"Normal" student worries are no longer enough. Returning to university eight years on, the world feels very different. There are still too many deadlines, the infinite vortex of journal articles and awkward social gatherings to navigate, but now I am burdened with these additional worries: should I be stockpiling medicines, preparing my emergency grab-bag, and hunkering down for the apocalypse? Should I bring a child into a world that’s going to be half-drowned by 2050? Bring back my undergraduate days of eating scones by the river and drinking too many woo-woos.
Is the world actually getting worse? My childhood was far from that of my grandmother, whose early years were tainted by rationing and air raid shelters. She was off to work and caring for her younger siblings at the tender age of 14; at that age, I was more concerned about what outfit I should wear to my friend’s birthday party. We are living in the most peaceful era in human history. Global poverty has fallen 60% in the last 100 years. In that same time, we’ve added 20 years onto global life expectancy. “You millennials, you don’t know how good you’ve got it”, I can hear my grandma preach.
Okay, granny. Let’s just say, for argument's sake, that the world is getting better. My question is, at what cost? No matter which way you cut the science, the climate crisis is real and the outlook is bleak. Climate grief support groups and eco-therapists are popping up around the country to help people deal with the new phenomenon of “eco-anxiety”, recognised by the American Psychology Association as a “chronic fear of environmental doom". Spend half an hour talking to a glaciologist about the future of Greenland’s ice sheet and you’ll get a sense of what I mean.
Even if my grandma’s life was harder, does it mean I should just suck it up? Swallow down my worries with a handful of anti-anxiety meds? The stiff upper lip is about as appealing as the Botox it's filled with. Psychological distress isn’t actually well-correlated with the outside world: the brain can’t tell the difference between real and perceived pain. So, for the one in three people who feel that the political uncertainty in the wake of Brexit is impacting on their mental health, that impact is very tangible and very real. On both sides of the debate, people have lost faith in the “grown-ups” and are left feeling like powerless children in the wake of a nasty divorce. Will ignoring it make it go away?
Sometimes that’s a necessary solution. One thing my grandma didn’t have was a little device that channels every disaster from around the world into a 24-hour doomsday reel playing directly from your pocket. I’m not saying that social media is all bad; there’s no way Greta Thunberg could have gone from one girl sitting outside Swedish parliament to the seven million people who took to the streets for the global climate strikes just a year later. I’m saying it’s a powerful tool: the media feed on our in-built psychological vulnerabilities as an explicit marketing strategy, and we should be aware of that. If you want to take back control, start with your own mind. Sometimes, we need to switch off.
However, denial is not a long-term survival strategy. I’m not going to solve this one by drinking too many woo-woos. To dissociate means to split consciousness: it’s a defining symptom of trauma. We must stay connected in order to keep ourselves sane. I’m lucky: I have the right to vote; I have the option to fly less; I can choose to opt-out of the methane-belching beef industry. Some people say that these things don’t matter, but those people are wrong. They matter to my wellbeing. They matter to the integrity of our society. If we don’t take action, we invite the insidious villain of learned helplessness to take root in our collective psyche. And that is how you end up with a traumatised nation.
The best way to stay sane in an anxious world? Connect with the people you love. Take whatever action you can. Step out of your helplessness and into your power.