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How to deal with eco-anxiety

Throw together some global warming with failing government policies and you have the perfect climate fear cocktail. But what can you do about eco-anxiety? “Focus on the things that are within your control.”

We’re all going to die from climate change sooner or later, so what’s the point of worrying about it anymore? That’s what VU student Berry Aldon (21) thought when he was only 17 years old, after worrying about climate change for several years. 

It’s a rather extreme example, but a survey by I&O Research shows that 7 out of 10 people in the Netherlands are concerned about climate change. Over 4 out of 10 people in the Netherlands are even very concerned about the climate. Recently, psychologists started describing these concerns with different terms such as eco-anxiety, climate depression, or climate fear.

Reluctant to ask for help

Solid numbers are hard to find but according to experts, especially young people suffer from eco-anxiety. So far, student psychological counsellors Amber Borra and Sanne Goes haven’t had any students come by with climate anxiety as their primary complaint. But it is frequently mentioned by students who are experiencing a lot of worry and stress, Goes says. “For example, they worry about their student debt, their future prospects, and climate change.”

Just because students don’t report eco-anxiety as their primary complaint, it doesn’t mean that they don’t suffer from it, Borra says. “We find with many topics that students are afraid to ask for help. They often think they’re the only one who is bothered by something when in fact, it’s perfectly normal to be horrified when you hear that the world is about to perish and nothing is being done about it.”

‘Airplane company Lufthansa sending 18.000 empty flights to avoid losing take-off and landing slots left me frustrated and angry’

Numbed by bad news 

Back to Berry Aldon, who became aware of climate change at the age of 13. “I noticed that all the rivers in my state in India were polluted. And people started talking about global warming and extreme heat waves.” A couple of years later, things got out of hand for Aldon. “Whenever I opened social media, watched the news, or read the newspaper, I only saw bad news relating to the environment. On the other hand, I saw no efforts being taken to fix this, not by my local government nor by international policymakers. At a certain point, I became numb. It seemed nobody was going the save the world, so I became inclined toward the concept of an apocalypse. I couldn’t think of a positive future anymore. When my teachers asked me where I would see myself after 10 years, I would instantly laugh at them and say: Let’s see if ten years from now the Earth still exists.”

A drop in a bucket

Gustaw Opiełka (23), a Psychology student at VU Amsterdam, is not sure if he suffers from eco-anxiety. But just like Aldon, he worries about the consequences of climate change. “This worry has gradually developed in the last three years. I experience a sense of powerlessness and frustration.” He tries to do his part by eating plant-based and traveling as green as possible. “However, this feels like a drop in the ocean. Policymakers and CEOs of big companies should take action instead. During the lockdown, the airplane company Lufthansa sent 18.000 empty flights to avoid losing take-off and landing slots. That left me frustrated and angry.” 

In recent years, VU sociologist Paulina Pankowska (works at University Utrecht since August 15) also became increasingly concerned about climate change and the loss of biodiversity. “When we used to go for a drive with my family, after about an hour we had to scrape the windshield clean because it was covered in bugs. That just doesn’t happen anymore, there are hardly any bugs. This realization really shocked me.”

5 tips against eco-anxiety

1) Allow your emotions, even the negative ones

2) Be kind to yourself

3) Find like-minded people and talk about your climate concerns

4) Join sustainable initiatives in your neighbourhood

5) Do you worry a lot about climate change? Then don’t hesitate to contact the student psychological counsellors at VU Amsterdam. They are available to offer you professional help.

Share your worries

In recent years, VU sociologist Paulina Pankowska (works at University Utrecht since August 15) also became increasingly concerned about climate change and the loss of biodiversity. “When we used to go for a drive with my family, after about an hour we had to scrape the windshield clean because it was covered in bugs. That just doesn’t happen anymore, there are hardly any bugs. This realization really shocked me.”

So, climate fears can be very profound. But how do you skillfully deal with them? According to Borra and Goes, it’s important to give room to your emotions. “We often see our students hiding their emotions. Like: I don’t want to feel this right now, it has to go. While emotions are actually very useful”, Borra says. “If something is stressful, it actually means it is important to you”, Goes adds. And anger, for example, can lead to action. Take the time to observe these emotions.” 

It can be pretty intense to allow your emotions to surface, so the duo recommends being kind to yourself. Goes: “Working on yourself can lead to perfectionism, so it’s important to have compassion for yourself.” Borra: “In addition, find like-minded people you feel comfortable with and share your climate concerns with them. That will help soothe your worries and anxieties.”

Take matters into your own hands

Goes: “I also recommend focusing on the things that are within your control. By taking action you can break out of passivity. That makes the problem less overwhelming. For example, you can join initiatives that are working on sustainability. Then you take matters into your own hands.” Borra: “You can also choose to live more consciously, such as taking the bike instead of the car more often or learning how to cook delicious vegetarian meals.”

Goes gives one last tip for dealing with climate anxiety. “If you notice that it’s really bothering you and it’s holding you back in your daily life, then seek help. It’s not weird to ask for help and there is more and more specialized help available for climate anxiety. Also, students are always welcome to visit us, they can come here for a free consultation.”

Scientist Rebellion

The steps sociologist Pankowska took to address her climate concerns are consistent with Borra’s and Goes’s tips. Just like Psychology student Opiełka, she first focused on individual changes, such as flying less and eating plant-based. But as she read more about climate change, she realized how serious the situation is. “Then it became clear to me that behavioral change at the individual level is not enough. We need systemic changes.”

Pankowska decided to join the Dutch branch of the global climate movement Scientist Rebellion. The action group organized a protest week against the failing government policies in early April. “It is a way for me to turn my anxiety into something productive. I would encourage other people who are afraid of what is to come to do the same. It can bring relief, positive energy, and hope.”

‘I’m still convinced the world is ending, but until that day comes I need money to survive’

Climate fear became driving force

Aldon also took action, and he eventually managed to work his way out of his numb state. “After completing my bachelor’s degree in economics in India, I took a few months to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I am still convinced that the world will end, but until then I need money to survive. And because I want to contribute to saving the earth, I started doing the master’s specialization in Global Environmental Change and Policy at VU Amsterdam.”

According to Aldon, his climate fear was the main driver for coming to the Netherlands. “My anxiety led to numbness, and I was eventually able to turn that numbness into motivation. I don’t know if I’m going to have a big impact on the climate. But I don’t think about two years from now, I focus on what we can learn right now and what we can do to still save the earth.”

And Opiełka, how does he deal with his worries? “I know I will be fine, but what about the future generations? It will only become worse if successful actions are not taken soon.” Despite his worries, Opiełka tries to stay positive. “It’s important to recognize the issue but at the same time realize we do not have full control over it. We should still try to enjoy life but with respect to the climate!”

Lisa Früchtl is student-reporter


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