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3 Steps to Psychological and Environmental Well-Being

These actions can help decrease hopelessness about the environment.

Key points

  • More people are reporting mental health symptoms related to despair about climate change and environmental issues.
  • Too much negative media exposure can be overwhelming, creating a sense of hopelessness and helplessness.
  • Social activities centered around shared environmental goals can decrease feelings of loneliness.
Myles Tan/Unsplash
Source: Myles Tan/Unsplash

As a psychologist, I’ve been seeing more and more clients reporting anxiety and depression symptoms related to helplessness about climate change and other environmental issues. In fact, although more than half of US adults believe that climate change is the most important issue facing us today, about 40% of people have not made any alterations to their behaviors to reduce their impact on the environment.

Anxiety-related to climate change and other environmental problems can be adaptive, where a person takes steps to make changes, or maladaptive, characterized by passivity and a sense of defeat (Taylor, 2020). Here are some steps to facilitate making adaptive changes, which could reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms.

1. Manage Media Exposure

While it is important to be informed, the overuse of media about climate change and other environmental catastrophes can often be overwhelming and cause helplessness and hopelessness. Some research has indicated that overly fearful depictions of climate change can be counterproductive: it can cause so much overwhelm that people end up doing nothing.

Burying your head in the sand and wishing the problem would disappear is not the answer, but you should be mindful of your media consumption. Before reading or watching something related to the environment, you can ask yourself, “Is this going to help me take action, or will it just make me feel hopeless?” If it is the latter, consider skipping it.

On the other hand, you can seek out positive messages about things being done to help the environment, which can help elevate your mood and put you in a better place to take action. For example, if you do a web search on positive environmental articles, you will come across articles like this featuring Seville, Spain, using rotting oranges from their prolific trees to generate electricity. It also discusses that renewable energy sources now constitute over 21 percent of the energy use in the United States. Or, if you are on Instagram, consider following accounts that will populate your feed with positive environmental stories and tips, such as @get.waste.ed, @nature_org, and @going.zero.waste.

2. Make Attainable Changes

Setting realistic goals relating to your environmental choices can be a win-win: it can help both the environment and your mood. The key is to make concrete goals that don’t feel overwhelming and achieve and measure.

First, assess your current practices. Regardless of whether you are a voracious carnivore who takes 45-minute showers and drives a 15 mile per gallon car or a vegan who composts and takes public transportation everywhere or somewhere in between, you likely can make some changes. Think critically about your environmental impact in the following domains and whether or not any changes can be made:

  • Waste: Are you using any single-use plastic? Are you buying products with excessive packaging? Are you buying things that you don’t need?
  • Water: Figure out how long you are showering by timing them. Also, you can calculate your water footprint using this tool to help you assess areas where you can make changes.
  • Energy: In addition to assessing the more obvious uses of energy in your home, consider other factors. For example, are you washing your clothes in hot water? Approximately 90 percent of the energy used by washing machines goes towards heating the water.
  • Food: Consider the food that you are eating. How frequently are you eating meat? Dairy? According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Association, eating meat and dairy contributes to 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

After you have identified areas to target, set up a plan and set goals that are achievable and specific, for example, if you like the idea of being vegan, but it is not realistic for you, start with goals that are likely to accomplish, such as, eat five plant-based meals a week, or eat beef a maximum of once per week.

Other examples of goals are:

  • Reduce my time in the shower by 10 percent.
  • Raise my air conditioning temperature by 2 degrees.
  • Bring my own cup when I buy coffee, or make coffee at home twice a week instead of going out.

The possibilities are endless.

Finally, it can be constructive and reinforcing to see your progress from making simple changes, so figure out how to track your progress. How many plastic bags have you saved by bringing your own produce bags to the market over the course of a month? How much water have you saved by not running the tap while you brush your teeth? Also, this is a good resource to see the impact of making more sustainable dietary changes.

Remember to celebrate your successes, which will help your mood and inspire you to make even more changes.

3. Find Support from Others

In general, depression and anxiety are often associated with isolation, and despair and overwhelm related to the environment are no exception. Volunteering with an organization can help you feel a sense of connection to others with shared goals, as well as helping you to feel like you are actively doing something to make a change.

In sum, you are not alone in your struggle with difficult emotions relating to climate change and other environmental issues. However, figuring out manageable steps you can take helps both the problem and your mental wellbeing. Instead of being overwhelmed by negative emotions, you can focus your energy on creating positive change and feeling part of a movement for a better future.

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