Jennifer Keluskar, Ph.D.
I hate to admit this, but in the 90’s I was one of the kids who eye rolled at people who extolled the virtues of recycling. I believed that refraining from littering was doing enough to help the environment. At the same time, I acknowledged environmental problems. I recall completing a school science fair project on endangered species. I recall feeling concerned about rainforest devastation and the quality of our drinking water.
While intellectually, I knew of the future threats to earth posed by human activity, I was not connecting my own human activity to the problem. Social scientists might say that I was diffusing responsibility (assuming that others are responsible for taking action to solve a problem). They might also say that part of the problem was my lack of connection to the natural world as the child of a manicured suburban upbringing.
Regrettably, it has been only in the past 7 years that my concern about climate change and the impact of human activity on the environment has skyrocketed. Is it a coincidence that 7 years ago is also when I became a parent? In addition to worrying about whether cloth or disposable products were better for my newborn’s comfort, the thought of which option was more environmentally safe became another variable to consider.
In the past few years, I have noticed an additional shift in my feelings of concern. Whereas in the past, I pathologized my anxiety about climate change as an example of “catastrophizing,” a fancy term for making mountains out of mole hills, I have more recently seen that anxiety about environmental devastation is actually quite common, and this notion has been supported by research (e.g. Doherty & Clayton, 2011). In fact, I have learned that there is an actual term for this kind of anxiety: “Eco-anxiety”
“Eco-anxiety” is not a disorder. However, it captures feelings of distress in response to actual threats to our planet. As a quick gander at the news will reveal, the catastrophes caused by climate change are already upon us.
Social scientists and mental health professionals are participants in the crusade started by climate scientists decades ago. One topic they are exploring is eco-anxiety, and how to respond to it by encouraging environmentally sustainable behaviors and strengthening our connection to the natural world.
The message, consistently, is that the way to deal with eco-anxiety is NOT to “just forget about it.” It is to engage in some kind of proactive behavior, whether this be through advocacy, engaging in sustainable behaviors like re-using materials, or meditating in your garden. Powers & Engram (2011) refer to actions such as these as “ecologically conscious strategies for radical self-care.”
A recent New York Times article entitled How to Calm Your Climate Anxiety by Molly Peterson (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/23/well/mind/mental-health-climate-anxiety.html) featured a psychotherapist named Merritt Juliano, who is also the co-president of the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America. According to Juliano, the best way to respond to climate anxiety is not to dilute its gravity, but rather to take action to help the environment.
For some time, confusion and self doubt kept me from taking action. These emotions continue to pose obstacles at times. For example, I felt disheartened after reading a recent New York Times article refuting the notion that using cotton tote bags is good for the environment (https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/24/style/cotton-totes-climate-crisis.html). I should emphasize that the article confirms that using non-disposable shopping bags is better than using plastic ones. The problem is that cotton also expends more resources than could possibly be made up for in a person's life. It is a solution, but not a good enough one.
I also know little about politics. When I talk to people who specialize in advocating for environmental policy, they approve of earth-friendly habits, such as using cloth napkins, driving an electric car, and buying clothes from environmentally conscious companies. At the same time, they are quick to comment on the futility of individual-level measures.
Solomon Goldstein-Rose points out in his pivotal work The 100% Solution that "Personal lifestyle changes fall in the 'cherry on top' category of tactics to try for but not rely on." He also warns that focusing on what we can do as opposed to what is necessary for solving climate change might hold us back from demanding the more drastic changes that are needed to prevent getting to a point of no return.
Considering this viewpoint has made me realize that my earth friendly habit changes are not enough. However, by continuing to strive for such a lifestyle, I know that I am living in accordance with my value of the environment. In addition, I believe that doing so will set the stage for further and likely more impactful actions such as advocacy. For example, my interest in writing this post led me to find people who believe in the same cause through social media and friendship circles. Some have given me tips on easy ways to get involved.
