A kōrero with Dr Sarb Johal, part 2: On dealing with climate anxiety and finding a sense of calm again
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In Part 1 of our conversation with clinical psychologist Dr Sarb Johal, we spoke about the different emotions many of us might be experiencing in the wake of the severe weather events that have recently hit Aotearoa. In the second part of our kōrero, we asked Dr Sarb for tips on managing fear and stress, coping with increased feelings of climate anxiety, and more.

These severe weather events have brought to the forefront a conversation about climate change and heightened climate or eco anxiety for many. What would you say to people grappling with these feelings?

Dr Sarb: My main piece of advice is to take some practical steps to deal with your anxiety and stave off feelings of powerlessness. Here are some suggestions from the Australian Red Cross:
  • Recognise Firstly, it’s key to recognise that climate change is causing stress and anxiety. This helps normalise our feelings and reassures us it’s a normal reaction to an uncertain situation.
  • Limit Limit exposure to climate-related content. Get what you need to know from the news, then take a break. Rest your brain. We can become cognitively overloaded, and this is no use to us.
  • Practise Practise self-care: healthy eating, exercise, positive connections, and pleasurable activities are key ingredients for looking after your wellbeing.
  • Connect Get into nature – it's restorative for our bodies and minds. Get your fill of green (park/forest) or blue (sea/sky). We can do this even in big cities – use parks or backyards, lie down and look at the sky, admire the wonderful different shapes of clouds.
  • Act Get involved and take action. This helps us overcome the sense of ‘it’s too big and I can’t do anything about it’. People who took part in a climate change adaptation program we ran in Adelaide reported that joining the group and taking action helped them feel in control. Joining groups helps set collective actions and talk about what is going on (and is generally a good thing to do for your wellbeing, anyway).
  • Reduce There are many adjustments you can take to reduce your environmental footprint, from heating to diet and transport. They can be small steps, because as Lao Tzu said, the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
  • Talk Talk to your local councillors and politicians about climate change so they know it’s an issue you care about.
  • Find hope Cultivate active hope. By taking action, you not only reduce your anxieties, but you also make a positive contribution to fixing the problem.
Many New Zealanders will be feeling anxious, scared, or stressed every time it starts to rain again, or if there’s a new severe weather warning or watch. How can we find calm and reassurance again when this happens?

Dr Sarb: For people who have been affected by a natural disaster, this is a common experience. Research shows that people who have affected by flooding experienced anxiety during heavy rain, even years after the event.
For the longer term, we should be thinking about increasing mental health and wellbeing resources to affected areas.
But for those experiencing anxiety now, I hope that just being aware of the toll a natural disaster can take on our wellbeing will encourage them to come forward for help. It’s important that people do not think they have to go through this on their own.
In the meantime, prepare ‘go’ bags, make sure you have copies of photo albums and important documents, and take time to understand how you can influence and adapt to your situation; not just by yourself, but by coming together with others.

And finally, are there any other tips or insights you’d like to share with us here?

Dr Sarb: Build trust by continuing conversations about what happened and what happens next. Try to make things as predictable as possible in these uncertain circumstances – building a sense of agency and control helps us fend off a feeling of powerlessness. It’s essential we keep up hope.