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How to deal with climate anxiety

Perhaps we grow infuriated as we unwrap a package buried in non-recyclable plastic. Or we notice our chest starts to tighten every time we hear about yet another unprecedented natural disaster on the news. Climate anxiety is becoming more common than ever before. But what can one person do about such a giant issue? And how can we be cognizant about the current crisis while also preserving our well-being?

Whether it’s a severe weather forecast or a new bleak report on the future of the planet, it’s clear that we’ve reached a pivotal point in climate change. For those of us who are feeling particularly anxious about the state of the environment, we’re not alone. According to a 2020 survey by the American Psychological Association, 68% of American adults say that they experience eco-anxiety in some capacity.

To cope with these fears, we might try pairing environmental action with mindfulness, a practice that can help us navigate both uncertainty and anxious thoughts, as well as helping us get clear on what proactive choices to make in how we live our life, or how we wish to campaign to make a difference.

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Key takeaways:

  • Meditation can help us sit in this place of uncertainty with more comfort and ease

  • Don’t try to fight it: be present with the physical sensations and give anxiety the space it needs to release

  • Try 12 meditations for climate change anxiety

What is climate anxiety?

When we talk about climate anxiety, we’re not necessarily just referring to weather-related stress. The American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety (also sometimes called climate anxiety or environmental anxiety) as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” It’s a term that describes the anger, worry, and extreme uncertainty many of us feel as we become increasingly aware of all the current and future consequences associated with global warming.

In many ways, climate change is a global issue — one that feels almost impossible for us to do much about on an individual level. If we begin to feel overwhelmed and perhaps even helpless by the gravity and scale of this problem, we may find that we’re soon hit with physical symptoms of anxiety (sweaty palms, a racing heart, a tightening in the chest, etc.) or emotional symptoms (uncontrollable feelings of worry, increased irritability, difficulty concentrating, restless sleep, anger, etc.). These reactions and emotions are understandable when the events we see with our own eyes don’t align with the actions being taken to combat a worsening crisis. Or maybe we are at our wit’s end because of the inaction we witness around us.

Of course, we can’t go through this gamut of emotions every time we witness or experience the effects of climate change. But we can perhaps better manage our feelings, and stay grounded, by turning to a mindfulness practice.

How to deal with climate change anxiety

When we experience anxiety, there is often a kind of internal loop happening within us: an anxious thought arises in the mind, the body recognizes that thought as worry, triggering feelings we associate with worry. When the mind recognizes that the body is worried, it responds in turn by producing more thoughts. As a result, the body then follows suit, according to Headspace co-founder and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe. And so the anxious spiral begins.

“The more we get into the body, the more we step out of the mind,” says Andy. So, one way to short circuit this loop is by using meditation, because this provides an object of focus — such as the breath or a physical sensation — where we place our attention, allowing us to divert our attention away from the anxious thinking.

By being present only with the physical sensation — maybe it’s a tight chest or a rapid heart rate (or, if that’s too intense, bringing awareness to neutral body sensations like the feeling of the feet on the floor or the feeling of the body on a chair) — we don’t really allow space for thought. Why? Because the mind can only be in one place at a time. So instead of focusing on a story that fuels the anxiety, our focus becomes our physical sensations, rooting us in the here and now. When we stop analyzing our anxiety, or trying to get rid of it, we often end up giving it the space it needs to release.

But part of the reason many of us feel anxious about climate change in the first place is the sense of uncertainty that’s often attached: If global warming carries on at its current rate, what will happen to the world as we know it? Will our cities become inhabitable? Will it affect our ability to earn a living? What will the planet be like for our children? It’s thoughts like these that can send us leaping into the future and easily send us spiraling — or even catastrophizing.

Meditation shows us how to sit in this place of uncertainty with more comfort and ease. We learn, with practice, to watch how the mind behaves when anxious thoughts arise ... and we learn to let them go. By training in this uncertainty during meditation, we are actually training for uncertainty in life itself.