If we want to have any hope in changing cultural values about environmentalism, it is important to speak to our emotions and learn how to manage the ones that are getting in the way, such as the embarrassment I used to feel when talking about my concerns for the environment and climate change. I have found that changing my thinking in small ways has gone hand in hand with healthier earth habits, and I found these thinking tricks and habits to also be helpful in managing my eco-anxiety.
Taking small steps to act in a way that is consistent with my concern about the environment both soothed my anxiety directly as well as indirectly, by enhancing my self-efficacy, or belief in my capabilities and agency when it comes to helping the environment.
Taking action is tough when one feels helpless in response to what seems to be an insurmountable problem. It is easy to think, “What kind of impact could one person have?”
What I want to highlight in this post is that allowing ourselves grace and flexibility will lead to us doing something rather than nothing.
Our actions shape our mindset, including how we make decisions, and what topics we bring up in conversation. I imagine that if eco-consciousness became a more prominent part of our mentality, our collective actions would accumulate into meaningful change, and at the same time help us cope with climate anxiety.
Here are 4 simple steps for coping with climate anxiety:
1. Acquire knowledge and align this knowledge with your values and preferences
Lack of knowledge leads to confusion and misguided efforts, such as using water to wash used containers that one’s community does not recycle. (See the Gardener & Stern 2009 reference below for more about this issue and for some guidance on household energy usage.)
Educating yourself enough to make the most sustainable decision all of the time is overwhelming, exhausting, and unsustainable. Instead, choose a few goals to start off with, and try to find environmental goals that also align with your preferences and values. For example, for me, using cloth instead of paper napkins at home seemed like an easy step to take. Having said that, I still use paper napkins for birthday parties and when I am behind in laundry. However, as cloth napkins have become more ingrained in my lifestyle, I have felt more motivated to keep on top of the laundry and have started feeling comfortable offering them to guests.
2. Cultivate healthy self-doubt
“Self-doubt” has become a red flag for mental health difficulties. However, if used effectively, it could also be one of your greatest allies. When we focus on self-doubt adaptively, we are “cultivating healthy self-doubt” (Lynch, 2018).
The concept of “healthy self-doubt” refers to a temporary state of being open to information that goes against our current notions of what is “correct,” or that questions the effectiveness of our habits. It doesn’t mean that we have to change instantly, but it allows us to plant the seed for further self-reflection, research, and gradual but consistent change in a healthier direction.
For example, it took me some time to stop using hot water (which uses more energy than cold water) with every wash of laundry. This was partly due to fear of germs, which went hand in hand with conflicting information on the internet about whether we really need hot water to kill germs. I felt overwhelmed with decision-making. I started by occasionally revising the topic and reflecting on the question of whether I needed hot water for every wash, even if I did not immediately make a decision.
Eventually, I became familiar with other means of disinfecting my wash, such as adding white cider vinegar or a solution with 20 Mule Borax to my loads. These methods led me to feel more comfortable running cold water loads. Thus, healthy self-doubt enables us to be flexible, which leads to more sustainable lifestyle changes.
3. Practice mindfulness in daily behaviors that entail using resources
Despite largely converting to cloth rags and bar mops, there continues to be a roll of paper towels sitting on our counter. That’s because there are times when I still want to use paper towels, mostly when I am stressed or continue to hold onto a belief that paper towel is more effective for sopping up the mess at hand.
By focusing on the present, such as the mess in front of me as opposed to the million tasks I had planned on tackling before having to clean it, I soften my beliefs and open myself to the possibility that using a re-usable option might be OK, or even better.
Sometimes, despite having these thoughts, I go ahead and use the paper towel anyway. When this is the case, I then focus my attention on the thought that I am using paper towel. The purpose of paying attention to the thought of using the paper towel, even if I am not immediately changing my behavior, is so that I increase my awareness of resource usage. Research suggests that behavioral changes may be facilitated by increasing awareness (Richards et al, 2010). It is why mental health clinicians have clients monitor their behaviors before even trying to change them.
