April 04, 2020 at 04:04PM
It seems as if the whole world is catching up to the anxiety that environmental advocates have been feeling for years. There are distinct parallels between anxiety born from our ecological crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic: We face a global threat that’s affecting nearly every aspect of society. And it’s going to require unprecedented changes to avert the worst-case scenario.
The current uncertainty of the world is heavy. For some, feelings of fear, tension, and anxiety are new. Welcome—you are not alone. For others, the despair and grief associated with eco-anxiety are amplified.
While worrying about climate change in the time of coronavirus feels a little like repairing a crack in the foundation of a house on fire, I designed an eight-step plan to transform my climate anxiety into action—and it holds up for other existential threats.
My struggle with climate anxiety.
When the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its October report stating that the world has around a decade to prevent the most catastrophic impacts of climate change from threatening life as we know it, I had to face a reality that I knew existed but had not yet accepted. My generalized anxiety disorder congealed into the shape of eco-anxiety, and everything became about the climate: my consumer choices, my daily habits, my children’s future.
I felt alone in my hopelessness. I didn’t know where to find inspiration or a support network. None of my friends, family, or colleagues wanted to talk about climate change, and they certainly weren’t treating it like an emergency. After a cluster of panic attacks began to negatively affect my ability to parent two toddlers, perform at work, and maintain personal relationships, I decided to take action. Following this plan has been a win-win for my mental health and the planet:
1. Take a deep breath and begin.
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Getting started is always the hardest part, so this step is critical. I’ve found breathwork to be one of the best ways to help ease my anxiety, reframe my outlook, and help choose a different path. And the good news is, you can do breathwork anywhere, anytime!
I wasn’t an expert in meditation when I started deep and rhythmic breathing, so don’t be intimidated by the various techniques. All you have to do is breathe and watch the way you suddenly open yourself up to a new state of calm. I revisit breathwork often, especially when my anxiety flares up in response to new, challenging situations.
2. Make a list of your strengths and skills.
I knew I wanted to become a climate activist, but I didn’t know where to start. How could I contribute when I barely knew about the science? I wasn’t going to become a climatologist, a regenerative farmer, or a sustainability expert overnight. So I decided to make a list of my current strengths and thought about ways to apply them to the climate crisis.
With a background in journalism and communications, I knew that storytelling was one way for me to inspire others. The climate crisis needs action in every corner of life, so think about what you’re already good at, what inspires you, and how you might be able to help.
3. Make small lifestyle changes.
I can’t stress this enough: Striving for perfection will set you (and the planet) up for failure. Don’t let guilt or unrealistic expectations prevent you from making meaningful changes in your life. Setting achievable goals will reduce your anxiety and your carbon footprint. The first few actions I took were creating a paperless kitchen, swapping paper towels for reusable cloth, investing in a reusable travel mug, and switching from dairy to oat milk.
4. Develop a mindfulness practice.
In the last few years, I’ve often said we must be present to save our future. Even small, daily mindfulness practices can help reduce anxiety and power your action, helping you to consciously make those small lifestyle changes. Breathwork was my gateway to a mindfulness practice, and there are different spiritual teachers for every experience level or style preference.
5. Connect with established grassroots organizers.
A few months into my journey of climate activism, I realized I didn’t have to start from scratch. Organizations like the Sunrise Movement, 350.org, and Sierra Club will give you the blueprints so you can jump right into the fight. I signed up for their newsletters and found that organizers often host video chats and trainings to help you take your first steps.
6. Contact your elected officials.
This can be as low-key as signing a petition or making a phone call and as hands-on as staging a demonstration. Last February, with the help of 350.org, I organized a petition delivery to the office to my local senator in support of a Green New Deal.
I delivered my speech in a boardroom packed with Sen. Chris Murphy’s staffers and 20 activists who followed my lead and shared their own concerns about the future. Fast-forward three days, and Sen. Murphy (D-Conn.) publicly endorsed the resolution unveiled by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). He even gave us a shoutout online.
From beach cleanups to graphic design support, free labor goes a long way for many environmental organizations that rely on the generosity of donors and volunteers. It’s a great way to spend your time as a break from your usual Netflix binge. And you’d be surprised by how much can be done remotely!
8. Talk about it.
This one is simple. The louder our voices get, the more likely unprecedented change will occur. Don’t be afraid to talk with friends, family, and strangers. Document your journey on social media. Be real. Don’t promote perfection, but inspire others to take their own action.
When you start to take small, actionable steps to become a part of the solution, something happens. As you begin to shift your daily routines just a little—and when you step outside of your comfort zone—you’ll begin to experience a radical mindset shift that will reduce your anxiety, increase your happiness, and positively influence the people and things around you.