Ariella Cook-Shonkoff and Neelu Tummala write on the Washington Post website, reminding us that that we need to to focus our energies on a single common denominator: resilience.
Ariella Cook-Shonkoff is a licensed psychotherapist and committee co-chair at Climate Psychology Alliance-North America. Neelu Tummala is an ENT surgeon and clinical assistant professor of surgery at George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, and is on the boards of the Virginia Clinicians for Climate Action and the Faith Alliance for Climate Solutions.
Six ways to stay balanced during the climate crisis
As vaccine rollouts allow us to plan for a post-pandemic world, we face another looming emergency: the climate crisis. While pandemic pall is visceral, climate change can feel far off, requiring effort to remain engaged, or at a minimum, to keep paying attention. But with our future dependent on climate action over the next nine years, it’s urgent that we zoom out of our siloed lives and step into the broader panorama. The climate crisis demands our attention.
As bicoastal medical and mental health practitioners, we are deeply concerned about the adverse health consequences of global warming, including: increased risk of heart disease and stroke, higher rates of violence, the widening spread of infectious diseases as well as the psychological toll.
Yet we’re also aware that the climate crisis has been eclipsed by competing stressors. Right now, many of us are still in pandemic survival mode, eking out each day with the repetitious feel of Groundhog Day. When stress overlays stress, it is a reminder to focus our energies on a single common denominator: resilience.
Humans are innately resilient, having proved over millennia our ability to spring back in the face of overwhelming adversity. Evolutionary psychology accounts for how human behavior has evolved to preserve and protect us — from brain function to stress response to support systems, our ability to adapt is one of our greatest attributes.
We intuitively know how to be resilient. We see it every day: healing in the wake of illness, loss, or trauma; coping with disabilities; adjusting to life on foreign soil. But mining that characteristic and honing it so that we can call on it when faced with an overwhelming issue requires practice and intention for most of us.
Research suggests that although there may be a genetic component, resilience is a function of a potpourri of factors, not a must-have gene, trait or cultural determinant. Resilience also appears to cut right through social classifications of culture, race, class, gender identity, religion and political affiliation. This knowledge that resilience is widely distributed is encouraging, as is the fact that it can be developed and nurtured.
Think about personal resilience as a rubber band: If you stretch it a reasonable amount, it naturally springs back to its original form when released. But if you keep stretching it, it will snap. With the climate crisis here, we must choose to stretch ourselves, pulling on our resilience as much as we can.
How to begin? We can start by putting some resilient “pennies” into our emotional piggy banks.
We can better regulate our nervous systems. When a stressor — like witnessing a climate catastrophe firsthand or worrying about those affected — causes us to panic, or we become numb to avoid the unpleasantness of it, we become dysregulated. Simple acts like abdominal breathing, counting the lengths of our breaths, walking, stretching or even snuggling a pet can bring us back into a mind-body sweet spot — what some in the field of psychology call “Window of Tolerance” or “Zone of Regulation.” Essentially, the goal is resetting our nervous system, rather than reacting to intense emotion. Once we regulate ourselves, we can help others do the same.
We can shift our attitude and perspective. The narratives we tell ourselves color our lives. Yes, the climate crisis is scary and overwhelming, but doomsday thinking inhibits our ability to act. As climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe says, “Fear is not what’s going to motivate us. … What we need to fix this thing is rational hope.” Wherever we fall on the half-full/ half-empty continuum, we cannot cancel our proclivities overnight, but we can move toward equilibrium in several ways.
We can reframe the situation. Yes, our planet is in crisis, but the Biden administration has prioritized climate, paving the way for much-needed systemic change. Amid the bad news about the climate are small signs of positive change: Solar power is now the cheapest source of electricity. The most recent pandemic recovery bill allocates much-needed funding for public transit, which is less polluting than single-occupancy vehicles. Climate champion Deb Haaland was confirmed as interior secretary. Massachusetts just passed a sweeping climate change law.
We can connect. When societies knit themselves together and find common ground, much is possible. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 63 percent of Americans are worried about global warming. When we feel we are not alone (and clearly we are not), the knowledge that others understand and share our concerns energizes us as individuals and as communities. Reaching out, creating dialogue or sharing a meal with others fosters much-needed social connection, and boosts individual and collective resilience.
We can express gratitude. For quiet moments in nature, for the first responders who protect us during climate-fueled natural disasters, and for those who continue to show up on the climate front: grass-roots activists, children and young adults, parents and grandparents, philanthropists and scientists.
And finally, we can start small. Breaking climate action into manageable goals is less overwhelming. For example, try a vegetarian diet for a week, plan errands to strategically minimize car use or consider installing solar panels. While many climate solutions require large-scale systemic changes from businesses and the government, we, as individuals and communities, have the power to start small and scaffold up.
Whether paralyzed or panicked about the climate emergency, resilience is the gift that keeps on giving. While the best practice is to hone this quality before things spiral out of control, it’s never too late to start. Flexibility is perhaps our greatest attribute. As Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication, says about the warming planet: “It’s real. It’s us. Experts agree. It’s bad. There’s hope.”