Just like many of our bad habits continue almost invisibly until their consequences figuratively slap us in the face, in the modern world, we have the luxury of saying goodbye to our garbage the moment it is trucked away. Most of us don’t think of burgeoning landfills every time we use a single piece of paper towel, and for good reason, because it would likely make us anxious.
However, by being mindful that we are using a resource (another example is running water that we are not using), we channel anxiety productively by "filing" this awareness and becoming more attuned to what we need and what we can do without.
4. Be Creative about Re-using Resources
At the end of the day, reusing materials, as opposed to acquiring more, is going to be the more sustainable option. For instance, any kind of clothing you buy is going to be less sustainable than refraining from buying more clothing.
Tell that to my 2 young children who have grown out of shoes in literally 2 weeks’ time! Of course, expecting perfection in reusing materials such as clothing will likely lead to burn out. However, I have made it a game in my mind to create as many possibilities for re-using items as I can think of, and recently my husband and kids have joined in these efforts. We have cut the sleeves and pant legs off of spring pajamas to accommodate summer weather (who is seeing them in their PJs anyway?). I have reused large coffee tins to use for craft materials. We recently, and successfully, had our first family garage sale.
Minimizing food waste is another opportunity for creativity. We used to throw out the unused crusts of homemade bread my daughter disliked, until I discovered I could save them and, by the end of the week, use them to make French toast sticks.
The possibilities are endless if you open your mind without pressuring yourself to come up with the perfect solution every time. For instance, as a coffee lover, I go through many tins of coffee. Occasionally I throw one out rather than re-using it. I forgive myself and at the same time file a “healthy self-doubt report” in my mind because maybe I will find a more sustainable re-use option for the next tin. Over time, the part of my brain that thinks up ideas for re-using materials gets stronger like a muscle that you consistently work on strengthening.
As much of an environmentalist as I would like to be, I need to accept that I am an awfully imperfect one. Doing so makes me feel better about myself, but that is actually not what I mean for this post to be about. Rather, I truly believe that by mending our emotional responses to environmental devastation, we have more potential to take action to help the situation, as well as to manage eco-anxiety.
What goes hand in hand with this idea is my belief that we need to take psychology into account when it comes to fighting climate change. As climate scientist Peter Kalmus was quoted (cited in a September 22nd New York Times article entitled Climate Disruption Is Now Locked In. The Next Moves Will Be Crucial by John Branch and Brad Plummer (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/22/climate/climate-change-future.html), “’I feel like the climate scientists have kind of done our job….We’ve laid it out pretty clearly, but nobody is doing anything. So now it’s kind of up to the social scientists.'”
Perhaps becoming a mother is what re-united my connection with Mother Earth, while both my role as parent and my career path have ignited my sense of responsibility for improving both current and future lives. I would like to start my journey of inspiring people to nurture the environment by focusing on the same tenet I have voiced for parenting skills: Aim for consistency, not perfection.
Doherty, T.J. & Clayton, S. (2011) The psychological impacts of global climate change.
American Psychologist, 66 (4) 265-276. DOI: 10.1037/a0023141
Gardner, G.T. & Stern, P.C. (2008; updated on December 15, 2009). The short list: The most
effective actions U.S. households can take to curb climate change. Environment:
Science and Policy for Sustainable Development.
Goldstein-Rose, S. (2020). The 100% solution. Melville House Publishing.
Lynch, T. (2018). Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Theory and Practice
for Treating Disorders of Overcontrol. New Harbinger Publications.
Powers, M.C. & Engstrom, S. (2020). Radical self-care for social workers in the global climate
crisis. DOI: 10.1093/sw/swz043
Richards, K.C., Campenni, C.E., & Muse-Burke, J.L (2010). Self0care and well-being in mental
health profressionals: The mediating effects of self-awareness and mindfulness. Journal
of Mental Health Counseling, 32 (3), 247-264.
 See https://www.climatepsychologyalliance.org/~cpa/38-handbook/304-coping-and-defences for a discussion on the relevance of approach coping to responding to climate change.