Environmental activism can do wonders for your mental health
Melanie O’Driscoll was studying zoology at University College Cork when she had first-hand experience of the effects of climate change on mental health. Passionate about nature since childhood, she liked to discover the different species and their habitats. But as she studied, she grew increasingly concerned about warming global temperatures and the existential threat they posed to the planet’s ecosystems.
“It was this building of fear around climate change. I was on anxiety medication, and I had a very physical manifestation of a hand clenching around my heart, which was preventing me from breathing. O’Driscoll says, “I was self-medicating, smoking weed, and just stuck in really heavy feelings.”
Added to these feelings was his own judgment of them. As a white woman living in a European country, O’Driscoll knew she was not experiencing the direct impacts of climate change as indigenous, BIPOC or marginalized communities did. Not only did she feel grief over the climate crisis, but she felt she had no right to that grief. “I was learning how I benefited from these systems that came on the backs of other people who were oppressed,” she says. “It was just starting to crush me.”
Mental health experts are just beginning to study effects of climate change on our psychological and emotional well-being. They coined terms like “ecological anxiety”, “climate anxiety” and “climate grief” to describe the complex mix of rage, despair, guilt, terror and paralysis that many people, especially young people, feel. More … than eight out of ten Gen Zers worry about the future of the planet, according to a 2021 poll.
Some are reluctant to associate feelings like O’Driscolls with anxiety, a disorder that involves excessive preoccupation with everyday situations that don’t really require it. Bridget Bradley, a social anthropologist and PhD from the University of St. Andrews in the UK, says “climate anxiety” can be a perfectly rational response to experiencing a disaster in slow motion. As part of it”Eco-disturbing, eco-warriorBradley interviewed and interviewed dozens of people involved in climate work about their experiences with ecological anxiety. They overwhelmingly dismissed the idea that their feelings were symptoms of a disorder that needed treatment, she says.
Bradley’s views on ecological anxiety are contradictory. On the one hand, she thinks it’s a major mental health issue of our time. On the other hand, it is hardly a problem that can be solved by individual therapy or medication. Instead, “the cure for climate anxiety is effective climate action,” she says.
Like all feelings anxiety has a purpose. It draws our attention to impending danger and gives us a dose of energy to take vital action. But when the danger is as big and nebulous as climate change — rather than, say, a bear — it can feel like there’s no action to take and nowhere to go for that energy. Rather than channeling anxiety into fighting back or getting out of harm’s way, we shoot internally.
Psychologists point to a mouse study to illustrate this. When the mice were conditioned to associate a certain tone with an electric shock, their amygdalas – the brain center for fear and other primary emotions – lit up and the mice froze. But when the researchers showed the mice a trap door through which they could escape, the neural impulse shifted from the amygdala to more action-oriented parts of the brain, and the mice moved to the carries rather than freezing. MRI studies on humans have shown similar brain activity. According to climate psychiatristsit shows how “creepy people can cause them to freeze, while making them feel like they can take personal, meaningful action staves off the freeze”.
But what exactly constitutes meaningful action on the climate crisis? When the headlines warn us that the Arctic ice caps are dumping billions of tons of water into the ocean and the Amazon rainforest may be beyond hope at this point, obsessing over your grocery wraps or reducing your personal beef intake seems a bit pointless.
If you’re not sure what to do, thinking about your role in the “climate change story” is a good place to start, says Rachel Malena-Chan, community health researcher and co-founder of Eco anxious, a group that uses storytelling to help people translate their ecological anxiety into action. “When you identify as a character in the story, it starts to feel pretty overwhelming if you don’t have a role to play, or if you just feel a bit like a guilty bystander, or maybe even part of the problem,” she says.
Once you begin to probe these uncomfortable feelings, you will likely find that they stem from a life out of step with a deeper value you hold, such as love – love for your community, your family, the concern for future generations, indigenous peoples or for the other species that share our planet. Remembering how we’re all connected can be a return to our values and our agency, says Malena-Chan. “The more isolated people feel in their sense of overwhelm, the harder it is to find connections with other people and those larger, larger-scale solutions.”
And what might the connection search look like for you? You could join climatic groups or take part in protests, or you might find a way to take action through the communities you are already part of. One Eco Anxious participant channeled her climate anxiety into art and dance, which helped reinvigorate her work in politics, Malena-Chan says.
Participants in Bradley’s study saw huge benefits from getting involved in climate work. They found motivation, energy and a community of people to share their concerns with, she says. But for some, increased exposure to the extreme and downright terrifying realities of climate change has added to their stress. “Climate action was in itself often stressful and demanding,” says Bradley. People have to find a balance between “valuable work to have a positive impact” and burnout.
Now that she’s recovered from her own existential crisis, O’Driscoll has made it her mission to help others find that balance. She founded a group called the Greenstep, which offers a podcast and workshops on emotional literacy and self-care for activists. She facilitates conversations about overwhelm and burnout, and uses meditation, journaling, and other techniques to help participants restore themselves and their work.
The program has been remarkably healing not only for the participants, but also for O’Driscoll. “It helped shift the focus away from what I don’t want, which is climate catastrophe, to where I was headed,” which supports a community that shares its values, she says. “That’s what got me to where I am now, which is a much more balanced, happy, and sweet place.”