Managing Climate Anxiety
How would a Bowen theory perspective help one handle climate anxiety? Does a systems perspective have something special to offer? I believe it does. While climate anxiety provides a timely context, I believe a systems perspective can help with any anxiety.
Humankind’s impact on the planet is real and noticeable. It is affecting millions of people. The impact is also emotional, as it is a threat on many levels. For example, in British Columbia, we have dealt with fires, floods, heat, and air quality. We have had acute events that have had real and lasting effects.
Anxiety is Anxiety
Climate anxiety is like other forms of anxiety. It will elevate our stress response, leading to an increased chronic stress level on the body. But there are also immediate stressors like excess heat and poor air quality. Or worrying about a friend under a fire order evacuation.
Anxiety can be of two kinds. Immediate, actual threats and perceived, imaged threats. Perceived or imagined threats have not occurred, but one thinks they might occur. So, the first thing that systems thinking tells us is to get clear on the facts of the situation. What threats are real? When chance does a threat have of occurring? When might the threat occur? How bad might it be?
For example, in North Vancouver, our household has experienced a power outage about once yearly for several years. So that threat is pretty real. They happen most often in the winter because of the snow. But the outage is rarely over eight hours. So, the threat is real, but after looking at the facts, the impact is quite limited. Hmm. It’s not the power going out that is the threat; it’s the impact that it could have on me. No lights, internet, TV, heat, or refrigeration. The event versus the impact is an important distinction. It’s the impact that I’m threatened by. If there’s no impact, there’s no threat. So, how can I mitigate the impact?
Control the impact, not the event.
We often relate anxiety to our sense of control or perceived lack of control. I can’t control if or when a power outage event will occur. However, I can limit the impact by controlling my planning and response. We now have a plan based on experience. For example, we have a bunch of LED lights that will last for hours and know not to use hot water or the refrigerator (much). We have a gas BBQ we can cook on if needed. Having a PLAN is something we can CONTROL. Managing our expectations to limit the scope or degree of the threat is also in our control because we know these events occur, and we know they won’t last long. Now, they are just an inconvenience because we have a plan. There is no value in being upset by it. Nature doesn’t “care”. The tree that fell down just doesn’t care about our power. Nature just is, and events just happen. But there is value in learning from the event and updating our plans.
What is my part?
A systems perspective means that I will look at my part of the situation and take responsibility for my role in the situation. In this example, the actual issue isn’t the power going off; it’s the impact on my life. So, what part do I play in the impact the power outage has? Do I take the time to plan? Do I do anything to mitigate the impact? I can’t control nature, but I have response-ability (an ability to respond) for my actions when something happens. The part I play in this example includes the fact that I live in North Vancouver. I could choose to move to an area with fewer power outages. But would it be worth it? I could get a pretty fancy generator and hook that up for the price of a move! But should I spend that much money? This takes us to another aspect of dealing with climate anxiety.
Define self, based on principles.
Defining oneself is an important aspect of systems thinking. Here, I have to decide what I’m willing to do or not to do regarding climate change. This would be based on my principles and convictions. Developing one’s principles and having conviction for them requires careful thinking over a period of time. I get to decide how I want to show up as a responsible person. But whatever I decide is merely my choice. It’s not “the truth,” but it’s my truth. Based on this, I can then decide how much time, money, and effort I’m willing to invest in climate change-related actions, for example. This is all one can do.
One challenge with this approach is that it won’t fully resolve the issue. Sometimes, we have to choose from a collection of bad choices. But it is all one can do. I don’t have to like it, but I have to accept the fact that I’m doing what I can. This can help me move forward. I’ve done what I believe is appropriate and responsible. There is no point worrying more about it. The “functional” thing to do is move on to other things in my life. Emotional maturity often requires one to accept “what is” and decide how one wants to show up given “what is.” Accepting doesn’t mean approving of it or liking it. It means I’m dealing with it the best I know how.
Beware of the quick fix.
Anxiety can drive a quick-fix mentality. There is a good reason for this. In our not-too-distant past, if we were anxious, there would have been good reason to deal with it. Your brain wants you to do anything to eliminate the discomfort of anxiety, which means you have removed the threat that caused the anxiety. In nature, dealing with threats is a great way to stay alive. But now, this evolutionary trait could lead to quick-fix thinking or maladaptive soothing. Just deciding to ignore anything to do with climate change isn’t the solution, either. For example, an anxiety-driven decision to buy an electric car that you can’t afford isn’t the solution.
Like other important issues, a mature individual works to define self in the realm of climate change. This is defining self in one’s relationship with the planet and society. It might cause one to define self in relationships as well. This is where one’s beliefs and convictions will be important. Do you have enough conviction to hold your ground when someone important to you challenges your position? Notice that I said, “Hold your ground, ” not “Change the other person’s thinking.” Can you remain calm enough to listen to someone disagreeing with your thinking? Can you resist trying to change their thinking so you feel less anxious or threatened by them?
I’ve been thinking about climate issues since the 1970s. I think about what is a responsible and sustainable way to live. I recognize my privileged position and work to do what I can. I’m clear about how much I can do and can’t do. I believe systems thinking will help us solve our problems. Thus, one thing I can do is to put more systems thinking out into the world. What will you be willing to do based on your principles and convictions?
Thank you for your interest in family systems.
The Globe and Mail article that inspired this post is here: Climate Change Stress.
Learn more about Bowen family systems theory here.