My 3-year-old awoke recently, chirping happily in her bed while it was still dark outside, so I was surprised to see that the clock read 7:45 a.m. Normally, the autumn sun in Northern California would be fairly high by that time. But ash and smoke from raging wildfires dimmed the sun — in what the news labeled “turbulent mixing.” For four days, the sky remained a stubborn bruise of apocalyptic orange-gray.
My husband, our two young children and I remained housebound as the air swirled with particulates, reaching the worst recorded air quality levels around the globe. Television images of catastrophic wildfires burning along the Pacific corridor added a further sense of confinement and despair to the pandemic gloom.
As a psychotherapist practicing in a national mental health crisis, I knew my clients were struggling to cope with new fears on top of the existing stresses from the grinding pandemic: health risks, economic instability and the strain of distance learning, overlaying racial violence and uncertainty about the election.
Unlike the invisibility of the coronavirus, evidence of extreme weather and climate events — like wildfire smoke, trees bending and snapping in high-speed winds, flooding and flames — contribute to collective “eco-anxiety” related to the climate crisis. A recent study by the Helsinki Institute of Sustainability Science has identified a common denominator: “uncertainty, unpredictability and uncontrollability, all of which are classic ingredients in anxiety.”
No matter how functional or resilient parents are, or what kind of resources they have available, it is normal to struggle under these conditions.
While in moderation, stress can motivate us, protect us and elicit growth, stress becomes problematic when it gains traction and escalates into panic or chronic stress.
“Uncertainty poses a tremendous challenge to our well-being,” said Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, director of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of “Building Resilience in Children and Teens.”
“We are designed to run from tigers and know what to do. But the most uncomfortable experience is wondering if a tiger is lurking behind the bushes — and to have to be vigilant at all times.”
Dr. Robin Cooper, co-founder of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, noted: “A flood or hurricane occurs, which is massively destructive, but then it’s over. Fires are different because they persist for months on end, shattering the foundation of stability and security that is essential for parents to instill in their children so they are able to navigate the world.”
Parents expect a lot from themselves normally. But when the world is in a state of upheaval, it’s no longer parenting-as-usual. How can overwhelmed parents keep their families afloat?
Attend to Your Own Needs
Kids take emotional cues from parents, so when parents calm themselves, they can help calm family members. Psychologists call this co-regulation.
Dr. Ginsburg said that during stressful times, the job of a parent of young children is “to look like a duck gliding on the water,” creating an atmosphere of safety and comfort. Adolescents, though, “need to know what you are doing to stay afloat,” he said. “You show them how you’re paddling your feet underwater because you want to help build their skill set.”
Classic stress relievers — getting exercise, deep breathing, spending time in nature, and creative self-expression (art, music, dance, writing)— are helpful. So are safety planning and emergency preparedness. But some additional stress-reducing behaviors are particularly suited for climate catastrophe and quarantine.
Research tells us that social isolation is an acute stressor, while connection heals. But while physical distancing limits us, we must find ways to maintain social connections.
Merritt Juliano, co-president of Climate Psychology Alliance North America, plans to offer free, virtual “Climate Cafes” for parents to exchange supportive dialogue around the climate emergency. Climate cafes — not just for parents — are happening all over the world; in the pre-Covid era, they were held at cafes or other public spaces. Typically, a facilitator is present to encourage reflectiveness and sharing thoughts and feelings around the issue of climate change. Ms. Juliano said: “The single-most important thing parents can do to build resilience is their own inner work around climate change. Having processed their emotional reactions, and accepted the situation, they can then stay present with their kids.”
Routine and predictability offset chaos. “There are so many things that we can’t do, so it is important to find things that we can do right now,” said Dr. Bonnie Goldstein, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. “The goal is to feel a little more in control.” Establishing daily structure and maintaining routines encourages nervous systems to settle. As Dr. Ginsburg put it: “We cannot control the outside world, but we can be intentional about creating sanctuaries within our homes.”
Anchor in the Present
Using our five senses as anchors is a simple tool for focusing on the present moment. When we are stressed, our minds grow noisy, we fall out of sync with the world around us. Natural surroundings are ideal anchors, chock-full of sensory stimuli, like a scented breeze or birdsong. But if we can’t venture outside, we can anchor by finding something pleasurable inside: a painting, a soft pillow, tasty food. What emerges from this grounding is a sense of spontaneous gratitude. Dr. Goldstein suggests bringing something from nature — a plant, bark, a shell, or even fruit — inside and creating a visual display, or an altar of sorts, in a designated corner.
Stand Up for Others
Channeling worries and frustrations into community action is a potent eco-stress reducer; participatory action is productive, empowering and transformative. Finding ways, as Dr. Ginsburg put it, “to uplift the vulnerable” supports others and creates meaning and purpose at times of existential crisis.
The good news is that we can all learn to be more resilient. While some research suggests there may be a possible genetic predisposition to resilience, our brain’s neuroplasticity allows us to learn and integrate new forms of resilience through practice and repetition. How we appraise a difficult situation also makes a difference. Do we feel overwhelmed, or buoyed by our own strengths and resources?
And what of the familiar trope that kids are resilient? Yes, there’s truth to it, though we’d be wrong to think that’s all they need.
Right after my youngest woke me that abnormally dark morning, my 5-year-old flung open a door and announced: “Well, the birds are OK, so it’s fine!” While there is naïveté in this response, there is also a seed of resilience. As her mother, I plan to water that seed, alongside my own.
Ariella Cook-Shonkoff is a licensed psychotherapist and art therapist based in Berkeley, Calif.
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