The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists ticked the hands of its symbolic Doomsday Clock closer to midnight to reflect the impending threats from nuclear weapons and global warming. As the reality of climate change becomes clearer than ever, some experts believe that as bad as the wildfires, droughts or record-breaking storms are, it’ll be the anxiety over climate change that will affect Americans even more.
Piles of reports document the gravity of this, and of what we potentially face. Climate activists, like 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who recently addressed the U.N.'s Climate Action Summit in New York, further emphasize the message. “The world is waking up,” she said. “And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”
As a result, according to a recent survey by Yale and George Mason universities, we’re more anxious than ever when it comes to climate, with a record number of Americans now convinced that human-caused global warming is occurring.
“As the impacts grow in frequency and severity — and the long term trajectory is very clear they’re going to — this personal experience with climate change is going to drive more and more Americans to say this is happening, it is human caused, and it is a serious problem,” Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University, the survey’s lead researcher, said.
Ease anxiety by taking action
None of this comes as a surprise to psychiatrist and climate activist Lise Van Susteren, though. “The populace right now is really emotionally charged,” she said. “With the extreme weather events that we’re experiencing, people have finally gotten it through their heads that this is real. Before it was an abstraction, with tree huggers talking about stuff. Now, Mother Nature is making her point.”
Van Susteren, who is also the co-founder of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, further believes that as bad as the storms outside are, it’ll be the storms inside, and the anxiety, that will affect us even more. “The most anxiety provoking of all is that young people are growing up in an atmosphere where they realize that an older generation, not all of us, but an older generation, is unconcerned, or not concerned enough, about their futures.”
Many times people don’t recognize that the choices we make can very powerfully influence the people around us … what we do individually is a very powerful way to establish a new kind of normal.
Lise Van Susteren
Not only is it felt that they’re not doing enough, she said, they also see that protections previously put in place have been rolled back, or are about to be.
However, Van Susteren cautions against giving in to despair and doing nothing. For one thing, she said, it’ll make us feel worse. “For example, when you tell a patient that he or she has a serious illness, you don’t sugarcoat it, and the patient does feel deeply anxious. But you know that if you quickly pivot to, ‘But here’s what we can do about it,’ that the anxiety is reduced.”
Activism like Thunberg’s is but one example of how this works, says Van Susteren, although she notes that she hasn’t spoken with Greta personally. “I can’t say specifically what’s right for her, but I can say that generally, a child who is climate aware and deeply, legitimately anxious, who is turning that into empowering action, is certainly doing a lot that’s right.”