Conestoga news

May 15, 2024 2:24 PM

Professor and psychotherapist offers reassurances climate distress is understandable response

According to Conestoga professor Natalie Thomas, climate distress is an understandable feeling, given the growing threats to the environment. Thankfully, it is possible to combat this existential anxiety to build resiliency and even become a more effective climate activist.

“These are understandable responses to a real threat. Climate change isn’t just kind of this big, ambiguous, distant thing now,” said Thomas, who is a professor in Interdisciplinary Studies and registered psychotherapist. “You can’t avoid these issues, but learning how to be with them in a different way can help to build that kind of resiliency.”

Thomas shared strategies to cope with eco-anxiety and the complex emotions associated with a changing climate during a special event held in March as part of Conestoga’s 2024 Sustainability Speaker Series, open to students and employees.

The best way forward for an activist can sometimes mean slowing down and spending more time with those uncomfortable feelings than being very busy, then easing back into action in a more focused way that could also become more effective.

Anxiety and other strong emotions are a legitimate response to the changing climate, but some groups are more vulnerable to these feelings than others. Over time, it can move more into chronic anxiety or another mental health challenge, or it can exacerbate existing issues or trigger past traumas.

“As humans we’re not really comfortable with uncertainty, so that can lead to a lot of anxiety,” said Thomas, who is also a regional co-ordinator with the Climate Psychology Alliance North America, which addresses the urgent psychological dimensions of the climate and ecological crisis and promotes cultural shifts toward human resilience, regeneration and equity.

Resiliency is about developing the strength to experience difficult emotions without letting them become overwhelming.

“We’re trying to actually be with our distressful and distressing emotions and not just turn away from them, but to be with them in manageable doses,” Thomas said. “The more we do that, the easier it gets over time.”

Thomas suggests slowly building a tolerance for difficult feelings rather than numbing, which can be helped by grounding practices to hit the pause button when a calming break is needed. That could be a breathing exercise, cold water splashed on the face or intense exercise.

Thomas also talked about the benefits of “climate cafés” where a sense of community and connection are fostered and people can share what’s on their minds at that moment. “You just get people together and it’s basically a confidential place where people can talk freely about how they’re feeling about climate change.”

When people are better able to manage climate-related emotions, then they can better focus on taking action, such as reducing personal eco-footprints, campaigning or volunteering, or offering a space for a climate café.

Conestoga offers many opportunities to learn about sustainability and put it into practice across all campuses, and sustainability champions like business professor Laura Matheson, who was selected as an advisor for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, are leading the way.

Conestoga Students Inc. hosts the Sustainability Club for students passionate about driving long-lasting positive changes. “Sustainability is not just environmentalism but a lifestyle!”

The student-run Bloom restaurant is taking steps to reduce waste and educate diners by literally putting climate action on its menu by sharing the carbon footprint for each dish.

Sheep are being enlisted to trim the vegetation around the 1,800 solar panels at the Cambridge - Fountain Street campus, which is LEED Silver certified.

Pollinator gardens are popping up on campuses, planted with native and drought-tolerant species that require little tending and attract pollinator, and new electric vehicles (EVs) will reduce carbon emissions while hauling cargo.

Conestoga continues its efforts in sustainability by taking the necessary steps to reduce waste and energy consumption.

Conestoga is developing a sustainability action plan, which aims to position the college as a leader in campus sustainability. Work started in 2022 on the comprehensive plan that will outline strategies to infuse sustainability principles into academic programs, research endeavours, operational procedures and governance. The plan is on schedule to be completed this year.