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As climate change and environmental degradation intensify, our psychological health is at stake. Climate grief is a natural response to threats to our physical, cultural, and community well-being.
The ice shelves are receding, sea levels are rising, natural disasters are intensifying, and deforestation could create a financial crisis as big as the 2008 crash.
It’s no wonder that many of us feel a sense of loss and anxiety when we think about the climate and the direction we are headed in. It’s easy to feel powerless when energy giants continue to exploit natural resources and governments are slow to invoke change.
In fact, this sense of anxiety and loss has a name — climate grief. And, as more people become aware of the climate crisis, more people are experiencing climate grief than ever before.
The connection between our physical and mental health is clear. When we can’t be certain of our physical well-being, our mental well-being deteriorates. We know this from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which places physiological safety and self-protection at the base of its illustrative pyramid.
However, as climate change intensifies, we are less sure of our basic safety. There will be more frequent and intense tropical storms in the Atlantic and heat waves are becoming part of our everyday lives. Coastal cities, like Hong Kong, will be at increased risk of storm surges. Natural disasters of this scale threaten lives and undermine our basic need for a safe space to live in.
Climate change may also increase the prevalence of pests and pest-borne illnesses. This is already happening in some parts of Africa where the pest known as the “maize stem borer” is running rampant due to a decline in its natural predator, cotesia flavipes. Increased pest populations threaten to disrupt food supplies and increase the spread of disease.
As our physical health becomes less secure, we may lament the loss of safety and certainty. This manifests itself as climate grief, both for those who are directly affected and those who consume the news through digital media. The sense of loss can undermine our sense of togetherness and potentially wipe out entire cultures.
Connection to cultural heritage is an important part of everyone’s mental health. Feeling a sense of belonging can help folks navigate turbulent times and feel secure within their environment. However, climate change and climate disasters threaten to wipe out our connection to cultural heritage and change the way we live forever.
At a recent UN Youth Climate Summit, delegates from Greece described the repercussions that climate change has on their ancient ruins. Rising sea levels and violent storms threaten to irreparably damage the structures. This loss will uproot communities who gather around the structures and lead to a loss of traditional knowledge systems that have passed from generation to generation.
Of course, it is also during times of turmoil when we look to our ancestors to find hope and insight. In this way, there is potential for us all to learn from our predecessors and their resilience in the face of global pressures. For many, the knowledge that our ancestors survived ice ages, drought, and famine may be a silver lining on an otherwise stormy cloud. Culture can help fight climate change, particularly in Asian countries like Hong Kong, where dance, architecture, photography, and other artistic mediums bring people together to raise awareness.
Many of us come together to combat climate change and ecological loss. However, as climate change intensifies, we can expect our social bonds and community connection to weaken. This is due to a greater need for relocation globally in response to climate disasters and loss of habitable space.
When disaster strikes, the impact is felt by left-behind communities for decades. For example, a study from the University of Alabama Collat (UAB) recently assessed the long-term impact of the BP oil spill, which occurred on April 20th, 2010.
Researchers from UAB assessed the impact of the spill — in which 200 million gallons of crude oil was spilled — on Alabama and Louisiana’s coastal economy. The findings show that sales volume and condominium prices fell from July to December 2010.
As a popular tourist destination, those who lived and worked in coastal Alabama and Louisiana shouldered the economic brunt of the spill and were forced to sell their properties at a lower price than they could afford. As a result, many packed their bags and left the area for good — thus weakening the community connection in the local area.
The loss of community affects us all differently. However, on aggregate, we can be fairly sure that upheaval and loss of community bonds undermine the general population’s mental health.
Eco-Anxiety and Relationships
Relationships during the climate crisis may also take a significant hit. Natural human responses to the ecological crisis include:
- Distancing ourselves;
- Seeking knowledge and debate;
- Deflecting the problem;
- Denying responsibility.
All of the above reactions, although normal, can have negative effects on interpersonal relationships. When you isolate yourself to deal with eco-anxiety, for example, you aren’t nurturing those connections. Instead, it’s important to have open, honest conversations with your partner and loved ones.
The people closest to you are more likely to listen to your opinions surrounding climate change than a random news broadcast or social post. They are invested in your life and the way you perceive it. If you want to make a change, the best way is to start with the people around you. This can also bolster your relationships and provide that emotional support you need when going through shared eco-anxiety.
Climate Grief and Coping
Climate grief is an increasingly common part of the human experience. The key symptoms to look out for include significant sadness, helplessness, guilt, anxiety, or even numbness. As our climate tips further towards disaster, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and at a loss. Fortunately, mental healthcare providers are already aware of the impact that climate grief can have on a person’s everyday life, and therapists are well-trained to help navigate uncertain times. To help yourself cope during this process, consider:
- Practicing self-care and meditation;
- Seeking professional help;
- Leaning on your interpersonal support system;
- Taking advantage of flexible work policies;
- Avoiding deflecting or denying responsibility;
- Doing your part;
- Using creative outlets;
- Accept what you cannot change.
Coping successfully with climate grief can also be motivating. Many climate activists choose to turn their back on the unjust systems that cause global warming and find new social bonds around a shared concern for the environment. Find peace in knowing that you can’t singlehandedly change the course of climate change, but you can do your part in acknowledging your feelings surrounding it and expressing yourself to raise awareness and make an impact.
Lead image courtesy of Unsplash.