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Resilience and Individual Actions Around Climate Distress

Many people feel an increased sense of security and control by taking action to understand, adapt to or mitigate the effects of climate change at an individual and community level. Taking action to prepare for the effects of climate change can help “manage the emotional responses as people come to terms with — and adjust their understanding and lives in the context of — climate change.”(US GCRP)

On an individual level, people can learn more about what is happening and what could happen in the future and prepare for climate-related events. Helpful individual actions might include making and practicing household emergency plans; caring for oneself through healthy habits; building connections with family, friends, neighbors, and climate advocates to create strong social networks; and participating in policy and advocacy efforts to combat climate change. (Clayton)

Distress about climate change can be reduced by spending time in nature and mindfulness strategies such as grounding, tracking body sensations, meditation, listing one’s resources, identifying core values that guide your work, and using these to simplify and focus one’s choices. Working with others can decrease the feeling of overwhelm which often accompanies facing a problem as large as climate change as well as increase feelings of personal effectiveness, meaning and hope. Activism and other climate efforts can transform the fear that accompanies feeling there is nothing one can do and turn it into effective action. (Connor)

The above guidance is appropriate for both adolescents and adults. Younger children have unique needs after crisis situations or when coping with worry about major issues, such as climate change. Understanding common reactions allows you to better help kids before, during and after crisis events. It is helpful to talk openly with them about their fears of danger, before, during or after an event. Don’t minimize or sugarcoat the danger but talk about your ability to cope with tragedy and get through the ordeal. Remind children that there are many people who are working hard to keep them safe. Anticipate a variety of reactions to fear, including anger, misbehavior, withdrawal, and regression in toileting behavior and other life routines. Avoid punishing children for these common reactions, as this may make the behaviors worse (ecoAmerica).

Communities and climate change

The government provides many resources to support communities and health providers seeking to buffer the effects of climate change on their populations through the HHS Office of Climate Change and Health Equity, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Occupational Safety and health Administration, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Veterans Affairs, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and other agencies. These include several hundred tools available through the US Climate Resilience Toolkit. Such tools can be used to plan many aspects of infrastructure need, including health and mental health infrastructure. Communities should start by mapping the different kinds of assets that they have available to them to support population resilience. These include civic groups, health organizations, churches, schools, and businesses, natural assets, and many more kinds of resources. These assets can serve as the base of adaptive strategies, implementing changes by using the tools above (Hayes).

Climate change will stress every member of society, and communities can prepare their residents through population-level resilience training. Many lay group psychological support programs already exist to support communities to respond optimally to climate stressors and to make the rapid social transitions that are required to meet the climate challenge.

Effective Actions to Reduce Climate Change

The most impactful global strategies to reduce climate change include changes to refrigeration, use of offshore wind power, reducing food waste, eating plant-rich diets, cultivating tropical forests, educating girls, and maintaining accessibility of family planning. (Drawdown) Supporting policies towards these ends can improve climate outcomes for everyone.

To make a difference in your own carbon footprint, the most effective things you can do are to take one fewer air flight per year, drive less by using public transportation, and eating vegetarian (Wynes). Other actions which are helpful and accessible to many people include decreasing your use of a clothes dryer and hanging your clothes, buying less stuff by reusing, repurposing and recycling, increasing home energy efficiency by plugging air leaks in windows and doors and using a programable thermostat, replacing old appliances with those that are energy efficient, changing your light bulbs to LEDs, and planting trees.

Seeking Help

It may be helpful to see your primary care or mental health provider if you are experiencing any of the following:

  • You are having increasing problems at home or work.
  • You are using more alcohol.
  • Your symptoms don’t get better after a few days (or are getting worse).
  • You just don’t feel right.
  • A loved one or colleague comments that you don’t seem like yourself.
  • Your climate distress has progressed to the point that you are feeling suicidal or unable to function.

Physician review:

Elizabeth Haase, M.D.

May 2023

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