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Climate Change and Your Mental Health

When people experience a natural disaster, it’s common for them to experience anxiety, depression, PTSD, and even suicide. In fact, it’s been reported that 25-50% of people who have been exposed to extreme weather disasters “are at risk of adverse mental health effects.” For example, following Hurricane Katrina, 49% of survivors “developed an anxiety or mood disorder, and 1 in 6 developed PTSD.” And, “suicide and suicidal ideation more than doubled.”

More recently, however, it’s been found that climate change is also indirectly impacting our mental health. This phenomenon is called “eco-anxiety.” Medical News Today explains that this “refers to a fear of environmental damage or ecological disaster. This sense of anxiety is largely based on the current and predicted future state of the environment and human-induced climate change.”

Considering that between personal experience or watching news coverage, it shouldn’t be difficult to see how climate change is influencing our health and well-being.

For starters, it certainly impacts our physical and medical health. Examples would be allergies, heat-related illnesses, and increased exposure to waterborne and vector-borne illnesses. Additionally, it can affect your activity levels and prevent you from spending time outside.

Secondly, climate change can also be harmful to our mental health. As previously mentioned, this included an increase in anxiety, stress, depression, PTSD, and grief. It can also strain social relationships and lead to substance abuse.

Thirdly, climate change can also damage the health of communities. This includes increased interpersonal aggression, violence and crime, and social instability. It can also decrease community cohesion.

While you may believe that there is nothing that you can do about climate change, there are some ways to help attend to your mental health.

1. Acknowledge your feelings.

“Because this is something that impacts us all collectively, it really isn’t something you can deal with on just an individual basis,” psychotherapist and author Linda Buzzell told Yale Climate Connections.

Instead of keeping your concerns and feelings to yourself, connect with family, friends, neighbors, and trusted mental health professionals. You may also want to join online communities like Eco-Anxious Stories.

“We experience this issue of the level of individual psychology, and so there’s stories to be wrestled with and mental health impacts to be unpacked there, but it’s also something that’s happening in our relationships to each other,” said Rachel Malena-Chan, creator of Eco-Anxious Stories. “Normalizing this aspect of the problem, processing our emotions more publicly can really help reduce a sense of isolation.”

2. Engage in healthy coping behaviors.

Regardless of what is triggering your stress and anxiety, the best ways to cope with these feelings are physical activity, breathing exercises, eating a healthy diet, and getting enough sleep. You should engage with activities that you enjoy doing, such as camping with your family, reading in the bathtub, or watching a movie with friends.

Even better, tie these coping behaviors with echo-friendly activities. For example, instead of going for a car ride with your family, bike or walk. You could also plant trees or other vegetation or plan a community clean-up.

3. Strengthen your community.

Speaking of your community, check-in on your vulnerable neighbors. Work with local leaders and organizations on how you can prepare for potential disasters and what needs to be done following such a tragic event.

It would also be helpful if there were enough people in your community trained in Psychological First Aid.

4. Take action.

There is a multitude of ways to do this. Again, you could plant trees or plan a community clean-up. At home, you could develop an emergency plan by having basic items like food, water, flashlights, and first aid kits on standby. You may also want to have board games or other activities to keep you occupied and an evacuation plan just in case.

Other suggestions would be continuing to reduce, reuse, and recycle, investing in renewable energy, and composting. In your community, speak with leaders on how to make your area more “green.”

And, most importantly, raise your level of consciousness. Educate yourself on climate change and what you can do -- make sure that you get the facts from reliable sources though. However, consciousness is also about knowing your triggers, and when you need to take a step back. If you feel too overwhelmed, you may want to go for a walk or meditate.

5. Seek treatment.

Finally, if these feelings are persistent or debilitating, do not hesitate in seeking help. Working with a mental health professional can help you learn how to properly cope and manage your feelings.

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