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If you're feeling anxious about climate change, you're not alone, but taking steps to help the world might also help you.

Host: Hank Green
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If you are stressed out about the climate crisis, you are not the only one. Psychologists are beginning to characterize the feelings of stress, guilt, and even grief we feel as the world changes around us, which they have termed eco-anxiety. And… that can be a lot to deal with.

Interestingly, though, some of the steps we take in our lives to be greener might also make us feel less stressed about the future. Saving the environment is self-care! And you can tell people I said so.

Covering all of eco-anxiety would be a lot for one episode. So we’re going to take a look at some of the literature surrounding one very common experience: our commute to work. A lot of people drive.

One Gallup poll suggests that while the number of people in the US who drive to work has declined since 2007, it was still around 77% in 2018. And while Americans may be outliers in their love of cars, driving is still prevalent in regions like Europe, Australia, and China. The climate effects of driving a gas-guzzling personal vehicle are a given.

But driving also isn’t amazing for our mental health. One study published in 2014 used data from a massive survey of people living in Great Britain collected between 1991 and 2009. They looked at responses from almost 18,000 people about their commuting behavior.

One of their primary metrics was wellbeing, which might sound like something that’s hard to quantify, but they used a well-defined survey to measure how participants felt. And, surprise surprise, they didn’t super like driving overall. For example, those who drove to work were more likely than those who walked or biked to report being under strain or having trouble concentrating.

On the flip side, those who walked or biked to work had a higher well-being overall. In fact, among those who walked, the effect was larger the longer they walked for. The opposite was true for drivers, who got grumpier the longer they had to sit in traffic.

Now, this study did not include any information about whether the respondents’ decision to walk or bike was informed by the climate crisis. So it doesn’t tell us anything by itself about eco-anxiety. But others have used this research to say hey, if walking to work increases wellbeing, and it doesn’t burn any gas, that’s probably a win-win.

For example, a large report by the American Psychological Association and a climate organization called ecoAmerica cited this study, and others like it, to suggest that changing your commute to benefit the climate can also benefit your mental health. Other researchers have expressed similar sentiments, saying that activities that directly fight climate change, even in a small way, and make us feel better may be a good strategy for fighting eco-anxiety head-on. Individual action is not the only thing that’s going to be needed to fix climate change, but this may be something that people can do, and that therapists or caregivers can recommend, to help deal with those feelings of eco-anxiety.

Now, not everyone can switch to walking or biking. Whether your neighborhood doesn’t have sidewalks or bike lanes, your job is too far away, or you don’t have the physical mobility... there are lots of reasons. But even in that scenario, you may not be entirely out of luck.

See, that same British study from 2014 found a similar benefit to wellbeing from public transport as it did to walking and biking. The researchers suggested this could be partly because public transport often involves a bit of walking too, to reach the bus stop or train station. And since you don’t have to drive, you might be able to do other things during your commute, like catch up with friends.

Though the authors also noted that this might not be the case everywhere. For example, public transit infrastructure isn’t as robust in the US as it is in Europe, so they say there might not be as much benefit from it. Finally, what if instead of changing your commute, you just stopped commuting altogether?

A lot of people switched to tele-work in 2020. And while some have returned to the office, for many people, it seems like remote work is here to stay. But it’ll take more time to understand whether we feel good about not commuting, when the reason for not commuting is itself a stressful pandemic.

At least one analysis of social media posts from late 2020 and early 2021, published in the journal Sustainability, has found that climate simply wasn’t the first thing on people’s minds as they switched to tele-work. ... Understandable. So more research is needed to know whether staying at home has a similar benefit to walking or taking the train.

However, while this is just one example, the good news is that taking steps in our lives to fight climate change may also count as self-care. Action is needed on every level, not just the individual, to stop the Earth from getting warmer. But to stop my stress in my daily life?

Yeah, small steps might be just what the doctor ordered. Now if you’ve got a long commute on a bus or a train, why not take that time to study a new language? Today’s sponsor is Babbel, a language learning app that can help you use a new language in real-life situations after only five hours of practice.

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And thank you again for watching this episode of SciShow Psych! [♪ OUTRO].