There has been a lot of bad news in the media in the last few weeks. Political turmoil, refugee crises, and some very dire climate warnings. It is not surprising then that people will have trouble dealing with fear.
Unfortunately fear and worry don’t move us well toward good solutions. As Baz Luhrmann says in his iconic piece Wear Sunscreen,
Don’t worry about the future
Or worry, but know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing Bubble gum
The poem Luhrmann quotes reflects on highly personal issues; jobs, aging parents, aging ourselves. The solutions he offers are mostly about living a full and happy life.
The problems we hear about in the news may feel bigger. And yet they are quite similar. We have very little control over what diseases might hit us, or how economic downturns will affect us, or how our parents or children will do. We also have very little personal control over what happens in politics or with respect to climate change (although we still have a party to play).
What matters is how we deal with the the fear. Approaching problems with an air of defeat will make them worse. Taking positive action with an optimistic attitude will make the problems feel less daunting. When we take positive steps in dealing with fear it feels better. And people like to follow the lead of optimistic people. Though it is sounds cliché, together we can make a difference. Which is part of what makes Green Party policy of sustainability so attractive.
The following article was originally written by Wade Wiebe for the South Eastman Transition Initiative. It has some great ideas on dealing with fear.
How I’m Dealing with My Fear
by Wade Wiebe
I’ve been having a difficult time coping with the information in the latest IPCC report released two weeks ago. In it, we learn that we must reduce our emissions by 50% within 12 years to keep average global temperatures from rising more than 1.5○C. If we achieve that reduction, we’ll get a chance at the next deadline in 2050, when it must be brought to zero. If we fail, we won’t be able to stop the catastrophe at all. At 2.0○C, 25% of all species will be extinct. At 3.0○C, New York City will be submerged. It gets worse after that.
While the facts are difficult to process, most of my frustration comes from my perception that few people seem to be aware of the scope of the problem. The scale and certainty of this threat are greater than all of humanity’s fears combined. How is it possible not to talk about it?
Dr. Emily Green was probably experiencing something similar when she wrote “The Existential Dread of Climate Change” for Psychology Today in October 2017. After slowly learning more about the reality of climate change, she found herself in a state of despair and heightened anxiety. Looking closely at her own reaction, she probed further. She writes that thinking and learning about these harsh realities activates what’s called our “ultimate concerns”, including finitude, responsibility, suffering, meaninglessness and death. And while her intense emotional reaction is reasonable given the circumstances, Dr. Green asked herself this question: “What happened after the podcast, or radio, or television was turned off? Did the information push her towards something useful or productive?” “Unfortunately” she says, “as I reflected I realized that my horror at the state of things, rather than spur in myself action towards helping the cause, had bred minimal lifestyle changes…” Why was that? Green writes that several common reasons for inaction in response to awareness may be at play in all of us. Denial and repression, numbness and apathy, perceived risk of change and perceived ineffectiveness of change were known to be common reactions to knowledge about climate change. But the literature on the subject also provided some good news. While inaction was a common response, other individuals respond positively through collective engagement, activism, a sense of empowerment and personal responsibility, and a desire to influence others to act similarly. According to Green, there is evidence that being an active participant increases a sense of self-efficacy, social competence and a range of other positive emotions. She points out that “…while the existential dread of the potential destruction of our planet and species may seem like a burden too great to bear; like any other anxiety, it is one best approached rather than avoided.”
As we begin to appreciate seriousness of our situation, fear and despair will undoubtedly become more commonplace. The role for those of us who have begun to process the facts in earnest will be as a source of rationality and direction for others. And the only way we can offer that strength is to face up to it and find it ourselves.
Dr. Green’s article closes with a tip sheet from the Australian Psychological Society. “Although environmental threats are real and can be frightening, remaining in a state of heightened distress is not helpful for ourselves nor for others. We generally cope better, and are more effective at making changes, when we are calm and rational.”
Here are their tips on making changes in the face of climate-change distress:
- Be optimistic about the future
- Remind yourself that there is a lot you can personally do
- Change your own behaviour
- Become informed about problems and solutions
- Do things in easy stages
- Identify things that might get in the way of doing things differently
- Look after yourself!
- Invite others to change
- Talk with others about environmental problems
- Present clear but not overwhelming information, and offer solutions
- Talk about changes that you are making in your own life
- Share your difficulties and rewards
- Be assertive, not aggressive
- Congratulate people for being environmentally concerned
- Model the behaviour that you want others to do