Directing anxiety into constructive channels
In a few years, “climate anxiety” might be part of our everyday vocabulary. It isn’t a mass phenomenon yet, according to psychologists. However: why does the threat raised by climate change throw young people off track more easily than it does their parents’ generation?
“I don't want you to be hopeful [about the future of climate change]. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” An angry statement made by climate activist Greta Thunberg to politicians who did not do their homework. After all, we are still far away from our 1.5 degree target. But first and foremost, climate change makes young people – not politicians – anxious.
For a study, psychologist Elizabeth Marks from the University of Bath surveyed 10,000 youths and young adults between 16 and 25 from around the globe about their fears and concerns with regard to climate change. Her findings show that 84 percent were concerned about climate change and more than 50 percent were very worried. More than 50 percent felt sad, angry, powerless, and guilty. And 45 percent said that their feelings with regard to climate change negatively affected their daily life.
“I get all choked up”
“When I see 10-year-olds from our local Fridays for Future group standing in front of a crowd and making a speech, I get all choked up,” said psychology student Maria Vreden Bascón, for example. “These children are growing up with constant threats and worries. Their childhood is nothing like the one I experienced.”
Vreden Bascón is 25 and will soon complete her master’s degree. She not only studies what perceived powerlessness in view of political inaction can do to people – she also has a personal interest.
“A feeling of helplessness overcomes me in moments when I become aware of exactly how much we have to change in so many areas in order to achieve climate neutrality,” she said. However, this young woman is doing something to counteract her feeling of powerlessness. She is not only active with Fridays for Future; she also completed an internship under climate psychologist Janna Hoppmann.
The best antidote to anxiety
Hoppmann has recently founded ClimateMind, a social start-up. “We advise and support activists, groups, and organizations who want to implement climate psychology in their climate projects and create climate communications with calls for action,” explained Hoppmann. Her services include coaching, consulting, and online courses. After all, Hoppmann is convinced that talking about anxiety, trying to direct it into constructive channels, and taking action are the most important antidotes.
She has observed that climate anxiety in the sense of a pathological anxiety disorder rarely occurs, and it is still far from becoming a mass phenomenon. “There are no robust statistics on the subject yet, and little research has been done,” said the psychologist.
Pathological climate anxiety is extremely rare
This is why Hoppmann prefers to talk about varying degrees of climate concern. She differentiates among three groups: the first group is concerned about the climate and as a result, tries to lead a climate-neutral life and actively support climate neutrality.
The second group contains the repressers: they are so anxious about climate change that consciously or unconsciously, they downplay it to protect themselves. The third group shows signs of pathological anxiety.
“Persons who are prone to phobias and depression or have had traumatic experiences are probably more vulnerable to a pathological form of climate anxiety,” said Hoppmann.
One remedy: Social media abstinence
Resilience, the ability to mentally adjust to stressful situations with ease, plays a key role here – just as it does with other stress factors. “Resilient people perceive exam stress or stress at work as negative, but are ultimately able to handle it well. In the same way, resilient people are able to deal with their worries about climate change in a way that is healthy for them,” Hoppmann explained.
The psychologist suggested short mindfulness exercises: for example, making a contract with yourself to check social media for news on the topic only once a day, and avoiding forums in which people only report catastrophes. Instead, people should become active in forums or Facebook groups whose members try to motivate each other to do more to protect the climate.
Talk with other people, give your fear a name, and thus understand what is making you suffer – this is some advice from Bernd Rieken, professor of psychotherapy sciences at Sigmund Freud University in Vienna. According to Rieken, it also helps to write about your fears and anxiety.
Write your anxiety away
When Rieken was six, he experienced the devastating storm surge on the North Sea coast of 1962, which cost many lives. Although he survived unharmed, he said that the catastrophe had a lasting effect on him. “I couldn’t really process it until I wrote my postdoctoral thesis on storm surge disasters and their significance in the history of the Frisian mindset.”
Both his generation and the next one experienced other threats that today’s young people cannot imagine. “We grew up with a constant threat: the Cold War. Nuclear overkill frightened us, but we always hoped that mutually assured destruction would keep all sides in check. Which turned out to be true in the end,” said Rieken. “That shaped us and perhaps also allowed us to be more relaxed about the threat of climate change than youths and young adults.”
In addition, there could very well be people who aren’t worried about climate change at all. According to Rieken, this could have something to do with a lack of ability to think in abstract terms: “Unlike the war in Ukraine, climate change is abstract for many people because we will have to wait a few years in order to fully feel its impact. People with the capacity for abstraction are better able understand these dangers than those without this ability.”
And such people, the two psychologists agree, can handle their climate anxiety and direct it into constructive channels.