Heart Heavy With Eco Anxiety? There Are 2 Best Coping Mechanisms, According To Science

August 16, 2022

In our world inundated with bad news, it takes a real gut-wrencher to stop me in my tracks. This happened yesterday morning when I saw the headlines about a new study positing that 1/4 of the U.S. will have regular 125°F temperatures in the next thirty years. In other words, a huge swath of the country will become the Death Valley by 2053. I have many friends who have babies and toddlers—by the time they are my age, they will suffer intensely from irrevocable damage to the planet.

This news made me feel depressed and desperate in a million ways. I have been an environmental advocate for the last decade, and I do everything I can in my personal life to limit my footprint. I try to educate and persuade people to take pro-environment actions. But I’m continuously left disappointed and disillusioned at people’s indifference and denial. Government inaction and corporate greed don’t surprise me—but problem avoidance of my friends and loved ones hurts me so much more. I’m also deeply saddened by the loss of our beautiful world and creatures—an emotion that’s known as eco grief.

One with Nature in Glacier National Park

Eco anxiety can be difficult to process because it tends to be a complicated set of emotions rather than one simple feeling. Parsing out the different dimensions of your eco anxiety can benefit you by suggesting an adaptive coping mechanism. We all have an understanding of what a coping mechanism is: it helps us deal with negative emotions after events like a breakup or a stressful job. Whether it’s comfort food of choice (mine’s vegan mac n’ cheese), going on a walk, or not getting out of bed, coping mechanisms can be adaptive or maladaptive. In the case of eco anxiety, adaptive coping mechanisms are helpful to both individuals and climate mitigation. Maladaptive ones may help the individual but not the planet, or perhaps not benefit either. These include denial, problem avoidance, indifference, unrealistic optimism, and wishful thinking. So how we choose to cope with eco anxiety has huge implications for both our own mental health and the planet.

The great thing is that there are two main adaptive coping mechanisms to eco anxiety, identified in a new study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.

Problem-focused coping

First one is the one I’ve been relying on for more than a decade to get me through my worst dark moments: Problem-focused coping. This means channeling your emotions into constructive activities like changing your own behaviors, advocating, and educating others. Researchers note, however, that “when stressors are less controllable—like in the case of climate change—relying solely on problem-focused strategies could lead to more distress.” Advocates know this feeling as that brick wall you run up against, when you’ve given it your best and still find that it’s not enough. I’ve also seen so many advocates turn away from everything they’d been preaching, saying “individual action doesn’t matter.” I remember feeling especially shocked and on some level, betrayed, by one particular social-media environmentalist I was acquainted with: she had been a vegan/vegetarian and a zero-waste advocate, but largely turned away from that to only urge fighting against corporate and governmental inaction. Whether you experience burnout or become convinced of individual powerlessness, problem-focused coping can have its drawbacks.

Meaning-focused coping

This is where meaning-focused coping comes in. Whereas problem-focused coping tends to be results-oriented, meaning-focused coping finds value in intention and process. Even if all the good behavior and advocacy can’t make as much of a difference as we would like, meaning-focused coping enables us to see the good—courage and even nobility—in trying anyway.

Let’s assume that one person going vegan doesn’t stop climate change, in the grand scheme of things. (So for the sake of argument, let’s forget for a moment the fact that individual bad behavior certainly accumulates into tidal waves of negative consequences in the world—and so the opposite must also be true.) But that small-scale change is meaningful to the individual who undergoes the transformation, as well as to the individual animals who are saved by this decision. Saying individual pro-environmental actions don’t matter is like saying “education doesn’t matter—unless you’re going to be the next POTUS or UN Secretary or world-class scientist,” or “why bother writing—unless you’re going to be the next Nobel Prize winner.” It’s akin to saying our individual lives, and actions we take to be better people, are meaningless. Of course, we know that that’s not true. Our actions have meaning whether or not they impact macro changes in the world. Indeed, doing the right thing whether anyone even notices is at least one definition of integrity. 

Meaning-focused coping can also take the form of social coping, where you join communities of like-minded environmentalists for emotional support and collaborative action.

I’m still trying to process my emotions from the heavy-hearted news this week, but these tools give me a better chance of surviving and thriving in an increasingly fraught world. Yes, the problem is bigger than any individual. But a person’s smallness doesn’t change the fact that one creates one’s own impact and meaning on Earth.

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Photo: Peaceful Dumpling


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