Skip to main content

How to stay sane in a climate emergency

10 January 2020

What if your job requires you to constantly focus on a big, scary, complex problem – arguably the biggest, scariest, most complex problem there is. What if your organisation is small, your comms team is even smaller, and deep down you know that there are diminishing hopes of being able to see, touch or feel the scale of change you are trying to achieve?

And what if when you get home from work, you flick on the news and see it all over again. Wildfires raging, killing animals and people. Hurricanes and floods destroying homes, killing and injuring even more. News of yet another species going extinct. This is something we at Bioregional face daily as an environmental charity. I’m sure those working in healthcare, homelessness and food bank charities to name just a few must feel similarly – though arguably with fewer sleepless nights worrying about what it means for their own, and their loved-ones’ futures.

In many ways, 2019 was a heady time for the environmental movement. Eighteen months ago Greta Thunberg was still going to school on Fridays and Extinction Rebellion didn’t exist yet.

But then came 20 September’s global climate strike – the biggest in history. In November, Channel 4 News hosted the first ever leaders’ election debate on the climate. Thousands of towns, cities, businesses and governments across the world have declared climate emergencies.

Did someone say emergency?

But hang on – did someone say ‘emergency’?

Some therapists have coined the term ‘eco anxiety’ as a ‘recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the climate crisis’. But unlike a ‘normal’ crisis, it’s far less tangible. For most of us, most of the time, there’s no immediate threat, and so no mechanism to release our adrenaline. Instead it can often just seem like you’re drowning in wave after wave of bad news.

For those of us working in environmental communications, I wonder if the feeling of being overwhelmed is worse. Partly because we know just how serious, and urgent the situation is – we only have a year or two left to pull ourselves back from catastrophe. Partly because the climate crisis is suddenly newsworthy, so there’s no escape from it. And partly because our colleagues are increasingly looking at us comms types to seize this ‘now or never’ opportunity.

How I look after myself

Luckily, our brains have a way of protecting us from the mental distress of hearing bad news from afar. It’s called disassociation – an ‘amnesia barrier to alleviate mental distress’. As an example of this in practice, I recently saw a tweet showing that carbon emissions are set to rise 0.6 percent in 2019 – aha, that’ll be a nice hook to launch our new climate emergency service for local authorities, I thought.

So that’s one way my brain helps itself – though it leaves me feeling eerily disconnected from my emotions.
I know I need to take active steps to look after myself. This includes finding time to be in nature, even for 10 minutes a day. I swim a few mornings a week in my local (unheated) lido, which gives me a huge endorphin boost as well as a community. Meditating 20 minutes every morning and trying (I usually fail, but at least I notice I’m failing) to be mindful during the day. Booking in time for fun with colleagues or friends. It all helps.

What about my team?

As head of comms I also have a responsibility for looking after my small but precious team. This includes checking in with them regularly (at team meetings we rate our stress levels from 0-10), keeping the atmosphere light, and helping them manage multiple competing demands for support from colleagues.

This ‘internal demand management’ is key to managing stress. This year I’ve been even more determined to make sure the team is crystal clear what our priorities are, before making sure my CEO and the rest of the senior management team are aware of and understand them too. And I always try and make sure team members know I have their backs.

A dark sense of humour also really, really helps. Sharing videos on our comms Slack channels for example, even if we do chicken out of sharing them online, definitely keeps things in perspective.

Beyond the comms team, I also wear another (informal) hat at Bioregional. As ‘health and happiness’ sponsor I recently ran an all-staff session on wellbeing where we all shared our own personal wellbeing tricks, as well as ideas for collective activities (we already have a ping pong table and have a lunchtime walking group). I’ve written up all the ideas here. We have also signed up to a monthly online wellbeing support service for staff, which includes counselling among other things.

A win-win for comms and our own mental health

There’s one more thing that helps no end. According to the Positive Psychology school, focusing on what’s going well improves mental health. And that’s exactly what we do at Bioregional – we create and share practical examples of sustainability, to inspire people to believe that a better future is possible.

So on social media we make sure we follow – and highlight – the bearers of good news. That includes @PositiveNewsUK, the brilliant @Ashden, campaigners like @crisortunity as well as some of the trailblazing organisations we work with.

Our 25th anniversary reception late last year was also an opportunity to focus on the positive. The theme, and hashtag, of the evening was #WeCanDoThis. So we asked people to talk to each other about what was inspiring them in sustainability, then write the answer on a card which we duly tweeted (At least half mentioned Greta Thunburg and the global climate strikes).

Since then we have posted lots of these cards on a staff noticeboard so colleagues can be reminded of all the good stuff that’s happening. It’s a win-win for our communications objectives as well our own mental health.

So if you are working in a field where you are faced with a constant influx of news about how you are facing an ‘emergency’ situation then why not give some of our tricks a try and give yourself a bit of breathing space.

Photo: Li-An Lim on Unsplash

Julia Hawkins

head of communications and policy , Bioregional

Julia has been head of communications and policy at Bioregional for four years. Bioregional is a sustainability charity that works with partners to create a better way to live, based in the award-winning BedZED eco village in South London. Julia focuses on sharing stories of the many people and organisations around the world that are taking big steps towards achieving ‘One Planet Living’ – a world where everyone, everywhere can live within the means of our one planet, leaving space for wildlife and wilderness.