Using Meditation To Manage Climate Anxiety

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In recent years, we’ve seen record-beating summer heats, severe hurricanes, widespread wildfires and life-threatening floods play out across the globe. With every extreme weather event and devastating example of biodiversity loss, the impact of climate anxiety becomes more acute, wearing us down. For campaigners, activists and younger people understandably alarmed by climate change, this anxiety can even lead to burnout and depression.

However, managing our very real anxieties regarding climate change is possible, and not just via protest and debate, but by managing our mental state. The civil rights activist Audre Lorde was perhaps one of the first people to discuss the need for self care in those looking to make positive change in the world, famously stating that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence; it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” It is extremely important to prioritize our own health and wellbeing, especially when the problems humanity faces feel overwhelming.

Taking on a meditation practice is a simple and active way of coping with climate anxiety, as well as the difficult feelings which arise from other social problems — such as racial injustice — that are particularly acute right now, helping us to forge forward and live our lives fully as we work to do the right thing.

Facing The Fear

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety affects 18.1% of the US population every year. The reality of climate change is theorized to be one factor in the rising levels of anxiety among young people. Fear is an undeniably useful facet of human evolution, and alarm over ecological destruction is driving action to tackle it, but too much stress and fear can be extremely unhelpful, and can lead to diagnosable mental health issues.

Feeling constantly stressed and tense creates a swathe of physical problems, including suppressed immune function, digestive issues, aches and pains, light-headedness and even hair loss, to name a few. The emotional impact includes short-temperedness, diminished resilience, feelings of dread, racing thoughts, tearfulness and panic attacks. From a purely practical standpoint, anxiety also makes us less effective communicators and problem solvers, as those trapped in “fight or flight” find it harder to adapt to evolving situations or recognize potential solutions.

Caring about climate change can be exhausting. Even engaged activists, who spend much of their time in circles of like-minded people, are often faced with soul-zapping climate change skepticism from friends and family, as well as reading it daily in the media at large. Constantly processing both the facts of climate change and then having to intellectualize the viewpoint of those refusing to believe in it — which reaches as far as the White House — can be very emotionally draining, and many feel as if they are being gas lighted on a vast scale.

Beyond this, activists also have to navigate the serious possibility of arrest, social approbation and feelings of hopelessness in the face of the task at hand. These anxiety-inducing issues have an impact on our energy levels and peace of mind, and can even keep us up at night.

Meditation can be uniquely helpful in this situation because it works with our body to make us less reactive to stress and to dissipate anxiety naturally through the relaxation of our nervous system. By taking a thoughtful and sustained approach to our own self care, we can address fear and anxiety. This helps us to feel more empowered, giving us the mental energy and natural optimism needed to take an active role in solving these challenging concerns. By providing us with a sense of our own agency to do good even in difficult situations, meditation eases that sense of dread that comes with feeling out of control and powerless.

Burning Out

As any climate activist will tell you, one also needs to take on reams of written communication, canvassing and social media management, as well as often coping with the normal demands of work, daily responsibilities and family, which is why so many suffer with activist burnout. Even those of us who don’t take part in campaigning but simply care about the environment and try to stay informed can become burdened by mental clutter.

It is also important to remember that some forms of fatigue are more serious than others, and people who have lived with a high level of stress and anxiety for a long time can feel as if they’ve hit a metaphorical brick wall — no longer emotionally or physically able to cope with the pressures of life. Although not medically recognized, some believe this is a result of adrenal fatigue, theorized to develop via our adrenal glands when they are unable to keep pace with the demands of perpetual ‘fight or flight’ mode.

Whatever the cause, feeling so utterly drained of hope and energy is not something anyone should put up with. It’s important to visit your healthcare practitioner in case an underlying cause such as clinical depression or fibromyalgia is to blame.

Protest And Survive

Joining the voices of those insisting that governments and corporations truly acknowledge the realities of climate change and protect humanity’s future wellbeing and survival, is a vital and important endeavor. However, we also need to ensure that we manage climate anxiety so we aren’t only surviving in the here and now, but thriving: enjoying our lives and sustainably managing our own resources so we can remember that positive change is possible, and disaster far from inevitable. 

This is why it is advisable to remember to step back and arm yourself with a self-care toolkit, which will help to increase your energy levels and protect your mental wellbeing. In addition to meditation, this can include exercise like yoga or weightlifting, and a healthy diet with an emphasis on fresh, leafy vegetables and seasonal fruit. Our planet needs us as a collective to face climate issues head on and be a part of the solution.

Will Williams, owner of Beeja Meditation in London, is an author, wellbeing advisor and leading meditation expert who teaches meditation for anxiety.