Coping with climate stress: A Q&A with Carolyn Scorpio of U-M CAPS
As students, especially those studying the environment and sustainability, it is easy to become overwhelmed with powerlessness about climate change. Every day we are learning about new environmental disasters, extreme weather events, and environmental degradation, thus it’s only a matter of time until many of us become riddled with grief. Harvard Health defines climate stress or anxiety as “distress related to worries about the effects of climate change” that is “rooted in uncertainty about the future and alerting us to the dangers of a changing climate.” If you are experiencing stress about climate change, you are not alone. According to a survey from the American Psychological Association, more than two-thirds of Americans experience some form of climate anxiety.
U-M Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) recently offered a winter-semester support group, Coping with Climate Stress, to help students address these concerns. An upcoming workshop focused on the same topic is planned for April 4. CAPS social worker Carolyn Scorpio, LMSW, and former postdoctoral fellow Dan Murphy, PsyD, co-created the support group because they “noticed that more and more students had been sharing with us feelings of anxiety and overwhelm related to the climate crisis, and felt very alone in that experience, as though other people didn't really think about it or worry about it in the same way.”
Scorpio cited a recent survey of 10,000 people aged 16–25 years from around the world which found that 59% were very or extremely worried about climate change, and that 84% were at least moderately worried about it. As a result, the Coping with Climate Stress group was created for students to “connect with others who also experienced these emotions and process them in a validating and supportive environment, explore strategies for coping with some of the more difficult emotions and disruptive impacts of climate distress, and feel more empowered to work toward climate action in a way that felt authentic and meaningful to them.”
We asked Scorpio additional questions about the support group and ways students can manage their anxiety and fears about climate change.
In general, what are some of the common feelings/emotions/fears that students share when talking about climate change and the future?
Students may experience a wide range of emotions and experiences related to the climate crisis and the future. These may include anxiety and fear about what the future will look like; grief and sadness about the loss of places and species they care about; anger at the inaction or indifference from political leaders and large corporations; feelings of guilt and difficulty in making decisions, including what to buy at the grocery store, what career or profession to pursue, where to live, and whether or not to have children. Many students may also have difficulty in communicating with family members or friends who may not share the same climate concerns, and feeling invalidated or told they are “overreacting” for having the emotions they are experiencing, which can make it worse. Students may also have experienced or are currently experiencing the direct impacts of extreme weather events and environmental injustice, or feeling overwhelmed and distressed due to being more indirectly exposed to climate change information through social media and news coverage. It is also important to note that many students may have feelings of hope, joy, and purpose when talking about climate change and the future; for example, students may identify feelings of love and care for the environment and natural world, meaningful memories of certain places and people connected to the environment, and a sense of empowerment when taking action toward change, whether in their own lives or more broadly.
What are your top five strategies for mentally coping with climate stress?
This is a tough question. Because students may experience a wide range of emotions and experiences related to climate change, it really depends on each individual and their unique situation what coping strategies feel best for them. Speaking very generally, here are a few suggestions for ways to cope:
1) Identify and name the emotions and experiences related to climate change, whether that is sadness, anger, fear, anxiety, avoidance, or something else. Taking time to get curious about our emotions and labeling our feelings may sound simple, but it can help to lessen their intensity, allowing us to take a step back and create space for more choice on how to manage them.
2) Utilize coping strategies to manage impacts of climate stress. Climate anxiety and stress can throw us into "fight, flight, or freeze" states, which can result in getting stuck in intense emotions and unable to function as we normally would. Strategies such as grounding, mindfulness, deep breathing, movement, art, music, sensory objects, or other self-soothing strategies can help regulate our nervous system and respond better to stress. Think about what activities bring you joy or help you feel centered, and create a list of strategies that feel helpful for using in times of feeling overwhelmed.
3) Connect with nature and/or support systems, whether it’s friends, family, a support group, or a therapist. Connecting with individuals who are able to listen, validate, and provide support can be helpful in feeling less alone in the experience. Additionally, there is a lot of evidence that demonstrates the positive impact of being out in nature on our mental health. Think about how you can connect to others and to nature in positive ways.
