Three Steps to Psychological and Environmental Well-Being

Bonnie Zucker, Ph.D.  September 17, 2021

Resilient Palisades Zero Waste Team Member

As a psychologist, I’ve been seeing more and more clients reporting anxiety and depressive 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 that is related to climate change and other environmental problems can be adaptive, where a person takes steps to make changes, or maladaptive, which is characterized by passivity and a sense of defeat (Taylor, 2020). Here are some steps to facilitate making adaptive changes, which could lead to a reduction in anxiety and depressive symptoms.

 

1. Manage Your 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 a cause for 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 go away 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 one which features Seville, Spain using rotting oranges from their prolific trees to generate electricity. It also discusses the fact that renewable energy sources now constitute over 21% 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 very specific goals that don’t feel overwhelming and that you can 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% 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%

 

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 very helpful and reinforcing to see what progress you have made from making simple changes, so figure out a way 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 both help your mood and possibly inspire you to make even more changes.

 

3. Find Support of Others

 

In general, depression and anxiety are often associated with feelings of 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. For more directive support, the Good Grief Network offers support groups for people who are struggling with emotional issues associated with environmental problems.

 

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.

 

 

[Photo by Bill Oxford on Unsplash]

 

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