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Managing your climate anxiety spiral – McGill edition

Managing your climate anxiety spiral – McGill edition

Authors: Josh Medicoff and Amy Janzwood

A 45% reduction in global emissions by 2030. Seven years away. Government inaction, apathy, or both. The issue is enormous and all-encompassing. And our leaders do not seem to be paying attention.

Let’s not sugar-coat it: climate change is scary, and the pathways we must take feel far, perilous, and uncertain.

Cue the climate anxiety spiral. You’re likely familiar with it – thinking about the climate crisis leaves you feeling afraid and anxious. Perhaps these emotions simmer as you go about your day and bubble up when you see a headline about the latest climate disaster, are in a climate-related class, or think about the future. Or perhaps these emotions impact your daily functioning.

You are not alone. According to a new study in Canada, young people, like McGill students, feel afraid (66%), sad (65%), and anxious (63%) about climate change. And many young people (8 in 10!) feel it affects their day-to-day functioning.

Climate change is a big, complex issue. And big, complex issues – sometimes called wicked problems – are hard for you as an individual to manage, emotionally, and physically.

Your climate spiral is based on a wicked problem

A quick primer on wicked problems. Wicked problems defy “any standard attempt to find a solution because it is a symptom or result of multiple, contingent, and conflicting issues.”

Climate change is a shining example of a wicked problem. Many related issues that amplify the effects of the crisis are wicked problems, too – think biodiversity loss, environmental racism, or colonization.

Wicked problems mean that traditional approaches may not be enough to solve them. Combating climate anxiety requires new and innovative solutions – collective and individual and everything in between – to be effective.

Here are a few ways to approach the issue – and some more tips and tricks to help you manage a climate anxiety spiral.

Practical steps

Many climate anxiety resource guides suggest getting involved. Doing so makes you feel like an active agent in the issue, directly opposite to the powerless feeling of the climate spiral. What they don’t suggest is choosing an issue and scale to get involved in and going from there. This approach makes the issue more manageable.

Getting involved with fighting climate change looks like different things to different people. Here’s a quick two-step approach to getting (more) involved.

1. Choose your issue: Focus on a specific component of climate change that will allow you to focus your effort and time. Chances are there’s already a group working on it!

Some examples:

Large-scale issueManageable-scale translation
Carbon dioxide emissions from transportationAdvocating for public transit, bike and/or pedestrian infrastructure (e.g., in Montreal, the group Masse critique advocates for safe bike infrastructure) Advocating for dense and affordable housing, which decreases reliance on cars (e.g., in Toronto, the group More Neighbours Toronto advocates this issue)
Biodiversity lossOrganize and pressure government(s) to invest in greenspace with wildflower gardens and habitat for native species (e.g., the Green alleys program in Montreal is neighbourhood-led – you can organize this today) Organize in your backyard, literally: pressure your family and friends with yards to convert their lawns to habitat for native species

2. Choose your scale: Working at all scales is a path to burnout. What scale makes you passionate, and what can you impactfully do at the scale you’ve chosen?

These scales include communities, neighbourhoods, cities, regions, provinces or states, countries,   and global/international.

In Canada, for example, local governments are responsible for zoning; provinces are responsible for resource development; and the federal government handles country-wide issues, including carbon pricing and fisheries and oceans. And global movements, such as the Fossil Fuel Nonproliferation Treaty campaign, can put pressure on governments, too. Pick a scale that resonates with you!

Emotional steps

Many people are managing climate anxiety. That doesn’t mean everyone deals with it the same way.

Climate anxiety affects people differently depending on social determinants, like class, race, gender, sexuality, and more. This section focuses on broad but trustworthy ways to handle your climate anxiety spiral emotionally.

  • Be open with your friends and loved ones about how you’re feeling: The people who know you best will know how to have open and honest conversations about your climate anxiety. Try to connect with like-minded people – if you are having trouble, consider reaching out to someone you know through a related class or campus activity. (McGill has a whole page of sustainability organizations on campus!)
  • Explore therapy: Some conversations need more than friends and family. That’s okay. Talking about climate change is acceptable and encouraged in therapy. Here’s a guide to finding a therapist specializing in climate anxiety and depression.
  • Take whatever personal actions help you manage your anxiety: That could mean flying or driving less. It could mean joining a small-scale protest movement for a green space in your city. It could mean joining civic action groups. Joining these groups is a way to manage your own contribution to the issue while recognizing its collective nature. However, agonizing over daily decisions can lead to fatigue and burnout – remember not to sweat the small stuff!
  • Enjoy the increasing amount of art based around climate storytelling – better yet, do this with a friend! Here are some suggestions:

Bonus: The Good Grief Network offers a 10-step program to support people experiencing climate anxiety and grief. The program is paid, but they also offer work exchange instead; and there is a free podcast.

Physical steps

Like other types of anxiety, there are several physical ways to manage it. Below are a few ways to physically work through your climate spiral.

  • Breathing through the 4-7-8 method: Breath to the count of 4, hold your breath until the count of 7, and exhale at 8. This exercise helps activate the part of your body responsible for resting and digesting, helping combat anxiety.
  • Seeing through the 333 method: Name 3 things that you can see. Then name 3 things that you can hear. Finally, name 3 things that you can touch or move. That’s the 333 method, useful for grounding yourself in extreme anxiety.
  • Flowing with yoga: Yoga can help you develop greater mind-body awareness – and is a way to get some exercise, too! There are even yoga practices focused on dealing with ecological grief (see this freely available yoga for grief practice).
  • Walking with mindfulness: Walking is a relaxing activity and an ideal time to practice mindfulness. Doing so clears and stimulates your brain, especially if you can walk through some greenspace while you practice mindfulness.
  • Regulating cardio: Exercises like running and cycling, particularly in forests or parks, help regulate endorphins. Endorphins are “feel good” hormones that relax your mind and make you feel happier.

Climate change is a complex, collective, and wicked problem; it causes anxiety and other emotional distress. However, we can take practical and emotional steps to manage the climate spiral.

By choosing a specific issue and scale to get involved in, you can direct your anxiety more effectively and contribute to the fight against climate change. It is also important to seek support from friends, family, and sometimes even professionals. And remember to think about both the emotional and the physical steps we can take.

Ultimately, collective action is necessary to fight the climate crisis, but we must also care for our well-being. Take good care – et la lutte continue!

Photo credit: Josh Medicoff

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