In the Fight to Save the World, We Need to be Mentally Resilient

Psychotherapists explain how we can try to be mentally resilient in the face of a crisis. 

In the Fight to Save the World, We Need to be Mentally Resilient
Medical personnel care for patients in an emergency temporary room, set up to ease pressure on the healthcare system, at a hospital in Brescia, Italy. (Photographer: Francesca Volpi/Bloomberg)

(Bloomberg) --

I’ve been unusually anxious for the past few days. Talking to friends and colleagues, it’s clear it’s not just me. The spread of Covid-19 has people worried.

My fear isn’t for myself. I’m a 32-year-old who can run 5 km without much trouble. I’m lucky to be in the less vulnerable category. Instead, the fear stems from knowing the world is heading for a car crash, and it’s going to hurt a lot of people.

As a subscriber to a climate newsletter, I’m willing to bet that at some point you have thought about events or shocks that could devastate parts of the world or even kill huge numbers of people. If anything, it is that very worry many young people cite when they share candid stories about “eco-anxiety.”

When faced with a crisis, however, paralyzing anxiety does nobody any good. It doesn’t matter that anxiety manifests in the face of warming temperatures or a pandemic, which New York University economist Gernot Wagner calls “climate change on warp speed.”

So what should we do? I spoke to a handful of psychotherapists to understand how we can try to be mentally resilient in face of crises. The advice applies equally to thinking about the climate and coronavirus.

It’s ok to be anxious, but use it to act.

“Anxiety is a common human experience,” said Michael Wang, chair of the Association of Clinical Psychologists in the U.K. Instead of letting the anxiety become sustained stress, however, use it as a motivation to do something about it. (Here’s what the World Health Organization says about how to protect against coronavirus.)

“Practice self-care, but also find ways to help others,” said Mary-Jayne Rust, a London-based psychotherapist who lectures on eco-psychology.

Find trusted sources of information.

“It is natural to fear the unknown,” said Hilda Burke, a U.K. registered psychotherapist. Emergencies “exposes the illusion of control” we may have on how things unfold in our lives.

Instead it is better to accept that, when things are changing on such vast scales, we are all in uncharted territories. That’s why it helps to have sources of information that you can trust. But don’t overdo it, said Rust, because not every small piece of news is going to help.

Build and nurture a community.

As with any crisis, whether unfolding in real time or over a long period, it helps to have people along with you. “Large scale crises expose how interdependent we are,” said Caroline Hickman, a lecturer at the University of Bath, who works with Climate Psychology Alliance.

A strong social network, whether we meet others in person or virtually, will go a long way in making individuals and our response to the crisis resilient, according to Susan Clayton, chair of psychology at Wooster College, Ohio.

Take a moment to reflect.

Current events will likely mean that many of us are stuck at home for far longer than normal. This kind of disruption to daily life is a risk from climate impacts too. “It can be the most amazing opportunity to reflect and be creative,” said Rust.

Our changed schedules will likely mean that we will be forced to break many habits, said Burke. When we eventually go back to work, we can learn which of the old habits are necessary and which are best forgotten. Maybe working from home more often will make you more productive. That would be good for you and for the planet.

“Crises can bring major societal change,” said Rust. Better to embrace the change and make the world a better place while it is changing.

Akshat Rathi writes the Net Zero newsletter on the intersection of climate science and emission-free tech. You can email him with feedback. 

Dive deeper: Coronavirus and climate change

  • Climate change has lessons for fighting the coronavirus (New York Times)
  • Instead of black swans, meet gray rhinos: Coronavirus and climate change are obvious risks we ignore (Axios)
  • Climate push loses momentum as the world fights coronavirus (Bloomberg)
  • How changes brought on by coronavirus could help tackle climate change (The Conversation)

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