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Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems

Emotional Resilience in the Face of Climate Change (and Covid-19)

by Sheryl Karas M.A., CRARS staff

the word "Resiliency" spelled out in Scrabble pieces

This year’s This Way To Sustainability Conference(opens in new window) was notable for a couple reasons. Because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the event on March 26 and 27 was done entirely online for the first time. And there were more keynote presentations and break-out sessions that included information about mental, emotional and spiritual issues than ever before. Participant anxiety about climate change and the pandemic crisis were no doubt intertwined this year so the choice to include tools for emotional resilience and self-leadership was prescient, or at least well-timed, to say the least. However, depression and anxiety among young adults is not just a 2020 phenomenon—it’s something that has grown dramatically for the last 10-15 years(opens in new window).

In Chico State lecturer Nate Millard’s presentation on “Climate Anxiety, Grief and Emerging Adults,” he said that in his classes for First Year students he would normally expect to see most of them be full of optimism for their college experience and the years ahead. Instead he is seeing surprising levels of fearfulness and depression. According to a survey Millard did recently, 81% of Chico State students believe climate change is real and 64% of them think about the issue every week, if not every day. 75% of Chico State students report feeling fearful about climate change, 56% say they are angry about it, and almost 50% say they actually feel hopeless. 

Most of this fear, anger and depression is driven by news reports on climate change-related events and scientific projections, especially spread through social media. Certainly they learn about this in some of their classes. But much of it is also embedded in the culture. According to Millard, older generations are more likely to say they lived through fear of the end of the world before. They can remember nuclear attack drills where they needed to hide under their desks as children, and the movies of the time were often focused on superheroes like Superman who would come to save the day and set things right again. That generation believes the future could change for the better if leaders would come together and sign a treaty because they actually saw that happen in the past. Unfortunately, today’s biggest blockbusters are about zombie apocalypse and super hero movies like “The Avengers Endgame” where the mission is more  about helping humankind survive than the idea of winning and making everything alright again. Millard pointed out that researchers on PTSD he has spoken with caution that survivors of terrible disasters can often be helped by believing that things will be alright in the future. This is not true for people with climate change-driven fear.

A question from a student attending the presentation illustrated this mindset: “Do you have any recommendations on how to tackle this issue considering how futile individual action feels?”

Nate Millard says that he feels the key is “belonging.” He thinks the key to a lot of mental health issues is feeling like you’re part of a community of people who care, that you’re not alone, and that together there are many things people can do. He also emphasized the importance of helping oneself and other people feel good about whatever they are able to do. His example was that people sometimes tear each other down by saying that because a person isn’t measuring up in one area that they’re being hypocritical and, therefore, nothing else they do or say matters. It’s more important to acknowledge the importance of every positive effort, knowing we’re all less than “perfect” with this, and to cultivate an attitude of mutual support and gratitude for everyone’s work. When people are appreciated and feel better about themselves, they want to do more. Studies(opens in new window) have shown that when you help someone else, you automatically feel better about yourself as well. 

Tools for Developing Emotional Resilience

Both Chico State Professor of Kinesiology, Josh Trout, and Kathy Fernandez, who is the Academic Technology Officer at Chico State, made the same point in their presentations about the importance of not being overly judgmental of oneself when attempting to develop better habits for emotional resilience. Fernandez emphasized that becoming more resilient is a process, a practice of bringing yourself back to awareness and choosing what you really want to focus on again and again. Trout mentioned that after healthy food and daily movement, that what people most need is love, connection with other people or pets, sleep and far less stress driving them to overwork and be constantly busy.

Josh Trout’s break-out session presentation was “Sustaining Health Through Mindfulness.” He cited research showing that practices that bring one’s attention to the present moment (being “mindful” of the present moment), can help enhance focus, improve creativity, nourish self-awareness, and help manage depression and anxiety. Meditation is the most well-known of these practices but any activity can be used as an opportunity to practice bringing one’s full attention to the present moment and task at hand. Trout introduced participants to some basic  mindfulness approaches like focusing on the breath or the sound of your heart for 60 seconds, taking the time to really taste and experience the sensations of eating one bite of food, walking with full attention on the physical experience of one’s feet hitting the ground and the sights and sounds in the environment, and doing a body scan (bringing attention to one body part at a time while proceeding up or down the body). He also asked people to rate how stressed they felt on a scale of 1 to 10 before doing some of these exercises and how they rated themselves afterward. Most people tend to rate themselves as more relaxed afterwards. 

Trout talked of these techniques an antidote to mindlessly doing one thing while ruminating on something else. Having one’s attention split between the person you’re sitting with and social media on your cell phone is a good example. He expressed concern that cell phone use tends to make people more distracted and less able to be present and focused over time. He sees mindfulness as a tool students could use to be more aware of their bodily needs for sleep, food or relaxation and recommended that if they tended to fall asleep when meditating to take that as a sign that they needed to get more rest.

a woman going for a run at sunset

Combining Mindset with Mindfulness

Kathy Fernandez repeated or expanded on the same exercises in her presentation “Self-Leadership for Resilience and Well-Being” but took the concept of mindfulness further to noticing what you are spending your time paying attention to or telling yourself and how that makes you feel. She talked about how the news is designed around stress, fear, drama, and trauma because that stimulates people to pay attention and, therefore, becomes the content that sells. She did not recommend people stop making sure they are informed but emphasized that the constant exposure to negatively stimulating content on television or on social media adds dangerous levels of stress to one’s life.

Fernandez went into detail about the physiology of stress and how that impacts a person’s life over time. In particular, she pointed to studies about the stress hormone cortisol, released in the body to prepare a person to take action when under stress. Unfortunately, high levels of cortisol over time increases the activity level and number of neural connections in the amygdala, the part of the brain that handles the fear response, while parts of the brain associated with learning, memories, and stress control deteriorate. Over a long time this can actually cause the brain to shrink, damaging a person’s ability to concentrate, make clear rational decisions, or feel at ease in social interactions. It’s also a strong factor in the development of serious mental problems like clinical depression and eventually Alzheimer's disease.

Fortunately, there are many ways to reverse the damage of chronically elevated cortisol levels in the brain. Fernandez said that the most powerful weapons are exercise and meditation because they both involve breathing deeply and being aware and focused on your surroundings in the present moment. This interrupts the habit of worrying about the future or ruminating about the past. She also spoke about the importance of interrupting stress-inducing activities and negative self-talk by self-leadership in choosing what you spend your time doing and focusing on. She spoke of deliberately shifting to a different perspective.

All three of these presenters suggested the mindset of gratitude and bringing lovingkindness to the process as essential. But Fernandez further stressed the importance of shifting one’s perspective on the concept of “crisis” itself. For example, instead of seeing crisis and change as a completely bad thing, she talked about how the Chinese word for crisis includes both the character for danger and the character for opportunity.

Resilience requires seeing both. When it comes to sustainability, the crisis of climate change as well as the Covid-19 crisis provide opportunities to see more clearly how things need to change and take action for the better.