Coping – and prevailing – in a tumultuous world

Published Tuesday, October 10, 2017 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal and the Fredericton Daily Gleaner.

Several years ago, when charged with reviewing the resumés of applicants for a vacant position at my place of employment, I recall reading among one young candidate’s credentials the words ‘coping skills’.

Coping skills?  At the time, it struck me as an odd attribute to highlight, especially for a person just starting their working years.  

But with the passage of time, I’ve come to understand that coping skills are critical for enduring and prevailing in tumultuous times like these.

Downers

The global havoc wreaked by the bizarre US administration – reckless musings of war; impulse communiqués by Tweet; emboldening of racists, misogynists and other tin-pot extremists – is enough to make even the most optimistic of us pause and sigh.  

And then there is the stress of climate change. 

Earlier this year, the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica released a report entitled, “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance.”  Perhaps not surprisingly, it concluded that climate change is taking a significant toll on our mental health, both immediate and long term.

In the short term, the injuries, deaths of loved ones, shortage of necessities, loss of property and loss of livelihood caused by events such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria cause terror, shock and trauma.   Imagine the plight of Puerto Ricans in particular this fall, pulverized by back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes last month.

In the longer term, worries about climate change impacts like heat waves, drought and sea level rise are expected to lead to increased levels of anxiety, depression, substance abuse and more.

Longer pause, deeper sigh.

Finding your upside

If you’re finding yourself weighed down by the reality of climate change, don’t despair – for despair is the enemy of hope, happiness, action and fulfilment.

The report offers numerous options for shedding such burdens, including: 

  • Practice self-regulation: be aware of your own thoughts, maintain control over them and make an active effort to keep them positive and solution-oriented.  Try to take a long, strategic view and not fall prey to impulse thoughts.
  • Boost your own personal resilience and preparedness.  For example, great comfort can be drawn from an abundant garden, a pantry of your own preserves, a bank of solar panels or a winter’s supply of firewood.
  • Find your source of personal meaning, whether through a faith community or through mindfulness practices such as yoga and meditation.  It’s said that the two most important moments in our lives are the moment we were born and the moment we knew why.
  • Connect with others.  Positive vibes, mutual reinforcement and resilient communities happen when like-minded people meet, talk and act.  

To these, I would add: believe in your ability to make a difference, whether large or small.  Consider supporting organizations that do good work with your time or money, whichever you can most afford.  

And, as you act, don’t forget to be gentle with yourself.  Consider the hummingbird in the signature story of the late Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Wangari Maathai.  As a fire raged through its forest home, it decided to fight it by ferrying as many droplets of water as it could carry.  Other animals stood by watching helplessly, telling the hummingbird it was too small and the fire was too big – to which it simply answered, “I’m doing the best I can.”  Even in the face of enormous challenge, there is much comfort when we know in our hearts we are doing the best we can.

October 10 is World Mental Health Day.  It’s a good time to acknowledge the things that cause us mental angst – including the reality of climate change – and review and renew our own coping skills, habits and routines.  That way, we can be at our very best in facing the challenges of climate change.