Climate Anxiety in the Cold

If you’re a member of Generation Z, there’s a good chance you’re worried about the future. Whether it’s about the environment or geopolitical strife, I think we’re all uncertain about what the future holds. Climate change is particularly worrying for its all-encompassing effects: rising sea levels, disruption of food systems, mass-migrations, extinction of species – the list just goes on and on. The term “climate anxiety” now exists to describe this phenomenon, and many experts believe that climate change poses a psychological threat in addition to an environmental one. 

I think that almost everyone at Colgate has discussed global warming in some aspect, as we’ve all taken (or will take) a core class in scientific perspectives. Syllabi in many more classes across a variety of disciplines now discuss climate change as well. As an environmental studies (ENST) concentrator, it certainly comes up a lot for me. At the institutional level, Colgate has been carbon neutral since 2019 and still continues to improve its measures in sustainability. This is all great to me, but it alone isn’t going to save the world. Should we be doing more individually to fight climate change? How are we supposed to grapple with this uncertain future while being college students in the middle of a pandemic? 

The cold winter in upstate New York isolates us from each other and the world. The climate here makes us all more vulnerable to seasonal affective disorder (SAD). Researchers still do not fully understand SAD, but we know that it is an increase in depression associated with colder weather and shorter days. Millions of Americans suffer from SAD, and it is more common in northern climates. I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that many students here are feeling the effects of SAD, especially compounded with pandemic-driven isolation. Since the pandemic has begun, depression and anxiety have gone up drastically among young adults and Black and Latine people of all ages, a 2020 investigation found. Since then we’ve all learned to live in this “new normal,” but that doesn’t mean our mental states have gone back to normal. Your own mental health is always valid no matter what the circumstances; it’s OK to not be OK, even if you aren’t thinking about what the future holds. We certainly have enough on our plate. College is incredibly isolating, but you certainly aren’t alone in feeling like this. 

Why am I bringing up global warming in this commentary on SAD and mental health? We all (I would hope) practice self care in some respect, whether that’s going to the gym, going to therapy or telling someone how you feel. I think these support structures that we’ve created for ourselves are what helps us get through college some days. On other days, such as when we have a particularly gloomy reading to do, the support structures we’ve put in place might not be enough. I can certainly attest to feeling paralyzed after doing a reading for an ENST class. I don’t have any easy solutions for this, and what works for me might not work for you. Nonetheless, doing something is always better than doing nothing. Taking action, whether that be physically or mentally, distracts us and keeps us out of a downward spiral. Not all of us have the ability to go to the gym or for a walk outside, but there are other things we can do. Talk to someone. Write about how you feel. Make art. Join a movement. Colgate has one such group: A local chapter of the Sunrise Movement (@colgate_sea_ on instagram). Seeing that there are other people out there like us who care can be incredibly gratifying. A lot of the climate discourse we typically read is from members of older generations who see things differently than us. All we’ve ever known is climate change and environmental destruction, so groups of Gen Z individuals rallying together can definitely help with your mental wellbeing.

Regardless, no matter where it stems from, it’s okay to be anxious and depressed. Especially now, this can be very isolating. Even if we’re distancing due to the pandemic, just know that you’re not alone.