Health and counselling offers seminar on climate change anxiety

Dr. Shona Adams discusses coping strategies

Photo of a path on Burnaby Mountain. The path is surrounded by forest and healthy trees.
Levels of climate change anxiety have increased as the effects of global warming become stronger. PHOTO: Amirul Anirban / The Peak

By: Pranjali J Mann, News Writer

SFU’s Health and Counselling and registered clinical psychologist Dr. Shona Adams hosted a seminar on “Climate Change Anxiety and Grief.” Hosted in a hybrid model, the seminar focused on strategies to cope with anxiety related to climate change. The seminar was held in addition to a newly launched Canvas course covering climate anxiety. 

A 2022 study by UBC PhD student and co-founder of Mental Health and Climate Change Alliance, Andreea Bratu, and SFU health sciences assistant professor Kiffer Card found a rising trend of climate change related anxiety in the province. This was especially because the 2021 heat dome hit close to home and more people became aware of the lack of environmental stability. The two-hour event explored the meaning of climate change anxiety, immediate coping strategies for it, resilience building, and support resources available. 

Adams specified the meaning of climate change anxiety as “fearing the impact of climate change like temperature flooding, wildfires, and heat domes.” She drew attention to the slight difference of this term with eco-anxiety. “Eco-anxiety is a slightly broader topic, which is the impact of environmental damage and ecological disaster due to human actions.” 

She found anger, fear, hopelessness, and a sense of being overwhelmed as some of the emotions relating to these types of anxiety. She indicated these emotions surface when “there’s something wrong with the situation that you are in.” She added that “understand[ing] our emotions will help us know how best to respond to them.” 

She unpacked climate grief as a feeling of loss due to “acute or past physical loss” from calamities like heat waves or floods. This would also involve feelings of “disruption of personal and cultural identities related to the physical environment,” or anxiety from anticipating a future environmental catastrophe.

She introduced the concept of the window of tolerance in her presentation. She explained the “window” as a safety net or boundary, wherein we actively work. Below this window, “we have no arousal levels at all. We would stay in bed, we would not function, we would not do anything.” Above this window, emotional arousals to act are too high which causes a person to completely “shutdown and [be] overwhelmed.” For her, paying attention to “healing with nature,” and “adapting to changes and practicing gratitude” alongside taking realistic climate action was important. 

The purpose of anger and frustration — the fight and flight response — builds up and is there to get us to take action or do something.”

Support resources for climate change anxiety and grief can be found on SFU’s website.