Feeling anxious about climate change is awful. But for those of us with kids, thinking about the climate crisis is especially intolerable. It doesn’t take much math for me to figure out that my toddler is going to be incredibly impacted by climate change. A recent study showed that the average 6-year-old will live through roughly three times as many climate disasters as their grandparents. Unicef reported that nearly every child in the world is at risk from at least one climate hazard.
If you’re a parent and you’re reading this, you’re probably feeling some tightness in your chest right now. Maybe your pulse is getting faster and your breathing is getting shallow. Elizabeth Bechard, author of Parenting in a Changing Climate, explains her reaction to dire climate news like this: “My body tends to sort of tense up and I feel that 'I'm gonna grow up' feeling.”
Why Climate Anxiety Is Especially Bad for Parents
Our brains are biologically adapted to get very, very stressed when we sense that our children’s safety is threatened. Instantly after we sense a potential danger, our body draws resources away from functions that aren’t needed for survival (like our digestive system) and puts those resources toward survival functions. Our pupils dilate so we can see more clearly, our heart rate and blood flow increases so we can run faster, and the part of our brain that handles our survival—the amygdala—takes control while the part of our brain responsible for thinking and logic and reasoning—our neocortex —takes the back seat.
If you were staring at a car barreling toward your child, all of this would be good. Your brain and body would be primed to pull your child to safety, before you even were consciously aware of the threat. Then, once the threat was resolved, you would eventually return to a regulated state and be able to think clearly again. But if you’re staring at a screen reading a scary headline about climate change, or lying in bed at night wondering about your child’s future, this animalistic stress response isn’t so helpful. In her book, Bechard describes her first experiences with climate anxiety as “a flood of anxiety and grief that I couldn’t shake, and couldn’t look away from. Panicked, dread-filled visions of future apocalypse looped on repeat in my mind.” Our biological stress response is also meant to be instantaneous, to help us through a moment in time, not ongoing for days, months, or years. In fact, when we’re in a continuous state of stress arousal, we start to suffer physically and mentally.
Part of what makes the stress response so effective—the switching on of the survival brain and switching off of the thinking brain—is also what makes it so counterproductive when it comes to thinking about climate change. Because while the climate emergency might feel a lot like a car barreling toward your child, it’s actually quite different. It’s an enormous problem, full of things that our survival brain isn’t great at processing, like future risk, complex variables that are out of our control, and the scientific uncertainty of what we can and should do about it. And since our stress response happens very fast—so fast that we often aren’t aware of what we’re doing until after—it makes it extra challenging to show up to the climate crisis with the thoughtful, calm mindset that such a complex issue requires.
This is probably a good time to note that parents are also really, really overwhelmed people. They’re often sleep deprived, emotionally stressed, hormonally imbalanced, and totally overstimulated. As Bechard points out, “Climate change is an overwhelming existential threat that can’t be easily put on your to-do list, which is already full anyways.” It’s no wonder that most parents grapple either with ongoing anxiety like the type Bechard experienced or a kind of cognitive denial wherein their nervous systems and brains are like, la la la it’s probably not that bad, I’ll read about it when my kid is in college.
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Neither of these are the responses we need, both in terms of what our bodies can handle and what will produce meaningful change in the fight against the climate emergency.
But there is good news: When we can start to identify our fight-or-flight response (instead of ignoring it), we can actually help our mind and bodies learn to process our emotions—this way we can use our brain's full cognitive abilities to process our emotions and calmly reflect on climate change and how it might impact our families. That way, you can read articles like this one without feeling sick to your stomach or completely zoning out.
How to Handle Climate Anxiety When You Feel It
First things first: You need to regulate your nervous system. There are many techniques that can help the body recover after a stress response: deep abdominal breathing, meditating, visualization, yoga, or whatever mindfulness practice feels best to you.
If you feel too much anxiety in your body to slow down enough to practice mindfulness, that means your system is likely flooded with adrenaline and cortisol. To counter that, try holding a plank position, jumping rope, or splashing your face with cold water. Then, try your preferred mindfulness technique again.
This may all seem pretty basic or even trivial: Who wants to be told to take deep breaths when they’re terrified about the climate apocalypse? But only once our bodies are calm can we do the hardest thing of all—face our painful emotions about climate change.
There are many ways to process our emotional reaction to the climate crisis, including finding a community of people who are on a similar journey, seeing a therapist who specializes in eco distress, or taking a course like those offered by the Good Grief Network.
In her book, Bechard uses expressive writing to guide parents through processing their climate anxiety. This was a technique she learned from James Pennebaker, a researcher at the University of Texas who created the Pennebaker Paradigm as a way of helping people process trauma through specific writing prompts. “It's intended to express all the things that we might not express otherwise, and to keep to ourselves,” Bechard says. She credits this process with helping her build resilience and take meaningful action against climate change. “It's not always practical to pull out your journal in a moment of anxiety or distress, but there is a perspective shift that can be taken. You can go from intense anxiety to seeing this as an opportunity for you to show up for your kids.”
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