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Your mental health can be improved by environmental activism

Your mental health can be improved by environmental activism

Digital composite image of young woman standing with hands on hip over melting green planet earth ag...

Melanie O’Driscoll was studying zoology at University College Cork when she had a first-hand encounter with the Climate change’s mental health effects. Since childhood, she was a passionate nature lover and loved learning about the different species and their habitats. But as she studied, she became increasingly worried about warming global temperatures and the existential threat they posed to the planet’s ecosystems.

“It was this building of fear around climate change. I was taking anti-anxiety medication, and I would have a really physical manifestation of a hand squeezing around my heart so I couldn’t breathe,” O’Driscoll says. “I was self-medicating, smoking weed, and just stuck in really heavy feelings.”

O’Driscoll’s own judgment of the feelings only added to their intensity. As a white woman living in a European country, O’Driscoll knew she wasn’t suffering the direct impacts of climate change in the ways indigenous, BIPOC, or marginalized communities were. She not only felt grief over the climate crisis, she felt she wasn’t entitled to that grief. “I was learning about how I’ve benefited from these systems that have come on the backs of other people who’ve been oppressed,” she says. “It was just starting to crush me.”

Mental health experts are just starting to study the subject. Climate change and its impactson our psychological, and emotional well-being. They’ve coined terms like “eco anxiety,” “climate anxiety,” and “Climate grief” to describe the complex mix of rage, despair, guilt, dread, and paralysis that many people are feeling, particularly young people. More than eight in ten Gen Z’ersAccording to a survey conducted in 2021, most people are concerned about the fate of the planet.

Some balk at lumping feelings like O’Driscolls in with anxiety, a disorder that involves excessive concern about everyday situations that don’t really call for it. Bridget Bradley, a social anthropologist and PhD recipient from the University of St. Andrews in the UK, says “climate anxiety” may be a perfectly rational response to living through a slow-motion catastrophe. As part of her “Eco Warrior, Eco Worrier” project, Bradley interviewed and surveyed dozens of people involved in climate work about their experiences with ecological anxiety. She says that the overwhelming majority of respondents rejected the idea that their feelings were symptoms a disorder that requires treatment.

Bradley’s own views on eco anxiety are conflicted. On the one hand, she believes it’s a major mental health problem of our time. On the other, it’s hardly a problem that can be fixed through individual therapy or medication. Instead, “the cure for climate anxiety is effective climate action,” she says.

Like all feelings, Anxiety has a purpose. It alerts us to imminent danger and gives us the energy to take life-saving action. But when the danger is as big and nebulous as climate change — rather than, say, a bear — it can feel like there’s no action to take and nowhere for that energy to go. Rather than channeling anxiety to fight back or get out of harm’s way, we spin internally.

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Psychologists suggest that a Study of miceThis is illustrated in the following: When the mice were conditioned to associate a certain tone with an electric shock, their amygdalas — the brain’s center for fear and other primal emotions — lit up and the mice froze. Researchers showed the mice a trapdoor that they could escape through, and the neural impulse moved on from the amygdala towards more action-oriented parts. The mice started to move toward the trapdoor instead of freezing. Similar brain activity was observed in MRI studies of humans. According to climate psychiatrists, this shows how “frightening people can cause them to freeze, whereas giving them a sense that they can take personal, meaningful action obviates freezing.”

What is meaningful action in the face of climate crisis? When headlines warn that the arctic’s ice caps are at risk Oceans flooded with billions of tons of waterThat’s the best part! Amazon rainforest may not be possibleThis is the point where obsessing on your grocery packaging and cutting down your beef consumption feels pointless.

If you’re not sure what to do, thinking about your role within the “story of climate change” is a good place to start, says Rachel Malena-Chan, a community health researcher and co-founder of Eco Anxious, a group that uses storytelling as a tool to help people turn their eco anxiety into action. “When you identify as a character in the story, it starts to feel pretty overwhelming if you don’t have a role to play, or if you just feel like a bit of a guilty bystander, or maybe even part of the problem,” she says.

Once you begin probing those uncomfortable feelings, you’ll probably find they’re stemming from living out of alignment with a deeper value you hold, like love — love for your community, your family, care for future generations, for indigenous people, or for the other species that share our planet. Remembering how we’re all connected can be a route back to our values, and our agency, Malena-Chan says. “The more isolated people feel in their sense of overwhelm, the harder it is to find connection to other people, and those wider, larger-scale solutions.”

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Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

What might it look like to find a connection? You might join Climate groups or take part in protests, or you might find a way to take action through communities you’re already part of. Malena Chan, Eco Anxious participant, says that she channeled her climate anxiety through art and dance which helped her reenergize policy work.

The participants of Bradley’s study saw huge benefits from getting involved in climate work. She says that they found motivation, energy and a community to share their concerns with. For some, however, they were exposed to the frightening and extreme realities of climate changes. “Climate action was in itself often stressful and demanding,” Bradley says. People need to find a balance between “valuable work to impact positive change,” and burnout.

Now that she’s recovered from her own existential crisis, O’Driscoll has made it her mission to help other people find that balance. The Greenstep is a group she founded that offers a podcast and a podcast. WorkshopsOn emotional literacy and self-care for activists. She facilitates discussions about overwhelm and burnout and uses meditation, journaling and other techniques to help participants recover themselves and their work.

The program has been remarkably healing not only for participants, but for O’Driscoll as well. “It’s helped me shift focus away from what I don’t want, which is climate catastrophe, to what I was moving towards,” which is supporting a community that shares her values, she says. “It’s what has led me to where I am now, which is a much more balanced, happy, gentle place.”

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