Alexandra Zalokosta is a Greek third year Medicine student. She is passionate about climate justice, women’s issues and empowerment, and art in all forms. She strongly believes in the power of knowledge and political discourse. Currently Alexandra is serving as the Environmental Impact & Health Current Event Reporter of The Clandestine.
[Featured Image: An illustration in brown and nude colors of a women crouched on the floor, embracing a dying planet. Source.]
We live in uncertain, scary times – not to be too dramatic about it. Climate change seems unstoppable, political unrest seems to only be worsening and this is before even mentioning the emotional bulldozer that 2020 has been. Being presented with such vast problems, ones with no obvious solutions in sight, has had its toll on our collective mental health. More and more in recent years, climate anxiety has become prevalent, especially in the younger generations. And now, during the pandemic, we are seeing the mental health taking a toll all over the world. These global problems can cause anxieties within us that are not easy to resolve. When the threat is so global that worrying is the natural response, our individual distress feels like it cannot be resolved unless what is causing it is eliminated. What is this mental health toll? And more importantly, how can we maintain our individual mental health in times of global crisis?
While the psychological effects of disastrous climate events have been extensively investigated, as we become more and more aware of the silent, slow danger of climate change there are increasing reports of climate anxiety, or eco-anxiety. This is a very new and under-researched topic as of yet. It seems to disproportionately affect young people (WHO definition: 10-24 years old) and symptoms can include panic attacks, insomnia and obsessive thinking – all of which can understandably take a toll on overall mental health, leading to anxiety disorders and depression among others related to stress. This panic, this eco-anxiety, it is a reaction both strange and reasonable. Climate change is a real, vital, global crisis, one that needs all of us to contribute, to jolt governments into action and also take personal responsibility. And therein lies the conundrum. What is the proportional, “normal” amount of anxiety to experience when faced with such a problem? It is difficult to distinguish between reasonable panic about something daunting that deeply affects our future and a panic that could be classed as detrimental to mental wellbeing. There is a need for balance, between studying and trying to ease climate anxiety, and addressing the need to fight for societal change in order to prevent catastrophe.
Thus, most of the ways in which we can try to ease our climate anxiety are related to taking action against this problem that scares us so. First and foremost, as with anything that causes us distress, it is important to take steps to talk about our experience and feelings. Reaching out to friends and loved ones to talk about our views, our actions and also our fears is always helpful. It is important for everyone to remember that they are not alone in this. Taking steps in changing one’s individual lifestyle in more climate-conscious ways can be a productive way to channel and calm feelings of helplessness when up against a problem of this scale. Moving further, engaging with others, educating and finding a community can help any individual change ripple out. Lastly, one thing that is essential whenever experiencing distress: be kind to yourself. Yes, the climate crisis is real, dangerous and terrifying. Yes, we need to be anxious and alert, we cannot numb ourselves. Yes, action needs to be taken. However, it is alright to switch off sometimes and check in with yourself. The need to stay informed is essential, but the constant bombarding of news that we experience today through the internet can be overwhelming. Stay informed, but take breaks. Try speaking to a friend, doing an activity, going out into nature. And if you feel that you need help, reach out to a professional.
So far, this article has been focussed on climate anxiety. But now, inevitably when writing about global catastrophes affecting mental health, there is a need to discuss “It-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named”. Yes, once again, it’s the pandemic. Here, there is not much data to provide, and it will be some time until there is anything concrete. It is quite impossible to study the mental health consequences of a traumatic event when you are in the middle of it. What we do know, however, is that this year has made us all fearful, all with a perpetual baseline of anxiety. The tension of waiting, of stressing while having to stand still has taken its toll, and that was observed, early in the pandemic, in the way people dream. At the beginning, it is estimated that there was a 35% increase in dreams that were recalled. Around the world, people were having dreams that were more vivid, intense and bizarre than ever before. Some were nightmares, expressing the anxiety felt throughout the day, but not all. This effect has already started being studied. It is theorised that this is directly due to not only the anxiety we were, and are, experiencing every day, but also to information overload caused by consuming all of the news thrust at us all day. Although now sleep has quieted down again for most, we must be mindful of the fact that we are all still under an immense amount of pressure, and we may not be rid of our fears and stress for a very long time. Even after this pandemic is resolved, whenever that is, there is a mental health crisis looming, and we all need to learn how to care for ourselves.
As with climate anxiety, reaching out to others to talk about this collective experience that we are going through is essential. If you express your feelings, you will find that you are not alone. Of course, finding activities to engage in and doing something that feels fulfilling and productive can help. In this case though, lying on the couch for a while and doing nothing can also help. The compulsion to be productive, to not waste your time, can be as stressful as anything else, so try not to succumb to that pressure. Finally, essentially, in this situation being able to switch off may be the best thing you can do sometimes. If you feel like everything is getting too much, just turn off your phone, or laptop, or TV and take a break.
In conclusion, things are bad. But they will get better. Until they do however, we have to be kind to ourselves and each other. And as a final reminder, if you are experiencing any feelings of fear, anxiety, grief, or anything else that is affecting your mental health, reach out to someone. You are not alone.