How to Not Melt Down Over Our Warming Planet

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I mean, if a teacher told young people something like, “Oh, don’t worry about climate change; there are technologies in development,” that would likely increase cynicism. People know that response is too easy; they know the problem is not one with an easy solution. Although people want to quickly move to hope, psychology shows that it is very important to confront hard emotions, name them, and discuss them.

Why is it important to name them?

Talking about emotions with others—putting words to them and asking others what they mean for them—can help us not only deal with the emotions but create shared meaning. One person could experience worry in a totally different way than another, or have a different set of concerns. Someone could, perhaps, worry about their children; others might worry about the importance of biodiversity. By starting to talk about our worries, we grasp the problem, we can better understand what is at stake, and we start to get a sense of control, so it doesn’t turn into a kind of free-floating anxiety that could be very hard to handle. It is the first step to coping with these emotions.

Once we have clarity on our feelings, what’s the next step?

The next step is to look at the coping strategies we use, and ask ourselves why are we using them and if there are other way we can cope. Problem-focused coping, for example, is a very good strategy to use for concrete problems that you have more or less total control over. You start to focus on the problem and can get clear on what you can do.

What does that look and sound like in the context of climate change?

You could say to yourself, “So here I am, worried about climate change. What can I control? I can read and learn more about the problem, start to talk with my friends about what we can do, bicycle or take a bus rather than drive,” and also do other things that are focused on addressing the problem.

Then, there is meaning-focused coping. That is considered the most constructive coping strategy from a well-being and engagement perspective. It is more about promoting positive emotions that buffer negative emotions that feel too hard to bear.

Putting a positive spin on the challenges we face?

No, it’s related to switching perspectives between worry and hope, so you can see, “Yeah, this is a really, really serious problem, and I’m really worried,” and also see that it’s good that more and more people are aware of the problem, and media is doing more reporting. Or remembering that this is difficult, but we have faced difficult problems before.

In facing a challenge on the scale of climate change, we need to be active even though we don’t have total control. So it is not enough to just be problem-focused. You can look at what you can do—save energy in the house or stop eating meat or become part of a climate organization—but you also need something more. Meaning-focused coping can help us face our worries, so we can become problem-focused. The best thing to do is combine both coping strategies.

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