Climate Change Education : How to address eco-anxiety with students ?

When you  come across news on climate change, how do you feel? Are you afraid of the future you will live in? About the future your children will live in? Are you feeling hopeless? Helpless? Welcome to the club: you are experiencing what researchers are calling  “eco-anxiety”, an emotional response to the perception of environmental degradation. Glenn Albrecht, an Australian philosopher, coined the term “solastalgia​​​​​​​ [1] ” to describe this distress caused by climate change. According to the American Psychological Association [2] if you are a young adult, you are even more likely to experience solastalgiathan any other age group, but you are not alone.

Photo-pancarte-SOS-environnement

How can we explain this emotional response? Of course, you may be suffering directly from the effects of climate change: floods, wildfires, heat waves… leading to a full range of feelings, including anger, distress and despair – or even grief. But another problem with climate change is the fear of what might happen on our planet and in our daily lives. Anxiety is, by definition, the emotion which captures this sense of worry and concern about future events and life conditions. This fear of “not-knowing-what-will-happen-in-the-future” can also be enhanced by media exposure[3] and this has to be acknowledged.

However, can eco-anxiety be helpful? For some, it may lead to motivation and to action. Fear can activate in us the desire to  stand up and act to change a destiny perceived as bleak and dark. But for others, an “eco-paralysis [4]“ may appear, in which they may feel  stuck and unable to act or to move on. 

As parents or educators, it is particularly important to take this eco-anxiety into account in the interactions with children. Pathologizing eco-anxiety can actually be  counterproductive. If addressed effectively, eco-anxiety can in fact elicit an adaptive response.

However, if eco-anxiety  is interfering  with sleep or is having a negative impact on our relationships, it is important to give voice to what we are feeling. This is why asking the question “How do you feel?” is so important when talking about climate change to children or adolescents.  Such open discussion can help reduce the anxiety surrounding climate change and environmental degradation and our assessment of these threats [5]. All of these mechanisms are called emotion-focused coping strategies. Although they are essential to “starting the work”, they generally don’t lead to the necessary behavioral changes and engagement required to bring about change.

Another coping strategy is problem-focused: by trying to solve the problem, which includes becoming informed and sharing this information with others, we feel empowered. And yet, what happens  if you can’t solve the problem? What if the solution seems out of reach? In this case, even with a high level of behavioral engagement, feelings of discouragement, disillusionment and anxiety can still be present.

A third  approach is what Ojala [6] has called “meaning-focused” coping: in this case, people put the environmental problem into perspective and trust scientists to find solutions. They develop hope and positive feelings that help buffer negative emotions, and feel both empowered and experience greater life satisfaction.

Another technique to address eco-anxiety is to strengthen  our connection with nature and the outdoors, which can have a  therapeutic effect on our anxiety and  can improve our wellbeing. Engaging in social activism can also  develop our sense of confidence as agents of social and environmental change.. It is also important to keep in mind that for people who tend to be anxious and who worry  excessively, activism may not be the best solution. Rather, they should consider taking a step back from sources of potential anxiety, such as the media, as a starting point. 

Finally the general idea in coping  with eco-anxiety, notably   with solastalgia which focuses on a universal fate, is to remember that we are not alone. We are not alone  in experiencing  fear, and we are not alone in experiencing the impacts of  environmental degradation. Therefore, encouraging a sense of community and inclusivity is essential in coping effectively with eco-anxiety. Developing empathy and promoting solidarity among children and having them engage in community events and concrete actions are ways to help reduce the feeling of isolation, fear and disillusionment. 

The topic of climate change can often elicit very strong, difficult emotions. Acknowledging this as a reality is a first step. In being present for people experiencing eco-anxiety, and perhaps providing them with tips on how to cope, we can actually help ourselves as we confront the challenges of climate change.

Mathilde Tricoire, Education Officer, OCE.

 

[1] Albrecht G, Sartore GM, Connor L, Higginbotham N, Freeman S, Kelly B, Stain H, Tonna A, Pollard G. Solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change. Australas Psychiatry. 2007;15 Suppl 1:S95-8. doi: 10.1080/10398560701701288. PMID: 18027145.

[2] American Psychological Association https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2018/stress-gen-z.pdf

[3] Pikhala, P. (2019). Climate anxiety. Helsinki: MIELI Mental Health Finland.

[4]Albrecht G. (2011) Chronic Environmental Change: Emerging ‘Psychoterratic’ Syndromes. In: Weissbecker I. (eds) Climate Change and Human Well-Being. International and Cultural Psychology. Springer, New York, NY. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-9742-5_3

[5]Carpenter, J. K., Andrews, L. A., Witcraft, S. M., Powers, M. B., Smits, J. A., & Hofmann, S. G. (2018). Cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety and related disorders: A meta‐ analysis of randomized placebo‐controlled trials. Depression and Anxiety, 35(6), 502–514.

[6]Ojala, M. (2012). How do children cope with global climate change? Coping strategies, engagement, and well-being. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 32(3), 225–233.

 

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Office for Climate Education OCE