How 'mental shutdown' around climate anxiety prevents us from acting

For most of us, climate change and concerns about the environment have been an underlying worry for years.

Often, those concerns are little more than background noise on the evening news as we eat our dinner – in order to get on with our lives, we have to push it to the back of our minds.

With an issue as enormous as the future fate of our environment, the planet and even the human race, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and paralysed by powerlessness.

After all, what can one person really do? Will meticulously sorting our rubbish into different bins, or going veggie one day per week actually make an impact in the face of floods, extreme weather and catastrophic temperatures?

If you find yourself switching off when someone mentions the climate, it isn’t because you don’t care – you’re likely suffering from ‘mental shutdown’.

Mental shutdown is a form a self-protection where your brain refuses to engage in an issue that it finds too scary, or too big to comprehend.

While mentally tuning out from the issue of climate change might help you get through your day without dissolving into a puddle of anxiety, it means too many of us are unable to act or make the simple changes that could genuinely make a difference if enough people choose to engage.

Fiachra Morrison, expert hypnotherapist at the Hypnosis and Therapy Centre, says mental shutdown is understandable in these circumstances.

‘It is not uncommon to feel engulfed by anxiety when realising that we do not have full control over the future,’ Fiachra tells Metro.co.uk. ‘This generates varying intensities of anxiety and powerlessness when it comes to addressing these global issues.

‘We can “do our bit” by recycling, reusing and changing our buying habits. However, our efforts can fade into insignificance as we are bombarded by the updated figures, projections and catastrophes.’

She says anxiety itself is not the problem, but that it is actually a symptom that there is something much deeper going on subconsciously.

‘When the feelings of powerlessness, helplessness and hopelessness are synonymous with feeling paralysed, it indicates that we are not in control of our own autonomy,’ says Fiachra. ‘They are instinctive, protective responses to what is going on in the world around us. Without a strong sense of control, we can feel threatened and endangered.’

According to Fiachra, powerlessness is one of the cornerstones of climate anxiety. She says that the experience of feeling helpless may begin to become evident in other aspects of our lives, too.

‘Whether we realise it or not, this may affect our jobs, relationships, family, affect us financially and in other personal areas of our lives,’ she says.

‘When our conscious desire to feel in control does not line up with our subconscious capacity, anxiety can often be the result. This consistent state of intense anxiety can lead to a mental and emotional shutdown.’

Dr Jorge E. Palacios, senior digital scientist at SilverCloud Health, refers to this phenomenon as ’emotional blunting’.

‘One recent study identified as a possible cause of paralysis the fact that we use denial as a defense mechanism to cope with the large levels of anxiety climate change can bring,’ Jorge tells Metro.co.uk.

‘There’s an emotional blunting that can come with large problems that we set aside, as meeting them head-on may bring more anxiety if we perceive our actions to be fruitless. 

‘Additionally, we tend to respond to threats that are more visible, immediate and direct, and therefore climate change may be too slow or unperceivable to elicit a response to the anxiety we feel. As the effects of climate change become more and more immediate, we may see this change and more action being taken.’

What causes mental shutdown?

Sarah Cannon, psychological wellbeing practitioner at Living Well UK, suggests that our constant exposure to negative news stories may be fueling our desire to shutdown.

‘With the 24-hour access to news and round-the-clock social media usage, we are constantly confronted with information about climate change,’ Sarah explains.

‘The problem itself can seem so large that it is difficult to see how we as individuals can have an impact on combatting the problem. This can therefore lead to inaction, as we simply don’t even know where to start to address the issue.’ 

Mental shutdown about the climate crisis isn’t caused by a lack of desire to change things, but by feelings of impotence in the face of a problem that feels insurmountable.

The majority of people who experience mental shutdown actually care deeply about the environment.

According to a recent Ford-commissioned study has revealed that 91% of Brits feel a personal level of responsibility in the fight against climate change.

The research found that having a global plan to tackle climate change was viewed as the third most pressing issue facing the country, ahead of mental health provision, and addressing the gender pay gap.

More than a quarter (27%) said putting in stricter measures to curb climate change was needed immediately.

So, why do so many people seem to feel the urgency of the situation while simultaneously disengaging from the reality and shutting down?

Experts say this indicates that mental shutdown is likely a symptom of wider climate anxiety.

