Feeling Anxious About The Climate Emergency? Experts Say Small Steps Can Help
There were already plenty of reasons for Mainers to be worried about man-made climate change -- a warming Gulf of Maine, crops suffering in droughts, shorter ski seasons -- before the United Nations released an alarming new report this week that found humans have a much smaller window of time than previously thought to meaningfully reduce global warming.
Such landmark publications may feed the sense of helplessness and dread that some Mainers are already feeling about the hotter, stormier days ahead. But experts who study the mental and social effects of climate change say that individuals can do some basic things to make a difference and, by doing so, help themselves feel less powerless.
The threat of global warming can impact people in different ways, says Dr. Anthony Ng, a psychiatrist at Northern Light Acadia Hospital in Bangor who has been part of several national initiatives looking at the impacts of climate change and natural disasters on mental health.
While hurricanes or wildfires cause immediate trauma, Ng says, some climate change effects will be more gradually or indirectly felt, such as climbing heating fuel prices or a more general sense of doom about the future.
Altogether, climate change can contribute to feelings of anxiety or depression, although Ng noted that it can be hard for some people to focus too much on the climate when they have more pressing concerns, such as a global pandemic.
“When you think of disasters, it’s like a one-time thing that often happens,” Ng says. “But with climate change, it’s like a persistent disaster that’s happening. It’s not as intense as a bomb going off, but it’s a chronic thing that’s increasingly, negatively impacting our community.”
Ng says people can feel agency over their situation by planting trees or driving less, among other individual efforts, or through advocating for climate legislation by contacting elected officials and volunteering for groups. Those may feel like small actions on their own, he says, but they can add up.
“If you constantly feel like you’re part of the process to do something, it may enable you to feel less powerless and feel more empowered to do things, to be part of the solution,” Ng says.
He added that it’s important to recognize those steps aren’t just benefiting the person taking action, but younger generations as well.
One of the more challenging aspects of climate change is the feelings of uncertainty it can provoke in people, even if they fully believe it’s happening, according to Kati Corlew, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Maine at Augusta.
“It’s such a big issue. It’s really hard for people to fully wrap their heads around it,” says Corlew, who has studied the social impacts of climate change in the Pacific islands and more recently in Maine. “That can make it difficult for people to engage with it.”
Corlew says that the effects of climate change are increasingly tangible in Maine, such as ticks becoming a bigger concern during outdoor recreation, and more unusual weather patterns hitting the state throughout the year. She noted that younger generations are “particularly frustrated” about all of it.
Like Ng, Corlew says that concerned citizens can take individual actions to lessen their own carbon footprint, such as reducing the amount of goods they consume.
She says that reports like the one released by the UN this week are a stark reminder of the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions — and can also be a good conversation starter.
“Talk to folks who agree with you,” she says. “And talk to folks who don’t agree with you. A lot of times minds do change, and people learn and grow. It can come from that initial conversation. I may never get to know that three years after this conversation, someone came around. But that does happen. That’s how we live in our society.”