4) Practice self-compassion and set boundaries. In the face of a worldwide ecological crisis, it can be easy to feel guilty about the individual choices we make, from our consumption to travel habits to how we spend our time and what information we take in. Practicing self-compassion to help manage these feelings of guilt and self-blame is so important; for example, reframing narratives around individual responsibility that can increase feelings of anxiety or guilt to reminding ourselves that we are part of a larger political and global system that is impacting climate change. Setting boundaries around consuming media and information about the climate crisis is also really important; for example, noticing the line between being informed and engaged on climate justice issues, and becoming overwhelmed or “doom scrolling” to the point where it increases anxiety and overwhelm.
5) Connect to your values, purpose, and actions. The breadth of the climate crisis can make us feel helpless, hopeless, and stuck. Spending time reflecting on our own values, strengths, and areas in which we could take action can help move out of the freeze state and toward more self-efficacy and empowerment. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson has a great model for this that I think about often, in which she asks us to think about the intersection between these three questions: What brings you joy? What are you good at? What is the work that needs doing? Finding the common threads between these questions can help point to the direction of finding meaningful ways to address the climate crisis.
What can we as students do to help others dealing with climate stress?
I think one of the most important things students can do to help others is provide empathetic listening, validate that person’s feelings and concerns, and be present with them in the experience. Part of why we decided to offer a therapy group is due to the power of connecting with others about experiences with climate stress, and being able to offer and receive support in a collective environment. Climate anxiety and grief is an understandable reaction to the threat of the climate crisis, but it can so often be dismissed and invalidated—hearing something like “you’re not alone” can make a big difference. It could also be useful to help the person identify coping strategies that resonate with them, whether that’s being outside, listening to music or creating art, journaling, deep breathing, or taking a break from the news. If it makes sense, it could also be helpful to brainstorm actions that feel empowering and aligned with that person’s interests and activities, and even working together toward change—whether it’s thinking about how to minimize impact on the environment within your living space, hosting a clothing swap, working in a community garden, or getting involved in an organization or environmental activism efforts.
Of course, if the person is expressing significant mental health concerns or you are worried about their safety, you can encourage them to connect with CAPS. For urgent appointments, we have the CAPS Counselor on Duty available any time CAPS is open, and the CAPS After Hours hotline available when we are closed, which can be scheduled by calling our front desk at 734.764.8312. Students can also schedule an appointment here.
If students attend a Coping with Climate Stress session, what skills do you hope they walk away with?
Above all, I hope students walk away with a sense of connection and support from others, and of not being alone in their experience. I also hope that students increase their ability to identify and express their emotions and experiences related to the climate crisis, ideas for specific coping strategies they can utilize when feeling difficult or intense emotions, and overall feeling less overwhelmed and more empowered to take actions that align with their values and goals. Finally, I hope that through these sessions, students are able to connect with feelings of joy, meaning, and hope related to this unprecedented time we are living in—a time of great challenges, but also opportunities. Through this work, I hope students can connect with the idea of “radical imagination” and being able to move through the images of climate destruction that we are constantly bombarded with, and rather, to hold space for cultivating hope, visualizing the future and the world we would like to inhabit, and what role we can play in bringing that future to life.
Will there be other options for students who may not be able to attend this semester's sessions?
Students can always reach out to CAPS for individual counseling if they are not able to attend the group or workshop this semester. There are lots of other ways to receive support related to themes of climate anxiety, stress, and grief, including books, online resources, support groups, and finding a climate-aware therapist, which can be a great option for students who may be feeling depressed, anxious, or so overwhelmed by the climate crisis that they are struggling to function or manage daily activities. I’ve listed just a few of these suggestions below.
- “A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet”: a helpful and relatively short book that outlines strategies for navigating climate anxiety.
- “Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis”: another book on the emotional impact of the climate crisis, and how to cope.
- Good Grief Network: 10-week online support groups for processing climate-related emotions.
- Generation Dread: an online newsletter on themes of climate change and mental health.
- Climate Psychology Alliance: a directory of climate-aware therapists and other resources.
- Search for a local "Climate Cafe."
- Stay tuned for future groups and programs from CAPS!