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How to care about the climate and thrive:
Advice from an eco psychologist

Interview: Anne-Marie Hoeve
Illustrations: Martin Nicolausson

climate anxiety tips advice from an eco psychologist climate anxiety tips advice from an eco psychologist
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Feeling anxious about climate headlines? Don’t just sit and stress. We speak to eco psychologist Dr. Thomas Doherty to find out how you can care for the planet and boost your well-being.

You don’t have to be a climate activist to feel a sense of anxiety at the scale of the environmental crisis we are facing. It’s something that Dr. Thomas Doherty is seeing in his Portland practice. A specialist in the relatively new field of eco psychology, which applies an environmental perspective to mental health and well-being, his aim is to give people the tools to cope and move forward. How does he do that and what can we all learn?

Here’s what he says:

Anxiety is normal, but let other feelings in

“If we’re in a tough situation, we might feel scared, sad, or anxious – those are all normal. But if you’re only sitting with these, that’s not very comfortable. Eco anxiety is a problem, not because of anxiety. It’s because it’s lonely and there are no other feelings to support it.

The metaphor that I use is an old-fashioned magnetic compass. A compass has a needle and it’s always trying to point north. So as you walk around, the needle is going to be shifting around. If your needle is always pointing in the same direction, that’s a broken compass. And so in our emotional life, we ideally want to cultivate being able to feel a range of emotions, like curiosity, hope, anger, privilege, peace … all the different shades.”

Try this!
Make a list of how you’re feeling. Then ask yourself: what do you want to feel? What would you like to grow and cultivate? If you were going to take action, what would it look like? This leads to a growth mindset conversation about what’s possible. It’s not squashing the negative. It’s just adding other feelings to the mix. It can be exciting when you get into this visioning.

climate anxiety tips advice from an eco psychologist

You’re not alone

“Many people around the world think and feel the same as you. And you might not be in a place where you can connect with those people, but you need to know that they exist. There’s a general perception, partly due to the media, that nothing is happening around climate and everything’s in gridlock and of course there are a lot of forces that are stifling action but, there’s also tons of action happening: in every government, every city, every town, people are thinking about sustainability.

We know that in most societies a broad majority are concerned about climate change, want to take action, are willing to take action. So there’s a lot of unrecognized heroes out there and people that are doing things. Once you start to actually try to take some action in whatever way you can, you’ll start to run into those people.”

“Start with changes that you can make in your own sphere of influence”

Stop trying to fix it all

“You don’t have to have all the answers to take action or to cope. We have to have compassion for ourselves. We cannot know the whole of issues like climate change. We only know our part of it and we have to be satisfied with that part and take action. So ultimately, it’s taking action in our life, in our day.

When we’re really stressed, we have a kind of a tunnel vision which is natural in a crisis. If you’re in a burning building, you want to be very clear about moving to the exits and not stopping to admire the artwork at that moment, so tunnel vision is helpful. But if we walk around with tunnel vision that leads to chronic stress and perfectionism. So to soften the perfectionism, we often need to soften our stress response in our own bodies. Because ultimately we want to stay healthy.”

Take a news break and focus on your own life

“Elin Kelsey, [a leading scholar in evidence-based hope] said that 97% of the news people hear about climate is negative and only 3% is positive. But a lot of people are strung out on negative news and watch far too much. So one of my interventions is that I have people do a news break. And then I say, let’s switch your idea of what the news is. What if your life is the news? What do you see when you open your front door? What do you hear? The plants, the birds, the noises in the neighborhood, the community? That’s your news. That’s your life. Let’s look at that as the news, not things all happening far away around the world. And that’s part of bringing in this idea of agency in your own life. So let’s start with yourself, let’s start with your own personal sustainability. And start with changes that you can make in your own sphere of influence and the things you can control, like your own life habits.”

climate anxiety tips advice from an eco psychologist

You have more agency than you think

“People say ‘my small actions don’t matter’, but a lot of people confuse the scale. Part of the problem with climate change is that it’s all these different scales all mixed together. We have individual life, our own bodies, and we have like the whole planet. I can’t be Atlas and hold up a planet but I have agency at my personal level of scale and in my family and in my job. So it’s helping people to calibrate what they mean by agency. Don’t try to be Greta Thunberg. Be yourself. Individual actions have ripple effects. And many individuals create many ripples.”

Find your action style

“What everybody wants to know is: what should I do? But it isn’t just some arbitrary list of things someone tells you to do. It’s actions based on your unique place, your unique risks, your identity, your strengths, your sense of well-being. Your actions come from that. It’s an organic growth coming out of your own life, based on your values and your style. If you start from that direction, then it’s going to be more durable. The only thing we can do is be ourselves and do our thing.”

climate anxiety tips advice from an eco psychologist

Nature helps

“We know empirically that being in safe and beautiful natural settings is really good for our physical and mental health. Those settings automatically interact with our nervous system. For example, if you’re feeling stressed and take a walk in a park, you’re going to be more relaxed – your heart rate, your blood pressure, your muscles will settle. 

Time in nature is also healthy because it gives us larger perspectives and reminds us why we care in the first place. Many people watched the eclipse in the US and around the world and that was a great spontaneous experience of being connected with nature and the cosmos.”

See this as an opportunity

“Humans are a young species. We haven’t been around that long in terms of planetary history, we’ve only really known about climate change for 100 years. And it’s only been in popular culture since Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. It’s only been under 20 years, and the disaster aspect of climate change has really only been prevalent for the last several years. It’s still very new, so we have to be compassionate to ourselves. We’re trying to solve a 21st- century problem with a lot of very outdated systems. In a larger sense there is this opportunity for a massive reset that climate change is offering us. Each of these problems is an opportunity for us to commit our lives and to bring our gifts to the world. “


“When you’ve done your work, step back, take a break. Celebrate life: your community, your relationships, the things that you care about, the things you’re working toward, take time for gratitude and have some fun along the way.”

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