Even if people around you aren’t actively discussing their fears about climate change, there’s a good chance they’re experiencing anxiety about our warming planet. These worries—which psychologists term eco-anxiety, have become common. In a recent study published in The Lancet, researchers asked 10,000 young people (from the ages of 16-25) to report on their feelings about climate change. Eighty-four percent of participants reported feeling at least moderately worried about climate change, and over half felt very or extremely worried. Additionally, many participants noted negative emotions surrounding climate change and feeling frightened about the future. Other research has suggested that heat waves can have negative consequences for mental health: during days with extreme heat, emergency room visits for mental health concerns are higher.
If you’ve been following updates from organizations like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—or if you’ve experienced the effects of an extreme weather event firsthand—you might not be surprised by the prevalence of climate anxiety, and you may even have experienced some of it yourself. The researchers of The Lancet article point out that anxiety isn’t necessarily maladaptive, at least when it’s in small doses: “Anxiety is an emotion that alerts us to danger, which can cause us to search for more information about the situation and find potential solutions.” And for a large-scale crisis like climate change, we do need more people to care about climate change and be motivated to take action. However, too much anxiety can have the opposite effect—we might find ourselves frozen by fear, and our stress can have long-term physical and mental health consequences. Below, we’ll talk about ways to make climate anxiety more manageable, so that you can feel empowered to take action for the earth, instead of feeling hopeless or overwhelmed.
“Anxiety is an emotion that alerts us to danger, which can cause us to search for more information about the situation and find potential solutions.” – Caroline Hickman, MSc and colleagues, writing in The Lancet
Make time for yourself
Past research has found that people who spend more time on self-care report better mental health and feeling more hopeful. Self-care is also key to avoid feeling burned out when we try to help others (something psychologists refer to as compassion fatigue). In other words, even though it might seem paradoxical to focus on ourselves, self-care helps us to be more resilient for long-term challenges like tackling climate change.
Another reason that it’s important to be mindful of our self-care routines is that climate change—and the extreme weather events it causes—can upend our usual self-care routines. For example, the researchers studying the link between extreme heat and mental health suspect it may be partly because extreme heat can interrupt sleep, an important part of self-care. As someone who lives in northern California, I’ve noticed that wildfires often disrupt my self-care: to avoid smoke, I spend less time exercising or going on walks with my dog. As a result, I’ve made a resolution to try to practice self-care a little differently during fire season: to have indoor activities (such as a movie or craft project) ready to go when my usual self-care routines are disrupted.
Reach out to others
Since most of us are probably feeling at least a little bit of climate anxiety, reaching out to others can be a key source of support and camaraderie. Research shows that our social relationships play a vital role in our health and happiness. If you’re experiencing climate anxiety, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone and to reach out to those around you. In particular, it can be helpful to be direct about your needs—whether that’s needing to vent, needing tangible support (such as assistance monitoring an extreme weather event that could impact your town), or just asking those around you (such as friends and colleagues) to be understanding of what you are going through.
Additionally, a growing number of therapists are beginning to develop techniques to help address climate anxiety. According to psychologist Thomas J. Doherty, therapy for climate anxiety can involve a variety of approaches, including existential therapy (which is focused on finding and creating meaning during challenging situations) and ecotherapy (therapy aimed at increasing one’s connection to nature). Therapy for climate anxiety is also aimed at reducing the guilt people may feel over not doing enough at the individual level to stop climate change (since, as we’ll discuss below, many experts now recognize that combating climate change is about developing forms of collective action to address the climate crisis).
Spend time in nature
As my colleague Jill Suttie, PsyD., writes for Greater Good Magazine, spending time in nature has a variety of benefits. Spending time in nature reduces our stress levels, and prior research has found that it helps us stay resilient in the face of stressful events (such as the COVID-19 pandemic). In fact, researchers at Cornell University found evidence that even just 10 minutes spent outside can provide a mood boost. Being in nature may also help to reduce levels of rumination (repetitive, unproductive negative thoughts that can put us at risk for depression) and feeling connected to the natural world is linked to higher levels of life satisfaction. Nature also increases feelings of awe, an emotion linked to physical and mental health benefits. For those of us who live in cities, spending time in nature might not regularly be part of our routines—but it turns out that we gain a variety of benefits if we take time to connect with the planet we’re trying to save.
Cultivate optimism—and turn optimism into action
When we hear news about extreme weather events or predictions about sea level rise, it can feel hard to stay optimistic. In fact, it might even seem unrealistic or out of touch to feel optimism. However, researchers who study optimism and climate change suggest that optimism isn’t about denying reality, but rather about turning our thoughts into ones that make us feel empowered rather than paralyzed. In fact, some researchers propose that alarmist messages might actually make us less likely to act, if we feel that nothing can be done to stop climate change. Instead, they suggest, it’s important to recognize the gravity of the problem but also to emphasize the potential to take action and create a better future for the planet.
Importantly, when we take one action to combat climate change, doing so may make us feel empowered to take more actions in the future. “Action leads to results, which fosters hope, creating a virtuous cycle,” writes Maddy Lauria for Grist. Other suggestions offered by experts interviewed by Lauria include learning about the work of other activists to increase feelings of hope, connecting with others, and being mindful of our news consumption (to ensure that we are also reading positive stories). Additionally, even simply talking about climate change more often can be a powerful strategy: listening and sharing information can be a way to motivate others to join the cause.