“As we transfer that quality into everyday life, it becomes increasingly apparent why that’s so important for our sense of stability,” says Andy. “If every time nature takes a different turn, we find ourselves panicking and resisting, fighting it in some way, then it’s going to be really uncomfortable.” Meditation is our anchor to the present moment, no matter how challenging the situation.

Meditation also helps us to drop any storylines we might be attached to — stories where, perhaps, we have convinced ourselves of a certain outcome, or that this or that will happen. That’s not to say we erase our concerns or forget about the forecasts around climate change. Far from it. By keeping our mind in the present moment, without judgment, without ruminating, we are less entangled in the weeds of the stories the mind creates, and so we are better able to see clearly. If anything, meditation allows our emotions to arise, and we identify them as being there for good reason.

View it this way: Meditation allows us to sit on the sidelines and zoom out so that we can see the bigger picture. It’s from this vantage point of renewed clarity that we can see what needs to be done, what can be harnessed, and what actions and groups to engage with.

Action steps to help ease climate change anxiety

While a mindfulness practice may help us navigate anxiety and learn how to sit in uncertainty, we might consider complementing this element of self-care with climate action. Here are 2 pro-active steps the American Psychological Association (APA) recommends taking at home and in our community:

  1. Create an emergency plan.

While we can’t know when an emergency will strike, we can offer ourselves some peace of mind by knowing that we’re prepared. Emergency preparedness organizations suggest having a household emergency plan that everyone is aware of and has practiced. They also suggest putting together an emergency preparedness kit with supplies that may be needed. For a thorough list of what to include, consider reviewing this comprehensive list from the American Red Cross.

  1. Start a community resilience project.

Community resilience projects are essentially a community-driven way to reduce the toll of natural, technological, and environmental events. The APA notes that while these projects are traditionally initiated by a government agency, “communities are beginning to understand that they are capable of organizing and spearheading such projects from within and that these efforts can strengthen the fabric of communities in sustainable ways.”

In one recent example of a successful community resilience project, community members in Puerto Rico noticed that rainstorm runoff from a dirt parking area was flowing into the nearby ocean and damaging a coral reef. To protect the reef, the community leveled and stabilized the parking area, covered it with a layer of stone, surrounded it with a wooden fence, and planted sediment-trapping grass plants around the parking lot’s perimeter.

To start a resilience plan in our own communities, we might begin by using the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s 6-step planning guide.

Try 12 meditations for climate change anxiety

Looking for meditations and mindfulness exercises to help ease eco-anxiety? The Headspace app offers subscribers several courses, single meditations, and activities that can help us navigate all the complex feelings associated with this topic, including:

  • Fear of the future course. Practice approaching worries in a more constructive way.

  • Managing Stress in Uncertain Times meditation. Bring a moment of calm, clarity, and stress relief to your day.

  • Managing Difficult Emotions video. Help kids work through uncertainty with tips from a mindfulness expert.

  • Managing Anxiety course. Cultivate a new perspective on fear and anxiety.

  • Navigating Change course. Train your mind to be more comfortable with change.

  • Worry advice. What to do when anxiety arises during meditation.

  • Stressed meditation. Learn how to drop the storyline and reframe stressful situations.

  • Impermanence and Change video. How to accept change as the only constant.

  • Connect With the World mindful activity. Appreciate your surroundings by getting outside.

  • Letting Go of Stress course. Develop your awareness of stress and learn how to reframe negative emotions.

  • Transforming Difficulties meditation. Learn how to practice skillful compassion towards yourself and others.

  • Handling Sadness course. Gain a new perspective on your thoughts so you can learn to let them go.

Navigating all our feelings around climate change often means engaging with difficult emotions — precisely the kind of emotions we tend to spend most of our time avoiding. But by bravely facing those feelings and using mindfulness to learn how to cope with them, we can work on preserving the health of both our planet and mind.

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