The age of climate change is also the age of climate anxiety. Increased multidisciplinary research on mental health aspects of environmental threats has provided new understanding on how the state of our environment affects our wellbeing. At the University of Helsinki, HELSUS-researcher Panu Pihkala has studied environmental emotions and how to cope with climate anxiety.

According to a safety survey conducted by the city of Helsinki and State Youth Council (Nuorisobarometri), climate change is the biggest cause of worry among young people (ages 15-29). Also published as a news piece on the University of Helsinki website, the results show how worry about climate change has increased dramatically by 27% in just a decade. According to the survey, young people in Helsinki are more worried about the climate than they are of their own social and economic coping. A recent study by Sitra revealed that 25% of Finns recognize feelings of climate anxiety in themselves. The percentage of anxiety among the youngest members (15-30 years) that took the poll was 33.

Even though climate anxiety is a widely shared feeling, it is not often treated as such. For a long time, the emotional side of environmental emergencies has been overlooked both in research and in political discussion. HELSUS researcher and adjunct professor of ecotheology Panu Pihkala says international recognition of mental aspects in environmental research has started to increase in recent years. Pihkala is one of the first researchers in Finland to publish popularized and accessible articles, reports and books on environmental emotions in Finnish. Pihkala’s research on climate anxiety and how to cope with it is based on a wide-scale multidisciplinary research and Pihkala’s own observations on addressing climate anxiety in practice.

Mental health implications of climate change

According to a growing number of recent research (see reference list), climate change and other environmental problems cause a variety of mental health implications. Panu Pihkala studies this set of phenomena through a lense of “environmental emotions”. Technically speaking, these include aspects of “affect”, emotion and feeling. Climate anxiety is one of the most prominent examples of these.

Feeling the threat of climate change can bring forth many difficult emotions. Common feelings are fear, anger, guilt, shame, grief, loss and helplessness. These feelings might result from direct fears about climate events already happening around us, distress about future threats, or even distress in response to the existential threats to civilization as we know it and the fear of losing things we love. According to Pihkala, climate anxiety is an understandable reaction to the surrounding environmental problems and their scale.

Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017)

 Climate change affects our wellbeing in diverse ways.(Graph credits: Clayton et al. 2017)

 

Pihkala argues that our minds have two central psychological tasks relating to climate change. Even if our reactions to climate change would seem negative, the emotions can help us to adapt to changing circumstances and understand our own ethical responsibility, while also understanding sense of proportion and coping with ambivalence.

Coping with the feelings we have about climate change is extremely important, as unaddressed difficult emotions can paralyze, threaten our health and hamper our ability to function. This is also true on a societal scale as recognition of environmental emotions can improve individuals and society’s resilience in the face of crisis. However, Pihkala argues that for climate anxiety to work as a push factor for action, the person and community must a) find enough time and space to address and process the emotions and b) have enough possibilities to act against climate change.

“Antidote to anxiety is action” but not only

Climate action is often proposed as the solution to climate anxiety. According to Pihkala the possibilities to act are extremely important in countering climate anxiety, but he is also wary of over-emphasizing action as that might lead to avoiding and downplaying the felt emotions. Australian Psychological Society has published a wide range of studies and reports on mental health and climate, among which they have offered different ways of coping with climate anxiety. Pihkala says that the suggested mechanisms work both in emotional self-regulation but also as guidance in group-discussions. He has gathered a list of coping mechanisms for climate anxiety (action named as one of them):

  • Express your emotions
  • Seek social support
  • Maintain healthy routines
  • Restore yourself psychologically
  • Use different ways of thinking about the problems to change how you feel
  • Allow yourself to be in touch with feelings of loss
  • Adopt a problem-solving attitude
  • Take action
  • Take a break from being too focused on the problem

Pihkala’s most recent publication “Mieli maassa? Ympäristötunteet” (“Environmental emotions”) is the first dictionary-like book on environmental emotions published in Finnish. In the book, Pihkala examines how our emotions are connected to land and environment from various perspectives. Pihkala’s book guides the reader to ponder how different kind of emotions can be linked to the environment around us and to issues relating to nature, environment and climate. The scale ranges from joy to grief, from frustration to empowerment. The book invites readers to get familiar with environmental emotions and provides tools to process them.

Bio: Dr. Panu Pihkala (b. 1979) is a postdoctoral researcher in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki. He is currently working on the psychological and spiritual dimensions related to environmental issues and especially climate change. Pihkala’s book on “eco-anxiety” was published in Finnish in October 2017 (“Päin helvettiä? Ympäristöahdistus ja toivo”) and it raised much public discussion in Finland. Pihkala's second book on the topic, "Mieli maassa? Ympäristötunteet" ("Environmental emotions"), was published in October 2019. Pihkala was awarded the National Prize for Adult Education (Sivistyspalkinto) in 2018 by The Finnish Lifelong Learning Foundation (Kansanvalistusseura).

References:

Berry, Helen, Thomas D. Waite, Keith B. G. Dear, Anthony G. Capon, and Virginia Murray. 2018. "The Case for Systems Thinking about Climate Change and Mental Health." Nature Climate Change 8 (4): 282-290.

Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica.

Pihkala, P 2019, Ilmastoahdistus ja sen kanssa eläminen. Mieli ry (Suomen mielenterveysseura) , Helsinki.
Available also in English: Climate Anxiety. Mental Health Finland

Pihkala, P 2019, Mieli maassa? Ympäristötunteet. Kirjapaja, Helsinki

Pihkala, P 2018, ”Eco-anxiety, tragedy, and hope: psychological and spiritual dimensions of climate change”, Zygon Vol. 53:2, 545–569.  

Pihkala, P 2018, ”10 Recommendations for people with eco-anxiety”

Pihkala, PP 2017, Päin helvettiä? Ympäristöahdistus ja toivo. Kirjapaja, Helsinki