Summary by Stefanie Ypma
Lytton, Canada, is 7000 km away, yet I feel scared. Valkenburg, the terrace where I’ve had a great meal only a few weeks ago has been swept away. Events that scientists would normally describe with phrases like ‘increased likelihood’ are suddenly reality. Although we might not express it often (enough?), we can feel powerless, anxious and sad.
Jaap van der Stel, social scientist and author of the book Resilience to Climate Change (Veerkracht bij Klimaatverandering), calms us down by saying that these feelings are entirely human and that we do not suffer from a mental disorder. But these emotions can enhance underlying psychological problems, and, as we probably all know, more stress won’t do much good to anyone. During the Future Scientists webinar on June 17 2021, van der Stel gave us guidance on how to deal with our emotions.
Climate Psychology is a relatively new research field addressing not only the impact of climate change on mental health, but also topics as climate change denial and behavioural change. The area of expertise might be new, but the way people react to crises has been studied extensively in the past. It is about fine-tuning this knowledge so it can be applied to the current situation. There have already been numerous studies pointing to severe distress following extreme weather events and increased suicides due to increased temperatures (Lawrence et al. 2021).
These are examples of mainly physical consequences of changes in our climate. However, eco-anxiety, the general worry about the future of Earth, can be experienced by anyone, even if not having encountered a direct impact of climate change. Especially climate scientists can be overwhelmed as they are well aware of the scope and complexity of the problem, while at the same time feeling a responsibility to come up with solutions (Gilford et al. 2019). How to inform people to prepare for disasters they have not yet experienced? How to communicate the much needed action, without losing trust or being ignored, misinterpreted and even threatened?
While looking for answers on these questions in the Future Scientists Webinars to come, we can already apply the advice from van der Stel on how to deal with our emotions and stress using four steps. We have to develop resilience (learn by experience), promote self-regulation (take a walk or meditate), keep calm (stress impacts your decision making) and become active (e.g. make sustainable choices yourself). Key here is to accept. Accept your emotion, take a step back, observe it and use what you discover as inspiration. And once we’re allowed to enjoy our real-life coffee breaks together, maybe share your concerns and how you are coping. Because a mentally healthy community is a prerequisite in order to successfully meet the climate challenges.