When we think of spring, we might imagine the rebirth and renewal that comes with warmer weather and longer days. It’s usually a time to party, go to spring flower festivals, and spend more time in nature.
Spending time in nature or doing things outside, like exercising or gardening, lifts our spirits.
But this year, with the early start of the bushfire season and the promise of long, hot months ahead, we could see our view of the warmer months start to change.
For some, the coming months are not a celebration. They are something to fear or feel sad about.
In particular, communities and emergency responders who have faced bushfires or droughts in the past may experience increased stress and anxiety in the months to come.
How is this spring different?
In recent weeks, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has said two climate events are underway: El Niño and a positive dipole in the Indian Ocean.
These events predict hotter and drier conditions through summer, as well as more intense heatwaves, bushfires and droughts.
In temperate and subtropical regions, our summers are getting hotter and longer on average, and winters warmer and shorter. Climate change is the main driver of these changes.
What happens to our mood when the temperature rises?
Higher temperatures and prolonged heat are linked to aggression and higher rates of emergency hospitalizations due to health problems, heat-related injuries and mental health problems.
After an extreme weather event or disaster, rates of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress increase.
Many Australians have already suffered the psychological and physical consequences of bushfires, droughts, floods and heatwaves.
For some communities and individuals, experiencing these types of events can mean they are more resilient or prepared for the future. For others, the anticipation of increased heat or other climate threats may raise concerns. They can also cause pre-traumatic stress – the stress that precedes an expected loss or trauma.
Anxiety, anger and sadness
As climate-related events become more widespread, individuals may also be increasingly affected by feelings such as anxiety, anger and sadness.
Climate anxiety refers to fear, dread, and worry about climate change. Anxiety can be a useful response because it allows us to prepare for and respond to future threats. For example, climate anxiety can help motivate pro-environmental behavior and climate action, such as participating in a protest. But this type of anxiety can also become overwhelming.
The loss of wildlife and nature due to bushfires can leave people feeling sad at what is lost and angry at the lack of action to prevent these losses.
Losses can also be more personal, including damage to health, livelihood, housing, or even the ability to engage in enjoyable outdoor activities, such as playing sports or exercising outside .
Another experience, solastalgia, is the “homesickness you feel when you are still at home.” Researchers suggest that solastalgia is a type of distress when a person perceives negative changes and progressive deterioration in their own home environment. These feelings can arise when we notice seasonal and environmental changes in the places we love and call home.
But there are things you can do
As the warmer months approach, strong community support, cohesion and preparation can be especially important. There are also steps you can take to maintain and manage your mental health and well-being. Although more research is needed to understand which strategies work best, health professionals suggest:
- connecting with others, especially people you trust and who support your well-being
- find ways to connect with your community, either in person (for example, through community gardening) or online (for example, through discussion groups)
- be attentive to your physical and psychological safety (for example, especially during climate-related events) and, if you need it, seek professional support
- take a break from distressing media content when necessary.
Understandably, people may continue to worry about upcoming seasons due to the constant threat of climate change.
To avoid getting overwhelmed, you can also react and channel your feelings of distress. You can participate in community-led climate action projects and spend time outdoors and in nature (even for short periods).
These actions could help maintain the positive connections between well-being and nature, whatever the season.
If you have had any problems with this article or are concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
Tara Crandon is a psychologist and doctoral student at the QIMR Berghofer Institute for Medical Research. This piece first appeared on The conversation.