21 Jun 2020
Health professionals are recognising increasing numbers of people experiencing “eco-anxiety” – high levels of stress about climate change. But there are practical measures engineers and other professionals can take to maintain balance and perspective.
Can psychology contribute to engineering? Engineers have highly developed cognitive abilities and a logical approach to problem solving. This is extremely important when working on engineering projects. As a psychologist, I wonder whether this might mean that emotions may need to be put aside in order to keep the mind focused on the job at hand? How might this play out when it comes to managing personal responses to situations?
Regardless of our profession, we all have a similar physiological make up. Our minds and bodies are designed to respond a certain way when we are under threat. A stressful situation, whether it be environmental, such as a looming work deadline, or persistent worry such as fear of failure, can trigger a cascade of stress hormones. We may experience these as shallow breathing, racing heart, muscles tensing and sweating. These reactions are commonly known as the fight/flight response. They evolved as survival mechanisms to enable us to react quickly to life-threatening situations. These kinds of reactions can also emerge in response to chronic or slow-developing threats, such as worry about climate change.
Doing what matters is particularly relevant when it comes to eco-anxiety. This involves identifying what you value most, and acting consistently with these values.
The rise of "eco-anxiety"
Climate change has become more evident recently, as we witnessed the death and destruction from the bushfires that ravaged the land and communities of our closest neighbours. This has brought reality to the predictions by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In 2018, the Panel said we had 12 years to act to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius or face the increased prospect of droughts, heatwaves, flood and other extreme conditions. Many other organisations and scientists have made similar predictions. Since 2015, the World Health Organisation has recognised that climate change is the leading threat to global health in the 21st century.
These kinds of statistics can’t help but impact on our physiology, and therefore on our emotions and behaviours. The media has picked up on the effects of climate change on our mental health and often terms this “eco-anxiety”. Psychology has been slower to define these effects, and there is no agreed clinical definition. However, health professionals do recognise people are experiencing high levels of stress over climate change, with symptoms including panic attacks, obsessive thinking, loss of appetite and insomnia. While this clearly causes significant distress, we are wary of pathologising a rational response, but we do want to help people understand and cope with these feelings.
The fear and guilt that lurk
When we feel anxious and under threat we might dissociate from or deny our feelings in order to protect ourselves from mental distress. This can be functional in some situations, especially if you are an engineer with a job that requires close attention to detail to ensure a safe structure or outcome. However, beneath dissociation and denial can lurk fear and guilt, for example for our own carbon footprint, even a sense of apocalyptic dread.
There are psychological approaches that have good evidence for alleviating anxiety. Mindfulness involves focusing on the present moment and engaging in your here-and-now experience. This can be as simple as noticing what you can see, touch, hear, taste and smell. There are guided mindfulness and meditation practices available online that many people find very helpful in building this skill (try calm.auckland.ac.nz). Opening up or making room for difficult thoughts and feelings (and looking for them if they are well hidden) is an antidote to anxiety, which is maintained by avoidance. If we can try to be with our feelings and not make them wrong, they will come and go of their own accord, like clouds in the sky. Doing what matters is particularly relevant when it comes to eco-anxiety. This involves identifying what you value most, and acting consistently with these values. In your work, it may be seeking roles where you can contribute to resource-efficient systems. For parents, it might be teaching your children how to recycle or grow vegetables. Finally, self-compassion is a skill that helps us realise our common humanity and the importance of self-kindness – we are all in this together and the most helpful way forward is to be kind to ourselves and each other and do what we can (see self-compassion.org).
As for the future?
The future will be a different place. The new climate change resource in schools will help children understand how to live with climate change, and how they can make a difference. For those of us already well into our professions, switching off and hoping it will all go away is no longer an option. Engineers have the training, ingenuity and a commonsense approach that will be required to keep our planet liveable. Psychology can help by providing skills to manage the inevitable feelings that will come with our changing climate, and enable each of us to focus on doing what matters.
Dr Jackie Feather is a clinical and counselling psychologist and senior lecturer at Auckland University of Technology, a member of the New Zealand Psychological Society and Co-convenor of the Society’s Climate Psychology Taskforce.
This article was originally published in the March 2020 edition of EG magazine.