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Stressed out about climate change? Experts discuss 'eco anxiety' and tools to fight it

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Feeling crippling anxiety or depression about climate change and what it means for the future?

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You're not alone. Recent studies show that climate change is having a major—and growing—impact on not just the environment in fires, drought, and rising sea levels, but on people's mental health.

According to a 2020 poll by the American Psychological Association (APA), 68 percent of respondents said climate change is affecting their mental health—a 21-percentage-point increase in that response from the same poll the prior year.

"Eco anxiety" has grown so much that the APA is now deeming it a "significant" mental health issue, according to Jill Bolster-White, the executive director of Transitions-Mental Health Association (TMHA), a San Luis Obispo nonprofit.

"In fact, they're on record saying that climate change is one of the most crucial issues facing our nation and world today, and it's already taken a toll on the mental health of people around the world," said Bolster-White, who spoke at a Jan. 19 webinar co-hosted by TMHA and the Sierra Club titled "Mental Health and the Climate Crisis."

During the two-hour-long panel discussion, more than 10 speakers—from environmental activists to mental health professionals—shared their perspectives on the troubling trend and what people can do about it.

In general, eco anxiety is like "a chronic fear of environmental doom," which can show up in people through generalized anxiety and obsessive negative thoughts, according to Megan Werner, a transitional age health navigator at TMHA and senior at Cal Poly.

"An example of this would be, 'What's the point of having kids?'" Werner said during her presentation.

Eco anxiety is linked to higher rates of aggression and violence, increased feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and fatalism, and intense feelings of loss, Werner added.

"These symptoms frequently reach high levels of concern and therefore require clinical intervention, which further overwhelms our already inundated mental health system," she said.

Polls and statistics have found that people of all races, ethnicities, and genders are impacted by eco anxiety. But there's at least one notable demographic disparity—age. Right now, those 34 or younger are having the hardest time coping with eco anxiety, Werner said.

That phenomenon is evident here in SLO County. Julia Richardson, a supervisor with SLO County Behavioral Health, said that she's noticed more acute eco anxiety-type symptoms in the young people she serves at her Arroyo Grande clinic.

RISING WATERS Climate change is causing increasing levels of anxiety in people. A 2020 poll found that two-thirds of Americans were anxious about the crisis. Pictured here: king tides in Pismo Beach, an annual phenomenon that shows what a climate change-impacted ocean would look like. - FILE PHOTO COURTESY OF THE KING TIDES PROJECT
  • File Photo Courtesy Of The King Tides Project
  • RISING WATERS Climate change is causing increasing levels of anxiety in people. A 2020 poll found that two-thirds of Americans were anxious about the crisis. Pictured here: king tides in Pismo Beach, an annual phenomenon that shows what a climate change-impacted ocean would look like.

"I'm seeing more and more of I guess what we call Gen Z—born in the late '90s and [through] 2010," Richardson said. "The beliefs and thoughts of our Gen Z, our young folks, are: 'Why bother? Why even have kids? Not sure if anything's going to be around for me.' And that sets up a lot of negativity and hopelessness and not a lot of desire to be motivated to move forward."

Richardson explained how these feelings and attitudes can "change our brain" if they go unaddressed.

"How we think, how we feel, it literally changes the brain pattern ... to a heightened state of arousal to fear, to worry, to anxiety," she said.

Overcoming the effects of eco anxiety can be difficult. But the panelists offered a variety of tips and tricks to feeling more hopeful and empowered about the future, while still being grounded in reality.

The first tip: Don't try to deny that climate change is happening.

"Allow yourself to grieve," Werner said. "Loss is unavoidable and at this point, it's already happening. Acknowledge this is happening and allow yourself to grieve but strive to prevent this grief from overwhelming you."

Another tip was to fight isolation. Connect with other people and organizations that share similar feelings about the climate crisis. Then, strive to transform that anxiety and depression into useful action.

"This could be through ... advocacy groups, perhaps by doing beach cleanups, or mitigate usage of your car and therefore your environmental footprint," Werner said. "Or you can also take action independently in your own life" through recycling, composting, being a mindful consumer, or voting for climate-conscious leaders at the ballot box, she said.

Charles Varni, an activist with the Surfrider Foundation, recommended these steps, and also emphasized self-forgiveness.

Living in a perfectly sustainable way is not often possible in today's world, Varni said. Having too-high expectations or an all-or-nothing attitude can sometimes be an impediment to action and lead to more discouragement.

"There's a lot of guilt tripping and a lot of perfectionism around, are you doing enough in your daily life to save the Earth?" Varni said. "But in terms of forgiving ourselves, we were all born into an existing system, and it's the system that created climate change, and we're a part of it. I encourage people to recognize and celebrate your actions that put you on the right side of history. I encourage folks to reject these perfectionistic expectations."

A final tip for eco-anxiety mentioned by nearly every panelist: Get out in nature.

"Go read a book on the beach. Take a hike. Hammock. Surf, or go on a run," Werner said. "The options are endless, especially in SLO." Δ

Assistant Editor Peter Johnson can be reached at pjohnson@newtimesslo.com.

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