How To Protect Your Mental Health While Taking Climate Action, Experts Explain

mbg Contributor By Bonnie Culbertson
mbg Contributor
Bonnie Culbertson is an Ohio-based freelance writer and ethical travel consultant. She has a bachelor's in strategic communications from Miami University.
Why Climate Optimism Is More Important Than Ever (& How To Keep It Flowing)
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Part of taking action against climate change means grappling with. the anxiety and grief the issue can trigger. Since the first instinct when experiencing unpleasant feelings can be to turn away, it's important to remain optimistic while still acknowledging the severity of the problem at hand.

The risk of pushing climate fear and anxiety under the rug.

"We all have defense mechanisms that are unconscious and allow us to avoid conflict or anxiety," says psychiatrist Frank Clark, M.D. "Denial and minimization are two defenses that are likely being utilized during the climate crisis and other trials of our world right now."

South Carolina–based psychotherapist Markesha Miller, Ph.D., also points to cognitive dissonance, our brain's ability to hold two opposing thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes simultaneously. For instance, believing pollution and natural land degradation are bad yet still driving an SUV or purchasing products made with palm oil. "If people pretend that the problem does not exist, then they don't have to face the uncomfortable emotions or actions that may come with acknowledging it."

Being a climate optimist, then, is not simply about maintaining blind positivity but also acknowledging the challenges and choosing to focus on solutions instead while also proactively protecting our mental health. Here are some expert-backed ideas for how to do so.

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How to cope with climate change anxiety in a healthy and proactive way:

1. Start by focusing on what you can control.

"When we look past our comfort zone and consider larger concerns, we often feel little to no control," says Twisa Desai, LPC of Bucks County Anxiety Center. "Instead, it can be helpful to focus on what we can control and commit to engaging in small steps," says Desai, who recommends starting with your everyday habits and home life before expanding actions to support your broader community.

"The antidote to overwhelm and depression is taking action," says Jodie Skillicorn, D.O. "For example, when I look out the window in the fall and see the mass of leaves, it feels too overwhelming to even start. Yet if I can commit to just raking for 10 minutes...I inevitably end up working longer than I intended and often finish the task."

"If we all committed to taking one action each day, however small," Skillicorn adds, "our actions would be amplified, expanding outward like a ripple."

2. When it comes to staying informed, know how much is too much.

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, Ph.D., describes how decision-making and memory processing become impaired when our bodies experience prolonged, intense stress and higher-than-normal levels of cortisol. While it's good to stay informed, knowing your daily limits when it comes to news about the climate crisis is also important.

Erin Wiley, MA, LPCC, advises limiting your news intake to 30 minutes a day or reading only one news article on the subject each morning to stay informed without getting too overwhelmed. "When we hear about terrifying and life-threatening occurrences all day long, it saps us of our emotional reserves," says Wiley.

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3. Have compassion and empathy for yourself and others.

The experts agree: Taking a day off from reading up on climate change doesn't make you a bad person. It just means you're taking care of yourself so you can show up stronger tomorrow.

"Climate change is best understood through the lens of trauma," adds environmental psychologist Renée Lertzman, Ph.D., founder of Project InsideOut, a forthcoming resource hub that connects activists and clinical psychologists. "Learning about, encountering, and coming to terms with the climate crisis is a form of trauma. We all have our threshold for what we're capable of taking in and engaging with. It doesn't mean anyone cares more or less, or there's anything fundamentally wrong with us. This is our brain's way of protecting us." According to Lertzman, this process of "attuning deeply to ourselves" and bringing curiosity and compassion to our own experience can keep stress levels in a zone that enables us to be functional, proactive, agile, and resilient.

In addition, we must recognize and honor the ways in which our experiences differ from others'. For instance, Clark points to how the climate crisis illuminates the health care disparities that have been pervasive in our country. Recent studies have shown how Black people are three times more likely to die from exposure to small particle air pollution than the general population. Maintaining this awareness will help us to keep equity at the center of the climate conversation.

4. Speak up.

"Talking to others and allowing your feelings to be validated is very important," says Miller. "During this time, knowing that you are not alone and that others are also being affected aids in how you allow yourself to be supported." 

Talking to friends and family when you're feeling overwhelmed can help de-stigmatize mental health concerns associated with climate change. It's also worthwhile to let the people in your life know that you're there if they ever need someone to hold space for their anxieties about the climate.

"The best thing you can do for someone struggling with climate anxiety is to actively show up for them and affirm what they are feeling," says Lertzman. "Encourage them to open up, be honest, and have candid, compassionate conversations about the feelings they may be scared to give voice to. Tuning into others and really understanding their anxieties, fears, guilt, even aspirations, will help them self-regulate and be able to productively process and move forward with their feelings."

Once these feelings are out in the open, Lertzman says, we can work out a personal environmental action plan that feels achievable, impactful, and exciting.

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