Zimmerman: Car crashes and climate change
Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

Years ago, I was in a car accident. I remember looking over and seeing the other car right before it hit me. I knew the crash was going to happen, I knew that things were going to be bad, I just didn’t know how bad.

Time slowed down and I recall a moment of utter helplessness and fear. This is what climate dread feels like; you feel desperate to do something, anything, while feeling utterly powerless to change the seemingly inevitable outcome.

With climate change, we are currently in that space between knowledge and impact. We know, and are beginning to feel, its impact on our planet and our everyday lives. But we don’t yet know how bad the fallout will be, and this weights on us. In fact, one out of every two young people struggle with some form of climate or eco- anxiety which has been described by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”

Our fears and anxieties are founded in reality. We see evidence of climate change and its impacts every day. Compounding this anxiety is the pervasive feeling that our governments and leaders are not doing enough. In fact, 65% of 10,000 youth surveyed globally felt that their government was failing youth in their responsibility to address climate change.

A friend of mine, who is a climate activist as well as a certified grief and trauma counselor, recently shared with me five principles for dealing with climate anxiety. The first four principals were adapted from the article “Exo-Anxiety Is A Real Thing,” published in India Currents in October.

How to cope

First Principle: Realize it is normal to feel this way; “Anxiety is a rational response to the growing risks of climate change.” A recent study showed that 60% of of people aged to 15-25 were either very worried or extremely worried about climate change. Only 5% indicated that they were not worried at all. Unsurprisingly, 68% indicated that climate change made them feel sad, while 58% indicated they were angry. Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, you are not alone.

Second Principle: Adjust your perspective. A big part of anxiety is being overwhelmed, which is inevitable if you believe the weight of saving the planet is entirely on your shoulders (see the first principle). It is OK to begin small. Where does your sphere of influence start? Start with yourself and individual, tangible actions. Install solar panels or contact one of your elected representatives. If you can, expand to your family and community. You know where you can have the most impact. Get your school or work place to commit to carbon neutrality. Small acts far outweigh no acts at all.

Third Principle: Respond to despair and hopelessness with acts of love, kindness and passion. If you love something, working to protect it will revitalize you, not tear you down. If “climate change” doesn’t ignite your passion, find something that does. Think bugs are cool? Check out the Xerces Society, which will support your passion as well as helps protect our pollinators. Really into gardening? Learn about doing that in a drought-tolerant and sustainable way. Share your passion with others. There is a place for everyone in the environmental movement, find your tribe.

Fourth Principle: Pace yourself. Accept your limits in terms time, energy and ability, then work within those limits. Activism doesn’t need to be exhausting to be effective.

Fifth Principle: Remember why you are doing this. Go out and be with what makes you passionate, be it nature, your garden, or your grandchildren.

Living with and through climate change is a kind of trauma, and it is important to recognize this and acknowledge the mental health impacts. Ignoring the issues won’t work, nor will it make you feel any better. The best way to managing climate anxiety is action.

But unlike my car accident, I am not powerless, and neither are you. We can’t stop the collision, but we still have time lessen the damage done. To turn the wheel, hit the brakes, or at least make sure that the airbags work.

San José Spotlight columnist Erin Zimmerman is a Climate Reality Leader with the Climate Reality Project’s Silicon Valley Chapter. Erin, a long-time environmental and political activist, holds a PhD in political science. Her column appears every third Wednesday of the month. Contact Erin at [email protected].

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