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Climate Change and the Mind: Handling Eco-Anxiety, Isolation, and the Influence of Relationships



Climate Change and the Mind: Handling Eco-Anxiety, Isolation, and the Influence of Relationships

Not only is the climate problem changing our external surroundings. It might even be changing the way our thoughts work and the way we relate to one another.

An increasing number of individuals are becoming anxious about the possibility of extreme weather events as well as the security of their homes, possessions, and means of subsistence. More people are numb to the general malaise surrounding the fundamental changes occurring to the earth and human existence. Additionally, there is mounting evidence that the climate catastrophe may be changing our thoughts in addition to our surroundings.

“Climate change is inside us,” said Clayton Aldern, a neuroscientist and author of the forthcoming “The Weight of Nature: How a Changing Climate Changes Our Brains,” one of a number of recent books and studies that delve into how climate change affects our brains, our mental health, and the connections we make with each other.

An association with loneliness

Researchers are observing that social isolation and mental health problems are coinciding with the climate crisis, and they have proposed some startling connections between the two. Climate-related events may be contributing to a collective sense of tension, fear, and isolation known as “eco-anxiety,” which may be making individuals feel more alone and negatively affecting their relationships, health, and ability to act as a group.

“When I hear ‘loneliness,’ I think about disconnection,” Aldern said by email. “And climate change is profoundly good at spurring disconnect. It ruptures place bonds; it corrupts language; through secondary vectors, it prompts sociopolitical division. These are all manners in which a changing environment can separate people from one another.”

Researchers studying health found a link between social isolation perception and climate anxiety. They used questionnaires meant to gauge feelings of isolation, loneliness, and climate concern among more than 3,000 German citizens. In addition, respondents disclosed demographic and lifestyle information on their age, gender, location, and drinking and smoking habits. The survey data analysis revealed a correlation between loneliness and social isolation as well as climate anxiety when these characteristics are taken into account. For both the general population and individuals between the ages of 18 and 64, higher degrees of loneliness and isolation were substantially linked to higher levels of climate anxiety.

A risk to psychological well-being

Although the German study could not find a link between climate change and mental health problems, there are increasing indications of this.

“Climate change acts far more directly on brain health than I think we’ve broadly come to appreciate,” Aldern said. “There’s likely a serotonin-mediated effect of temperature deviations on violent behavior. People are also less able to think critically at higher temperatures — your prefrontal cortex becomes more isolated from the rest of your brain — which means we’re not as good at, say, taking the SAT or performing other cognitive tasks. Global environmental changes are bolstering the success of brain-disease vectors like mosquitoes and cyanobacteria; extreme weather can provoke PTSD; shifting climatic baselines bear on the brain’s memory systems.”

People are more likely to act when they feel connected

In the meantime, a number of new research indicate that social separation and loneliness may directly affect people’s views and behaviors related to climate change.

Researchers looked at the connection between pro-environmental behavior—that is, activities a person takes to try to reduce or reverse adverse effects on the environment—and connectedness. Their research, which was published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences, is based on an online survey that 632 Australian people completed, in which they were asked to rank their sense of connectedness to the nation, the community, all of mankind, and the natural world. In addition, respondents provided answers to 10 measures designed to ascertain their underlying orientation toward “prosocial behaviors” and 22 questions concerning whether they have engaged in various pro-environmental activities during the preceding six months. One item said, “Having a lot of money is not important to me,” for example.

The authors developed a statistical model to forecast the probability of an individual engaging in pro-environmental activities based on the responses. They discovered that prosocial inclinations and a sense of connectivity to people, the natural world, and humanity are strong positive predictors; that is, the likelihood that a responder would have reported pro-environmental behaviors increased with their self-reported sense of connectedness. Although community connection was equally significant, being linked to nature was the strongest positive predictor. Interestingly, although being favorably associated with prosocial conduct, connection to nation was found to be a negative predictor.

This study validates a hypothesis that many environmental campaigners may already have: that people are compellingly motivated to act when they have a meaningful connection to the community or the natural world, and that taking action can start a chain reaction of connections with other people.

In the end, how people relate to their community has an impact on how they are affected by and recover from natural catastrophes—or the increasingly man-made climate calamities. According to a recent study, social and community factors influence  significantly disparate degrees of climate vulnerability. In addition to drawing on earlier measures of social vulnerability, that study proposed a new Climate Vulnerability Index that explicitly took into account the ways in which local infrastructure, family structure, and socioeconomic position influence how communities physically experience the effects of a disaster.

According to Aldern, research on the connections between social action, mental health, and climate change is only getting started.

“Just as we’ve seen the notion of climate anxiety enter the mainstream in a fairly ubiquitous manner over the past few years, I suspect we’re going to see a similar shift in awareness about the relationships between climate change and brain health,” he said. “I’m excited to find ourselves at the edge of this frontier of knowledge. It’s a braid of research that feels relatively new, and I look forward to this conversation becoming a part of the popular imagination. I think that’ll only quicken our addressing of the climate crisis.”


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