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Climate Change: Psychology

Length - 09:52
Published - May 2024
Keystage(s) - 3 and 4

Climate change is a global pressing issue. In this film we are looking into the Psychology behind what people are thinking in relation to Climate change. Caroline Hickman a climate psychology expert and Dr Liz Marks a clinical and research psychologist share their views on how climate change is affecting us psychologically and how we can manage our anxieties in relation to climate change.

Check out our other Climate Change films from the series:




Climate Change: Psychology

Caroline: Hi. So my name is Caroline Hickman. I'm a psychotherapist and a lot of the work I do is supporting people with climate change, anxiety and distress. Eco anxiety is the healthy response that we have when we see what's happening to the planet. There's nothing wrong with feeling this. In fact, if you feel eco anxiety, it's because you care. You should be proud that you care.


Liz:         Hi, I'm doctor Liz Marks. I'm a clinical and research psychologist. Eco and climate anxiety are the words used to describe the different thoughts and feelings that lots of people have about what's happening with climate change, and the damage that's being done to the natural world. Although the term is eco anxiety, most people feel lots of different feelings. They might feel scared and anxious, but they might also feel quite down or sad. They might feel angry, and they often feel overwhelmed. All of these feelings are very valid and very normal. In response to what's happening to the climate at the moment.


Caroline: We're gonna have lots of mixed feelings about this and they all make complete sense. Think of yourself as a bus. So on this bus, you want to have all of your feelings, your anger, your despair, your optimism, your sadness, your anxiety, your rage. But you also need your I want to save the planet person to have a seat on the bus. It just depends who's got hold of the steering wheel on any one particular day. Don't try and get rid of your anxiety. Let it be part of the bus, but don't let it get hold of the steering wheel all day, every day. It can have its turn at the steering wheel and then the personality, the bus conductor, the part of you that is conducting the orchestra with all these emotions says, okay, you, you've had your turn now we're going to have calm and contented driving the bus for a bit. You need all of these different parts of you to take their turn.


Liz:         When you're experiencing anxiety. Quite a lot of different things happen in your brain and body, and the main thing is that chemicals and hormones are released. These chemicals and hormones travel through the body and make changes that prepares the body for the fight or flight response. And what that means is, when we're facing a threat, the body needs to get ready to respond to the threat by fighting it, by pushing it away or by running away the flight. And that's why things happen in the body. Like your muscles tense, you breathe more quickly. Your blood is being pumped around the body by the heart more quickly, so the body's basically ready for action. Anxiety is a completely natural, healthy, and useful human response. Without anxiety, we wouldn't be able to respond to threats in our environment, and we wouldn't be able to keep ourselves safe from those threats.


Caroline: We need our anxiety because it helps us. It tells us when we should be scared of something. We need our anger because it's good to get angry when things are threatening you, or you need to say no to someone who's trying to push you around. If something's hurt us, we need to feel upset. But you don't want to stay upset for a week. You want to be upset, say you're upset, deal with those feelings and let the upset and just move on. And that gives us the emotional intelligence and the emotional resilience that we need. How do we get resilience? Not by everything going perfectly or smoothly. We develop emotional resilience by struggling with things, by getting things wrong, by sometimes failing. And then you get back up and then you try again, and then you get back up, and then you try again. Each time you get back up and try again, your resilience grows and you get stronger and you get more able to deal with the ups and downs and the ins and outs of life. And then you start to get to the point where you think, I can, I can find a way through this, I can deal with this.


Liz:         So if you are feeling anxious or sad or angry or any other feelings, that's completely natural and healthy. However, it can also be very painful and distressing and overwhelming, and it can sometimes feel like you maybe can't stop it from happening. So it's also really important to look for support or help and people you can talk to about it to help you through.


Caroline: One way to think about this is think about yourself sitting on a rock surrounded by water, and just imagine your emotions and your thoughts flowing in the water around you so you're not disconnected from them. You can see them. You can stick your toes in the water. You can see your feelings, think your thoughts, but don't throw yourself off your rock. Don't go and immerse yourself too much in them. And if you do, fall off the rock, get back on the rock and observe and think about your feelings and your thoughts. You can say to yourself, I have a body, but I am not my body. I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. I have feelings, but I am not my feelings. You can both connect with them and identify with them, and then decide by so that you're not completely overwhelmed. If you feel anxiety, it is. Remember it is you who is feeling the anxiety. Don't become anxiety.


Liz:         Nature or being in nature can be a really positive thing for your mental health and well-being. There's loads and loads of evidence to show this, but don't take my word for it. Think about it yourself. Or go out into nature and see what happens to how you feel. Spending time with people who feel the same way can also be a really nice way of getting engaged with doing things that might give you a sense of being able to make a difference. People find that getting engaged in action, particularly in action with other people, is really, really good for helping them feel less overwhelmed by their eco anxiety. One of the things that's really helpful about it is it helps us to align what's important to us with what we're doing, and that's really good for our mental health and wellbeing. There are different types of action. There's the action that we can take as an individual. So for example, recycling more, cycling more and driving less and not flying so much. And perhaps we can convince people around us to do similar things. And then there's collective action or group action. And that's where we maybe join a group of people where sometimes we can make slightly bigger changes happen because there's more of us. But it's really important to to recognise that as an individual or even as somebody, as part of a collective or a group, there is only so much impact that we're going to have on climate change. So it's balancing that recognition that you can act on climate change and do what you want to do and do what you can do, but that ultimately it's not your responsibility or the responsibility of your group to solve climate change or to make the really big changes that the world needs to see. That responsibility lies with state authorities, with governments, with big business and powerful people. And sometimes the action that we need to take is getting them to see that it's their responsibility, not ours, as the individual.


Caroline: Any form of action, any form of activism is valuable. But remember, you want to balance up that external activism with internal activism. You also need to deal with how you feel as well as take action out there in the world. One of the difficulties is if you just focus on external action out there in the world and you feel that it's not enough and that other people are not doing enough, and yet you do more and more and more and it's still not enough is you can then just get overwhelmed or exhausted or what people call burnt out. So balance that up with having downtime. Take a night off, sit on the sofa, eat pizza, chill out with your friends, have time out and time off. As well as taking action. You are a person. You do not have to save the planet on your own. Working together, we can do something collectively and be more powerful. Your individual action is important, but you're also not personally responsible for all the problems on the planet. The thing about eco anxiety is it's not necessarily the same as other forms of mental health distress we wouldn't want to cure or fix or get rid of eco anxiety because it's an emotionally mentally healthy response. What we do need to do is understand it and make friends with it. We need to learn to work with it so that we're understanding that it's here for a reason. To motivate us to take action, to teach us to care, to help us build a better world for ourselves and our children and children all over the world. So the last thing I want to do is get rid of it. We really do need to understand that it's more of a moral upset and a moral injury than a mental illness. So the thing to do is acknowledge. Just recognize. Just tell yourself it's okay to feel a bit overwhelmed by this sometimes and take a step back. Take time out, take a break and just breathe and just relax and just know you're not the only one worrying about this. There's wonderful people all over the world lawyers, psychologists, teachers, educators, community activists, some politicians taking action on this. So you're part of that collective. You're not on your own.