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DR NICK BARNES: 'Eco anxiety' and challenging feelings can be the fuel for positive change

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Public protest may not be the answer for all, but negative feelings about the climate crisis can fuel positive actions of various kinds.
Public protest may not be the answer for all, but negative feelings about the climate crisis can fuel positive actions of various kinds.

With the first Highland Climate Festival recently concluded one can’t help but be inspired by the energy and diversity of activities and ideas in place that made the event a hugely informative and engaging one – one that celebrated much of the great work going on within our communities as we all make changes and adaptations to the threat and impact of climate change.

From Caithness to Skye, there were over 75 local events throughout the week, demonstrating the genuine desire of communities within the Highlands to be part of the much-needed change.

And yet, often conversations about the climate and ecological crisis can so easily result in us feeling completely overwhelmed. Whether we think about the plight of those that have already lost their homes because of flooding or bushfires, or those that have been forced to leave their countries because of loss of water or food shortages, we can easily connect with an overriding sense of despair and sadness.

Likewise, when we think about what we need to do to achieve the limited targets agreed at the UN Climate summit (limiting the global temperature rise to 1.5C above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century agreed in the Paris Agreement) then frustration at those that deny or refuse to engage with the required global collaboration can lead us to feel anger and rage at their inaction.

And then, when we consider the realities of our futures – and particularly the futures of our children – we can so quickly begin to feel frightened and anxious – feelings that can paralyse us from being able to take any steps forwards.

The Climate Crisis not only impacts on us physically – it is also causing profound emotional distress. Whether we feel sadness and despair, rage and anger, fear and anxiety, or all of the above, we can all experience significant Eco Distress that can be both disabling and disarming.

But these are not abnormal feelings. Eco Distress (or Eco Anxiety) is not a condition that you need to go to your GP for – after all, the “treatment” would be possible through addressing the drivers of Climate Change. In reality, Eco Distress is a healthy response to a profound existential threat and it is essential we hold on to this perspective when we seek to support each other with such difficult feelings.

When we are overwhelmed with difficult feelings in our lives we need to ensure we have a sense of hope, trust and agency to believe in the possibility of change – and how we explore feelings about the climate crisis is no different. We need to have a sense of hope that what we do will make a difference, to trust ourselves and those around us to enable and sustain change and, most importantly, that we have some agency in the change. It is only through connecting with our communities that we will be able to allow the possibility of hope and trust, but it is through action that we will be able to overcome our anxiety. We don’t need to dismiss these difficult feelings, but rather acknowledge them and use them to help us move from a place of anxiety to action – allowing us to BE THE CHANGE!

Dr Nick Barnes is honorary associate professor with UCL and a child and adolescent psychiatrist with NHS Highland.

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