Planet Attacks: When Anxiety Meets Climate Change

Kaya Purchase explains how not to succumb to terror and stay optimistic about the planet

I would call myself an activist. I participate in petitions, I write letters to important people on behalf of causes, and I’ve been to protests. However, lately, with increasing frequency I’ve been falling into episodes of extreme disheartenment and despair. In those moments, the magnitude of the world’s problems becomes so overwhelming that I’d rather just pretend it’s not happening. I call these my ‘fantasy’ episodes. As a result, I swap my favoured insightful documentaries for films and TV dramas – the more fantastical the better. I’ll build a comforting bubble around myself and shut out reality as much as I can. I’d slipped into one of these lapses a couple of weeks ago. And then one single image was powerful enough to snap me out of it. It was an image that swept through Instagram, flaring up people’s anger and igniting their passion. It was the Amazon rainforest on fire.

Panic mode

My go to choice of films when I’m down is often cheesy retro horrors. The day of the local fire I’d been watching Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! about, surprisingly, an alien invasion on planet Earth. Now, even this outlandish, cartoonish haven from normality was a stark reminder of the inevitable descent of apocalypse. Zombie films began to remind me of how brainless, compulsive consumption can bring down humanity. Vampire films were suddenly clearly all about the price of replacing a vacant soul with glamour, indulgence and too much crushed velvet. I couldn’t ignore anymore what was happening to our precious planet. So I had a panic attack instead – or as it’s recently been dubbed a ‘planet attack’.

Popular culture

These are becoming more and more common, particularly amongst millennials. Hit drama Big Little Lies touched on ‘planet attacks’ when young Amabella passes out in school during a lesson about the climate crisis. To be young and all of a sudden faced with such a seemingly insurmountable problem must be terrifying. It says a lot that it has taken a 16 year old girl to bring the severity of our situation to mass attention. The fact that so many school children have followed Greta Thunberg’s example and engaged in action is uplifting, and also reassuring about the capability of future generations. However, adults are guiltily aware that the compassionate and responsible reaction from millennials has all come a little late. It should never have gotten to a point where children are clamouring to be heard about the mess that’s been left to them.

Coping with planet attacks

I, like many others I’m sure, have already been through the ‘scramble’ phase and have sadly settled in to the numbing pessimism. I need to move past that to a resurrected belief that change can be accomplished and I can meet this disaster with integrity and courage. Easier said than done – how do we do that? How do we not drown in the negative?

In a feature for The Guardian culture supplement, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez posed this question to Greta Thunberg. “What keeps you going?” she asked. “Given how daunting the issue, why aren’t you so filled with despair that you’re staying on your couch everyday and just waiting for the apocalypse?”

Thunberg replied that wallowing, though tempting, is not a choice. “(Fear) is not a reason to quit. We must never give up. I have made up my mind and decided to never ever give up.”

She went on to talk about how to ‘do something’ is the only solution to hopelessness. “(To act) is the best medicine against sadness and depression.”

Finding hope

Reading these words gave me great personal hope. There’s nothing we can do to change the past and individually we’re not much of a match for the big corporations that are responsible for pollution and plastic waste. But, collectively making small changes is the step forward that we need. If you feel yourself frozen into inactivity by the grand scale of climate change, take small steps forward. At least you then know that you are doing something. The majority of things in life we simply can’t control, but you can at least control your own actions. Every second of our lives there arises the opportunity to make a small decision.We can’t cast out fear, but we can use it to propel us forward into change, instead of letting it stop us in our tracks.

If you think you have been experiencing ‘planet attacks’ yourself then I’d first and foremost like to congratulate you. It is, of course, extremely unpleasant, but it means that you are at least conscious of the situation that we’re in. The biggest obstacle that we face is that so many people remain asleep to the problem. I’ve written in the past about how mindfulness is a great strategy for controlling anxious thoughts, but in the case of planet-based anxieties, it has a deeper importance. It can really ground you into simplifying the actions that need to be taken to tackle a problem that can seem very complicated.

Making change

I would also add that when the doom and gloom of our situation begins to bog you down, try and be resourceful. Follow your passion. You don’t have to go to a street march if you’re very introverted. Look at your life and your great loves and see how you can inject your concerns for the planet into that life. If you’re a writer, write about it. Or, if you’re a chef, try adding some more plant-based recipes to your menu.  These things seem miniscule when suggested but, if you follow your passion, you never know where that might lead you. You’ll be more inclined to stick at something that involves your personal interests and you’ll be able to ward off some of the anxiety because every day you can go to bed knowing you managed to act in align with your values.

The final word

The worst thing you can do in the face of climate change is to live in denial. I don’t feel guilty about hiding away in my sanctuary of movies and books. We all need to take time for self-care in order to strengthen ourselves for the difficulties of life. We make better activists that way. However, I appreciate that I need to strike a balance between denial and furious action. By following my passions, being self-reflective and educating myself as much as possible about the issues, I hope I can tackle the negative news I encounter without burying my head in the sand. I’ll also never again underestimate the power of a cheesy sci-fi horror to give me a good hook for a serious article. Like I said, follow your passions!

For more from Kaya, visit @kayaebony