The effects of climate change are visceral and distressing: images of thick wildfire smoke blanketing cities, reports of deadly heat waves and record flooding. Over 1 billion people globally could be displaced by events brought on by climate change, such as food and water shortages and increased exposure to natural disasters, by 2050, according to a report from the Institute for Economics and Peace. More recently, the ongoing threat of climate change is having a negative impact on mental health.
The impacts of a warming planet are contributing to outsize stress, grief, and despair. According to a survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, one in 10 Americans reports experiencing anxiety because of global warming. Climate concerns are even greater among young people. Over half of respondents between the ages of 16 and 25 in an international study reported feeling very or extremely worried about climate change. This new form of worry has been dubbed climate anxiety or eco-anxiety. Defined as a “heightened emotional, mental or somatic distress in response to dangerous changes in the climate system,” climate anxiety can present as a sense of hopelessness, grief, anger, guilt, and existential dread.
The difference between climate anxiety and other forms of anxiety is the scale of the stressor, says Andrew Bryant, a clinical social worker specializing in climate-aware therapy. Social anxiety, for instance, can be managed with continued exposure to social situations with the help of a mental health professional, Bryant says. Climate change, however, can feel like an insurmountable threat. “Because of the largeness of the scope,” Bryant says, “it’s really difficult to find an action step that’s going to assure people that the fear, the existential threat, is going to dissipate.”
Managing your fears about climate change involves confronting your emotions to let them fuel positive action. Even in the darkest of times, it’s crucial to maintain a little bit of hope for the future.
Face your emotions about climate change
Whether you’ve read scientific reports about the dangers of carbon emissions or were witness to the destruction of a wildfire, it’s realistic to respond with feelings of anguish, guilt, or anxiety, Bryant says. These emotions may inspire you to immediately seek action, like donating to a climate change action fund or installing solar panels on your home, but it’s important to first sit with your feelings, Bryant continues.
The spectrum of reactions may include guilt that your children won’t have the life you imagined for them, grief over the loss of natural areas like rainforests and species of plants and animals, and hopelessness that society will take action in time. You may even feel excited about a potential future in which countries work in unison to control climate change. It can be helpful to share these feelings with friends and family, a support group, like a climate cafe — community-led forums to discuss climate change — or a therapist who specializes in climate anxiety.
During this process, however, you don’t want to allow your emotions to escalate into a paralyzing panic. There are many steps you can take to make an impact, which can be empowering. Collective actions, such as pushing for more public transit and clean power in your community, can have wide-reaching effects.
Try to recognize the triggers of your anxiety — constant consumption of news, a natural disaster — and attempt to deescalate, says Lynn Bufka, associate chief of practice transformation at the American Psychological Association. That might look like taking a 15-minute break from a distressing conversation, only reading the news at designated times, or getting some fresh air if you can.
Take action in ways that support the planet and your mental health
Although anxiety can be debilitating, it can also inspire action, Bufka says. “As a clinician,” she says, “part of what we often are thinking about is how we hope to harness that anxiety in ways that can move toward aims that will be beneficial for the planet.”
Consider your values, interests, and circumstances when determining how to give back. Start locally and find a group that has goals you’re passionate about — say, preventing the development of open space in your town. If you lack time but not financial resources, donating to a local organization that lobbies for green legislation in your state might be the best option. Should you want to lend a hand, volunteer to restore local habitats or with a group that runs cooling stations for vulnerable populations in heat waves. You could even commit to a lifestyle change and eat less meat.
When it comes to preparing for big disasters, Derrick Sebree Jr., a clinical psychologist specializing in ecopsychology and multicultural identity counseling, suggests creating a plan with your family ahead of time. Knowing where you store nonperishable food items or what route you will take to evacuate will help you avoid making panicked decisions in the midst of a stressful situation. However, constantly running through your disaster preparedness plan may be anxiety-inducing. Bufka recommends having enough information to plan for the next day or your next step instead of inundating yourself with minute details.
Sometimes the most effective course of action is staying connected to the earth. Whether you live in a city and rarely see any signs of plant life or are a regular camper, spend time outside in a natural environment to not only reap the benefits of being outdoors — including lower stress and improved mood — but to remind yourself of why you care about the dangers of climate change in the first place. “This is what I want to connect to,” Sebree says. “This is what I want to protect.”
Limit your time online
While there are countless resources and ways to communicate with others online, be wary of spending too much time consuming news that may only worsen your anxiety. Give yourself a set schedule for when you will read the news — perhaps for 10 minutes at a time in the morning, afternoon, and evening — in order to get enough information to make informed decisions for yourself and your family. “In the world that we’re in, it is highly unlikely that something extreme is going to happen and you’re not going to know about it until the next day,” Bufka says, “and not knowing about it wouldn’t dramatically change the course of your life.”
Consuming constant coverage of disasters, such as a fire or earthquake, can also be stressful, says Anne Reim, the public health adviser of disaster behavioral health at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Repetition of stories about traumatic events can really make some people relive the event over and over and anticipate it,” she says. Again, only read or watch enough to get a general idea of what happened and how to move forward, whether that’s aiding others or determining how to receive assistance after a natural disaster.
Be careful not to fall into a social media trap, where engaging with other similarly concerned people can feel “pseudo-fulfilling,” Bryant says, but doesn’t inspire concrete action. “I encourage everybody,” he says, “to really look at how they spend their time, where they put their energy and attention, and consider what’s going to feel most fulfilling.”
Focus only on today
The future is always uncertain, but with the threat of climate change, that future can seem unknowable and uncontrollable. It can be difficult to cope when continued — and more severe — climate disasters loom. Some people even grapple with the existential question of whether to have children because of the human toll on the planet’s resources.
The solution is not to put your head in the sand and pretend the effects of climate change won’t affect you because you won’t be around to see it, Bryant says. Instead, focus on the present, Sebree says: This is where we are now; we can’t change what happened, but we can impact what will happen.
“I don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring,” Sebree says, “but what can I do today and right now to feel good about myself and what are the steps that I’m taking right now?”