Mental Health and Well-Being Snapshot: January 2023
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Coping with Climate Anxiety
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As climate change becomes more and more at the forefront of what we see and hear about in the media, and extreme weather events become more common locally as well as globally, this can result in stress and anxiety about these changes that often feel out of our control. These feelings of distress are often termed "climate anxiety" or "eco-anxiety." They are not, however, a mental illness. In fact, being worried or afraid about the consequences of the very real threat of climate change is a normal and expected reaction. But it can become problematic when those fears overwhelm our ability to cope or interfere with our daily functioning.

Distress about climate change can impact all of us, but can have an outsized impact on children and youth who may feel thrust into a system that is broken through no fault of their own, or struggle to see possibilities for themselves in a future that looks bleak. In a recent study surveying 10,000 youth in various countries worldwide, the study showed that over 50% were very or extremely worried about climate change, 84% were at least moderately worried, and over 45% said their feelings about climate change impacted their daily functioning in negative ways.

Taking action in areas of our lives that we can control is one of the ways we can counter these feelings. This snapshot will focus on those small steps we can take - in conversations with loved ones, in classrooms, and in our broader communities - as well as resources and people who can be helpful with feelings of climate anxiety.
Understanding our reactions to climate change

How climate change affects our mental health

This short video from London Imperial College briefly outlines some of the ways that climate changes can impact mental health negatively. From direct impacts such as the way that heatwaves can exacerbate mental health symptoms, to indirect impacts on mood and emotions through exposure to frightening information and media. The video also highlights that research in this area seems to indicate that taking action and connecting with like-minded communities is one way to bolster resilience against eco-anxiety.

For a similar summary of the issue, this article by Harvard Health outlines some of the ways climate anxiety can impact us, and steps we can take to support ourselves and others, including making lifestyle changes that align with our values, connecting with trusted people about our worries, and educating ourselves on the issues and realistic action steps.

Understanding our window of tolerance to move from climate anxiety to action

In this TED talk about climate anxiety, Dr. Renee Lertzman describes a concept from psychology called the "window of tolerance." This theory suggests that when stressors or traumas exceed our window of tolerance, we end up in states that typically don't help us solve the problem causing the stressor.

Lertzman suggests that many people worldwide are outside of their window of tolerance when it comes to climate change, and thus meeting the problem with responses such as overwhelming anxiety or anger, numbness, or passive dismissal. Lertzman suggests that one of the first steps in terms of shifting from anxiety to action is to "attune" to our emotional response - to understand our own window of tolerance and through what state of regulation or dysregulation we are engaging with the topic of climate change. Check out the video for a more in-depth discussion of this idea.

Understanding the carbon handprint

The problem of climate change can seem too overwhelming at times, and this can contribute to hopelessness and anxiety. Taking some action on an individual level can help combat those feelings. The concept of a “carbon handprint” reframes the "footprint" focus on reducing negatives, to one that is focused on positive contributions. Greg Norris, from Harvard's School of Public Health, describes it this way:

"A contribution that causes positive change in the world—including reductions to your own or somebody else’s footprint—is a “handprint.” (Think of helping hands, creative handiwork, or a healing touch.)

We can think of the difference between handprints and footprints in these simple terms: Footprints are the negative consequences of all that it takes to sustain a person or an organization for a year—the total planetary “cost” of your presence.

Handprints represent the benefits of your presence: they’re the positive changes that you bring into the world during this same year. If footprints are what we unavoidably take, handprints are what we intentionally give."

Examples of this could be encouraging others in our family or social circle to carpool or ride bikes to school or work, starting a recycling initiative, or planting trees with your class. Click the link to read more and watch a short video explaining the concept.
Classroom resources

Exploring Climate Change and Mental Health: video and toolkit

What is eco-anxiety, eco-paralysis, or ecological grief? And where can we turn for support if those terms reflect our experience? This video and accompanying toolkit was put together by a registered nurse with expertise in mental health and public health, and incorporates perspectives and research from experts in climate change and health fields, as well as UBC student perspectives. It is intended to be an informative as well as a reflective exercise, with prompting questions along the way to help individuals and groups explore the way climate change impacts their own mental health and steps they can take to take care of themselves and others.

