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Psychologists Discuss How to Cope With Climate Anxiety at Forum

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The panel of psychologists at last week’s Bedford 2030’s event “Mental Wellness in the Face of Climate Change: How We Are Affected and What We Can Do About It.” The event was moderated by Lauren Brois, left, who was accompanied by Joseph Taliercio, Suzanne Davino and Eric Lewandowski.

Despair, hopelessness, frustration, fear, worry, anger, guilt.

These were the words usede to describe the emotions shared at Bedford 2030’s event “Mental Wellness in the Face of Climate Change: How We Are Affected and What We Can Do About It” on June 11 at the Bedford Playhouse. The event was moderated by Lauren Brois, director of EnergySmart Homes and GridRewards at Sustainable Westchester.

As summer begins this week with a predicted heat wave, there has been a decades-long trend of higher temperatures that scientists attribute to a warming planet.

“We’ve been seeing record after record of heat-breaking temperatures,” said Dr. Joseph Taliercio, a clinical psychologist with a focus on climate psychology and scientific communication.

“Every time we turn on the news we see another story about another disaster, record-breaking droughts and famine. We can’t escape this,” he said.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), each of the last four decades has been successively warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850, and the 10 top hottest years ever recorded have all been after 2000. IPCC reports that cooling the planet means reducing the flow of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to lower the carbon footprint. That requires limiting emissions from power plants, factories, cars and farms.

Taliercio said heat waves have contributed to increases in substance abuse, depression, bipolar disorder and suicide. For those without a psychiatric condition, heat causes fatigue and lack of optimism. There are also links between heat and anger and violence, he said.

There are, however, practical steps one can take to combat psychological downtrends. Wearing light clothing and hats, avoiding the sun and drinking plenty of fluids all help. If temperatures exceed 90 degrees, forego the use of fans, which tend to push hot air around.

Whether its heatwaves, floods or wildfires, the connection to mental health is undeniable, said panelist Dr. Eric Lewandowski, a clinical psychologist specializing in mood and anxiety in youth.

“Climate anxiety is really a whole host of emotions,” Lewandowski explained. “They can include worry, grief, despair, madness, panic, hopelessness, and all are related to the impacts of climate change current and future.”

Lewandowski presented graphs produced by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication that track public perceptions of global warming. In the U.S., 62 percent of the population are worried about global warming while 72 percent of New Yorkers are distressed. Lewandowski said other studies show that climate anxiety is more pronounced among younger people because they will live longer, he said.

A 2021 survey of 10,000 young people ages 16 to 25 from 10 countries, including the U.S., showed 84 percent were worried about the impacts of climate change on people and the planet. The study also revealed that younger people’s climate change concerns affected their ability to function on a daily basis.

Locally, Lewandowski said the results of a 2023 student-led survey echo these findings. Conducted by students at Croton-on-Hudson High School for their Greenlight Award project, they survey the junior and senior classes. Of those polled, 87 percent reported some difficulty in daily functions.

But there are ways to help people cope with their emotions related to climate change. Panelist Dr. Suzanne Davino, a clinical psychologist with expertise in young adults and an advocate for the Climate Psychology Alliance of North America, explained how mindfulness, seeing the world as it is and understanding what is happening, can be of assistance.

“What kind of feelings and thoughts are arising and what physiological sensations do you notice as you go through your day?” Davino asked the audience of roughly 50 people. “Are you noticing muscle tension? Sometimes those things can be clues at any given moment to how you’re feeling.”

Getting accurate information is also critical, Davino noted.

“There’s the whole idea of tokenism, which refers to doing something that’s a climate-based behavior, like buying a cotton tote bag to replace plastic bags, for example,” she said.

Davino said studies show it would take 54 years of using a cotton tote bag every day to make it an environmentally-friendly alternative to a plastic bag.

Individual actions can also change one’s carbon footprint and make us feel that we are proactively addressing the challenge.

Davino suggested reducing air travel or eating a plant-based diet.

“When you know what to focus on, you’re more effective, more confident and maybe not worrying so much about smaller things,” she said.

That corporations contribute to 70 percent of the planet’s carbon emissions can make the average person feel overwhelmed. The issue is also a polarizing one, and the constant news can lead to mental exhaustion.

“Try to stay steady,” Davino advised. “Prioritize and look at what you consume and what you can contribute.”

Other steps one may consider is to advocate for climate change legislation and patronizing companies that follow climate protection practices. Being part of a hub that discusses and prioritizes steps toward a greener plant can also help.

For more information on the work of Bedford 2030, visit https://bedford2030.org.


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