Dr. Gayani DeSilva MD
Gayani DeSilva is a Child Adolescent Psychiatrist with 20 years experience. She is the author of A Psychiatrists Guide: Helping Parents Reach Their Depressed Tween, and A Psychiatrists Guide: Stop Teen Addiction Before It Starts.
Climate change has been linked to changes in individuals' mental health, and more research is directed at learning about this connection. Children are more impacted than adults. On average, they are more affected than adults by extreme changes to weather and climate. They have increased rates of PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, which is an anxiety disorder), depression, and sleep disorders. In addition, enduring early stress can lead to more mental health issues later in life.
Climate change can cause anxiety in adults due to the consequences of climate change that may necessitate changes to an individual and community's daily life. Climate change may affect clothing, shelter, transportation, vocation, and diet. Any change to a person's usual expectation can create anxiety. For those who have anxiety disorders, or a history of trauma, their anxiety may be more pronounced than for other individuals without mental illness or trauma.
Climate change also triggers other emotions, such as anger, hopelessness, and grief. But anxiety seems to be the most prevalent reaction to climate change.
Anxiety becomes overwhelming and causes disruptive behaviors when the differences between what is expected and what is encountered are too significant, triggering an emotional response and repeated worries that prevent the resolution of the anxiety.
The key to understanding and managing overwhelming anxiety, in general, is to understand that it is often not the specific event that causes anxiety but the consequences or potential consequences that lead to anxiety developing. While one may have worries or anxiety about climate change, most people will not become distressed about not being able to control climate change. Intellectually most people will accept that climate change is happening, and their anxiety about that change will remain manageable. However, as people start to worry about the specific consequences climate change has on their lives, their anxiety may spiral out of a normal and manageable range to an overwhelming level. When anxiety reaches that overwhelming level, people develop "maladaptive" behaviors. These behaviors are mainly unconscious and fueled by defense mechanisms to help individuals manage their anxiety. Most people become overly anxious when their finances, safety, health, and security are threatened or when their loved ones' finances, safety, health, and security are threatened. Climate change poses a threat to those aspects of life.
Tools that may help curb anxiety about climate change are:
1) identify the potential consequences of climate change that specifically will impact your life
2) make a plan or strategize ways to mitigate those consequences
3) remind yourself that change is inevitable-- be it climate change or some other natural event, and practice acceptance of change
4) seek support since we are all facing climate change; no one needs to handle the changes to come alone.
We can make many adjustments as a community.
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