The video can be watched as stand-alone learning, or accompanied by some or all of the reflective questions in the toolkit:

Video link
PDF of the full toolkit with video link and questions
Website version with form-entry questions

Climate change heroes lesson plans

These lesson plans and resources from the BCTF's Committee for Action on Social Justice are designed to "inspire students to understand and take action on climate change." The resource includes lessons relevant for elementary, middle, and secondary grades. Lessons tackle a variety of topics to help students explore questions such as how much water is wasted if I leave the tap running to brush my teeth? what is the carbon cycle's role in climate change? or what are some solutions to ocean acidification?

Coping with eco-anxiety at home

How to address eco-anxiety with children

Conversations with children about climate change are a good opportunity to model calm and rational solution-seeking, as well as bravery in the face of a significant challenge. This article from Nature Kids BC presents some useful ideas to approach the conversation:

If your child is concerned about climate change, that concern can be validated and commended as a demonstration of their compassion. However, if there are irrational fears, it is important that those be cleared up (without dismissing legitimate concerns), and that any feelings of guilt your child may harbour are addressed and alleviated as well.

The article also suggests role modelling a solutions-focused approach in discussions about climate change at home, and using your child's concern about the environment as a starting point for some learning together and opportunities to connect with nature.

There's a lot of negative, but don't overlook the positive steps

As with any problem, confronting the reality of the situation will help in finding solutions. In doing so, it is important to avoid getting overwhelmed. Balancing hard truths with information about positive changes or innovations can be one way to approach our learning about climate change. Sites like The Daily Climate's "Good News" page can help us recognize that there are positive steps happening all over the world, and maybe inspire action in ourselves or others.

Books to support 

Literature can make it easier to communicate complex ideas and to empathize with the perspectives of others. This article from BC Parent Magazine outlines a few book ideas that can help further conversations with children about climate change and our relationship with the earth, such as Coco's Fire:

Coco's Fire teaches kid-friendly techniques for dealing with climate anxiety and incorporates the features of an ideal climate talk, vetted by experts in eco-anxiety and the psychological development of children. It presents six key steps to a helpful discussion about climate, and uses cognitive reframing and mindfulness strategies to help children externalize and cope with anxieties.

Click the link to read more about this book or their other book recommendations.

Facilitating connection with nature

One common recommendation in advice about mental health and climate change is to focus on connection with nature. This article from Heart Mind Online summarizes some of the findings of Dr. Scott Sampson, who focuses on the impact of nature on children's well-being. Here is some of his advice:

Get outside with your children, and model gratitude and appreciation - make family outdoor time a priority and plan for it.

Make new habits that set up nature as the fun, preferred option for playtime.

Model - show kids how much you value nature through your
actions and how grateful you are for it.

No tragedies before fourth grade - before burdening them with tales of climate change, vanishing habitats and species extinction, first try and engage children and show them how nature can foster “powerful feelings of wonder, awe, mystery, joy–and, yes, fear.”

If you are a parent, fight the urge to teach - strive to be co-adventurers.

Nature can help foster empathy through wonder. “Wonder deepens connection. With deeper connection comes empathy, and then caring. And, with time, caring leads to love”.

Get out of the way! Let them play. 
Additional resources

Foundry BC's recommendations for youth experiencing eco-anxiety

Foundry BC is a great resource for youth, whether for in-person help, online learning, or virtual support. Their tips about eco-anxiety for youth provide a starting point for learning, and some next steps in terms of resources and further education and action. Some of their recommendations include:

Connect with others who share your concern

If action helps, look for ways to get involved at a local level

Spend time in nature

Learn about steps within your control that can help

Connect with a professional support such as a counsellor

Click the link to read more and explore their site.

Want to learn more?

There is a ton of info out there on this topic, but here are a couple of starting points for further learning:

UBC Climate Hub's Climate Wellbeing Kit - there is so much info in this resource! Click on the images within to link to the separate resources.

Coping with Climate Change Distress - This resource from the Australian Psychological Society suggests numerous behavioural, relational, and cognitive strategies to manage distress associated with climate change.