How does the human mind cope with existential threats?
Faced with a big problem it’s normal to try to think our way out of it. Whilst sometimes problem-solving can be helpful, this can tip into repetitive worrying over things that we can’t solve by ourselves in our own heads.
A similarly repetitive thinking style, but one focussed on the past, is ruminating – chewing over and over things that have already happened. This can also be problematic, as it’s a thinking style linked with depression.
Another way of coping is to avoid thinking about existential threats because they feel so massive. This can then mean that they seem even more overwhelming when we do think about them, or that we feel helpless to change anything.
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Brain scan studies suggest there is a particular brain region in the processing of existential threats: the anterior cingulate cortex (Acc). This area is also involved in our behavioural inhibition system (BIS) – a system which encourages us to stop doing and pay attention to something (in this case the existential threat).
Researchers have suggested this is related to common behavioural reactions to existential threats: that feeling of being paralysed to act in the face of something looming, and the tendency to consume a lot of information about the threat without changing our behaviour.
‘Eco-anxiety’ is a term that’s been used by the American Psychological Association (APA) in a report about the effects of climate change on mental health, but it’s not an official diagnosis.
Psychologically speaking, anxiety about anything arises from how we perceive a threat, and so ‘eco-anxiety’ makes sense, even though the threat it relates to is real.
Since it’s not a specific mental health problem, eco-anxiety can’t be ‘treated’ as such. However, if worries about climate change are creating significant distress and getting in the way of us being able to do what we want, some things might help.
Often it’s a case of doing the opposite of what our anxious state of mind might be encouraging us to do (or avoid), instead of letting our worry thoughts paralyse us. For example:
- Working out what things we can control and taking step-by-step action on those things can increase our sense of agency, e.g. thinking about our recycling habits, energy consumption, travel and diet to minimise our environmental impact.
- Balancing news on worst-case scenarios with other information and activities, including time in nature and with others.
- Staying connected with people we love and communities that care so we feel less alone with our worries.
- Paying attention to the effects of how we are thinking about the problem so we can change this if it’s unhelpful.
When we’re really scared about something, it’s also common for our sleep, diet and exercise to suffer. Making sure we’re eating healthily, that we have a regular sleep routine and that we’re moving can make a real difference to how overwhelmed we feel.
Though this might feel selfish, we won’t be able to do much about climate change if we don’t take care of ourselves.
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While it’s important not to try to diagnose our way out an uncomfortable reality, at the same time, it’s important to recognise if anxious or depressed thoughts, feelings and behaviours have become an overly large feature of our lives.
There are evidence-based treatments for anxiety and depression if you think you might be experiencing them, and it’s worth reaching out to seek help. There is also information on how we can reduce our environmental impact, which can help us to feel less helpless.