‘While the effect on mental health of extreme events (like wildfires, hurricanes, floods and other natural disasters) is better understood, the relationship between mental health and less extreme, gradual climate change is not as obvious,’ says Jorge.

‘However, surveys in Europe and the US indicate most people are at least somewhat worried about climate change, and feelings of anxiety around climate change seem to be stronger in younger populations or in first-responders to natural disasters.’

He says ecoanxiety is defined as a ‘chronic fear of environmental doom’ and while some level of anxiety can motivate action or climate activism, another common response is paralysis.

Jorge adds: ‘Exposure to climate stressors can also lead to anxiety disorders when the person feels they can’t address the problem.’

As the climate crisis comes more to the forefront of public consciousness thanks to large-scale movements like Extinction Rebellion, how people react to the coverage of these protests varies.

‘For some,’ says Sarah, ‘this might help, as it shows there are other people who are trying to bring greater awareness to climate change and this could help an individual to feel less alone in their own efforts to combat the crisis.’

However, Sarah believes that seeing these pictures could intensify the mental shutdown for some.

‘It may add to anxiety as more media coverage about climate change increases your exposure to the problem and increases negative headlines.

‘By curating your own news feed and choosing when you access stories on climate change you can look to reduce your exposure to these potentially anxiety provoking headlines. This is where knowing your particular triggers for your anxiety can be helpful.

‘Are these stories something that help you or hinder you? Then you can choose your own actions in response to this.’

How to cope with climate anxiety and stop mental shutdown

This symptom of climate anxiety can become a bit of a dangerous spiral.

We get anxious because we are not doing anything to help the climate, but then that same anxiety stops us from acting.

Hypnotherapist Fiachra Morrison says we need a change in mindset.

‘Getting into conflict with a concept out of our control will only drain our physical, mental and emotional energies with little, if any, result,’ says Fiachra.

‘Taking action, no matter how small or insignificant it may seem, allows us to take back control so we can live on our terms. With our sense of control intact the helpless anxiety we had once experienced can dissipate, having no more power over us.’

Fiachra says there are many ways to change our mindsets, she suggests hypnotherapy can be effective in altering our habits and behaviours. But there are smaller, everyday things you can try too.

‘Talking to others about how we feel can help to relieve the feelings of overwhelm and anxiety and help us to not feel so alone with combatting this issue,’ suggests psychologist Sarah Cannon.

‘Seeking out likeminded people that you can take positive actions with can also be helpful. Feeling connected with others looking to achieve the same outcomes can provide us with a greater support network to discuss our concerns with.’ 

Sarah suggests thinking about what actions you can take as an individual to have a positive impact on the climate crisis.

‘As with all goal-setting, it is important to make these achievable,’ she adds. ‘With climate anxiety, we can fall into the trap of placing too much pressure on ourselves and become overwhelmed by the magnitude of things we could do to have an impact. Setting yourself achievable goals around this can help to change this inaction to action.

‘Try giving yourself weekly targets, like walking to work three times a week instead of driving, or introducing a meat-free Monday. We can then begin to build on these goals, as making small but positive changes can help to reduce our feelings of helplessness.’

Another thing you can try is taking breaks from social media and the news.

‘Having some dedicated time away from absorbing news about climate change is important,’ says Sarah, ‘as conversely this can actually sometimes lead to more feelings of overwhelm and inaction.

‘This doesn’t mean that you are ignoring the issue; it does mean you are actively choosing what news you consume and when.

‘For example, seek out positive news stories too. We often consume negative headlines and news about the climate crisis, but looking for stories of people and organisations that are making positive changes can help to improve our mood and highlight that there are others working towards a shared goal with us.’

Sarah says seeking optimism is crucially important.

‘Recognising that we are not alone in our worries about the climate crisis and focusing on the positive changes we can make can definitely help to alleviate our anxiety and sense of helplessness,’ she adds, ‘making us feel for optimistic about our ability to have an impact.’

Recognition of how we are feeling, and having the space to express difficult emotions – such as fear, grief, loss – is important.

‘Instead of dwelling on those feelings, we can mobilize that anxiety in to proactivity or a sense of purpose,’ says Jorge.

‘People can feel better just from being in touch with their own ability to act and influence change.

‘However, it doesn’t just come down to individuals, we also need community support systems and organizational or governmental involvement in climate change activism.’

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