die in 2050?’”

Climate anxiety has become a fact of life for many of us. Like other forms of anxiety, it can double back on the person, debilitating them. Sherman described that something similar happened to a friend of hers: He was so hypervigilant of himself and others that he ultimately decided to disregard environmentalism as a whole due to intense depression. “He felt as if he was contradicting himself in trying to help the environment. Every decision he made still affected climate change in some fashion. It was overwhelming.”

In the face of the enormity of climate change, it’s no wonder that people feel helpless, depressed, and anxious. When the fate of the world is at stake, action can seem impossible. So if climate anxiety exists, what can we do about it? 

“Be reminded of the urgency to take climate action and that is what climate anxiety can be when it’s healthy,” says Abhay Sachal, third-year student at the University of Toronto, and founder of the non-profit Break the Divide. Break the Divide facilitates youth around the world to get connected in order to engage with conversations that foster empathy, with a big focus on the intersection between climate change and mental health.

“There’s a healthy level of climate anxiety that we can all experience where it makes us think about the issue, and it’s important to think of the issue,” Sachal says. “I think it can get unhealthy when it’s all you’re ever thinking about.”

Sherman described that taking action against climate change can help with climate activism and policy change. However, it’s important to note that action alone can’t quell anxiety forever. 

“Action isn’t a silver bullet to solve everything,” said Sachal. “Personal reflection, having access to mental health resources, having a group dynamic where you can share your emotions, those are all such important things.”

Gislason echoed this emphasis on community care. 

“Because we’re in the long game here and we need to be able to run the marathon of climate change, and not in a good way, and also sometimes we can’t do self-care, so we try to do community care, which is a form of caring,” said Gislason.

However, as with many other mental health struggles, there is still stigma around climate anxiety. This can present a barrier when it comes to opening up to other people and forming those communities of care. James Rowe, an associate professor of environmental studies, says that this stigma is unwarranted.

“It’s easy to feel really isolated and that there’s something wrong with you or you messed up and you’re weird, or abnormal, and there’s some stigma that can be associated with that,” said Rowe. “And one of the things about being in community is having your experience mirrored where you can talk about these feelings […] and that can really help normalize it.”

But ultimately, in order to transform climate anxiety into a motivator and not let it immobilize you, the anxiety itself has to be grounded in action or hope. Because despite it all, there are people who are hopeful that change can happen. And those are the people who are fighting the hardest.

“The work I’m doing, while it’s important, it’s not everything,” said Sachal. “And that kind of relieves the burden off myself too, knowing that there are other people taking action and working to create the world that I want to see.”

To Gislason, if action is not taken, people are overwhelmed by a future that they don’t have agency in and perceive that the power of agency over making a difference is always outside of their control.

If you want to make change, it doesn’t have to be a huge action to accomplish that. Rowe pointed out that you can focus on making a change in an individual life, even if it’s your own. It can be as small as deciding to bike a bit more, and sticking to that decision. It’s giving yourself the power of agency and choice.  And if you’re interested in making a change within your community, there are options to do that. “There might not be a divestment campaign nearby,” Rowe points out. “But there are so many organizations that are generally starved for volunteers that you don’t have to rock too far to hit those organizations.”

And it’s totally okay to step back, to take a break. Gislason mentioned Elaine Alec as someone that has taught her important lessons about working in this area.

“Whenever you see fear or oppression, whenever you see disempowerment and so on, you’re part of a colonial project, a colonial trick, or a neo-capitalist trick, because humans are generally curious beings. We are loving beings, beings who care about community and about animals and the planets around us,” said Gislason.

”When that gets eroded, I think that that’s a signal to us that the priorities and the practices shaping us are not leading us towards our basic humanity and basic goodness, and to health and wellbeing. We should probably look at the source of that overwhelm or fear or disempowerment, and look beyond ourselves for the source of the problem.” 

Because, at the end of the day, is the world worth it? Yes. It was always worth it.