“Researchers who study optimism and climate change suggest that optimism isn’t about denying reality, but rather about turning our thoughts into ones that make us feel empowered rather than paralyzed.”
Recognize that climate change isn’t an individual problem
When working on this article, one thing that stood out to me was how many experts converged on the same general conclusion: addressing climate change is not something we can solve at the level of the individual alone. Especially in Western cultures, because of the individualist mindset many of us have, we might feel like we can or should fix problems on our own, but climate change isn’t something we can tackle by ourselves. For large-scale problems like climate change, a better approach can be recognizing our interdependence: our actions are inextricably linked to others, and our attempts to fight climate change will be more effective when we acknowledge that fact. In other words, in Western cultures, we tend to think of problem-solving as an individual issue, but when we see it as a social and collective concern, it might help us to feel less isolated and anxious.
“Addressing climate change isn’t about acting alone—it’s about working collaboratively and amplifying the voices that are already working on the issue.”
It’s also important to recognize that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel when it comes to solving the climate crisis: there are already lots of groups working on the issue and proposing innovative solutions, so one way to feel less anxious is to seek out the people who are already doing good work on climate change. Additionally, it’s important to recognize solutions to climate change may come from historically marginalized communities—in particular, Indigenous people, including Indigenous scientists have an important role to play (for example, states are now turning to Native American practices such as controlled burns to better manage fire season, and researchers in New Zealand partnered with a Māori tribe when conducting their environmental research). As the United Nations notes, “Indigenous peoples are among the first to face the direct consequences of climate change, due to their dependence upon, and close relationship, with the environment and its resources” and, therefore, have a unique vantage point from which to propose remedies. In other words, addressing climate change isn’t about acting alone—it’s about working collaboratively and amplifying the voices that are already working on the issue.
Another reason that climate change can be a source of anxiety is because it involves so much uncertainty about what the future will look like: even in a best-case scenario, where most of the negative effects of climate change are averted, we’ll likely have to make changes to our consumption patterns and daily lives. This type of change and uncertainty can be scary, but it’s important to recognize that it’s also an opportunity to develop communities that work better for all of us. Living in walkable cities is not just good for the planet—it’s also good for our health and may help foster social connections. Similarly, reducing what we consume helps to lower global emissions—and it’s also good for saving money and fostering community (for example, by swapping items with neighbors in a local Buy Nothing group). In other words, when thinking about the structural changes that are necessary to fight climate change, it’s important to remember that, quite often, these changes to help the planet also benefit us.
In other words, having a healthy mindset about climate change means trying to reframe how we think about the problem to avoid self-criticism and feelings of hopelessness. “I need to stop buying all single-use plastics and give up my car” probably isn’t a realistic strategy, especially if (like many Americans) you don’t live near a zero-waste grocery store or a reliable bus line, so it’s more likely to induce feelings of guilt than to be a productive strategy. At the same time, thinking, “We’re doomed, nothing will stop climate change” isn’t helpful at reducing feelings of anxiety—and neglects some of the creative actions that are being taken to stop the climate crisis. A more balanced approach might be one that recognizes the complexity of the problem, allows for self-compassion when we can’t do everything ourselves, and encourages us to see fighting climate change as a collective endeavor. What I’ll be telling myself: “This is a really stressful and challenging situation, but there are tangible things I can do to show up for my local and global community.”
Sources and Further Reading:
- Barry, E. (2022, Feb. 6). Climate change enters the therapy room. New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/06/health/climate-anxiety-therapy.html
- Fleischer, D., & Toepel, A. (2019, September). Feeling stressed about climate change? You might have eco-anxiety. UCSF Sustainability Stories. https://sustainability.ucsf.edu/1.830
- Greaver Cordova, M. (2020, Feb. 25). Spending time in nature reduces stress and anxiety. Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. https://www.vet.cornell.edu/news/20200225/spending-time-nature-reduces-stress-and-anxiety
- Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, R. E., Mayall, E. E., … & van Susteren, L. (2021). Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: a global survey. The Lancet Planetary Health, 5(12), e863-e873. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(21)00278-3/fulltext
- Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS medicine, 7(7), e1000316. https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316&mod=article_inline
- Lauria, M. (2022, Jan. 13). Hope is not passive: How activism keeps optimism alive. Grist. https://grist.org/fix/hope-is-not-passive-how-activism-keeps-climate-optimism-alive/
- McAfee, D., Doubleday, Z. A., Geiger, N., & Connell, S. D. (2019). Everyone loves a success story: optimism inspires conservation engagement. BioScience, 69(4), 274-281. https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/article/69/4/274/5369894
- Ruiz, R. (2022, Feb 23). Extreme heat will bring worse mental health. People shouldn’t have to cope alone. Mashable. https://mashable.com/article/effects-of-heat-waves-on-humans-mental-health
- Suttie, J. (2022, Jan. 18). Four ways nature can protect your well-being during a pandemic. Greater Good Magazine. https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/four_ways_nature_can_protect_your_wellbeing_during_a_pandemic