It’s nearly every week that we hear about another natural disaster – often, one that can be linked to our warming climate. Even if not on the level of disaster, climate change has impacted the way that we live, no matter where we call home. For many, the effects of and discourse around climate change causes a negative emotional reaction that those in the mental health field call “climate anxiety.”
This type of anxiety looks and feels different from other anxieties. This Earth Day, learn how to identify climate anxiety and what you can do about it.
What is climate anxiety?
Climate anxiety describes the negative emotional response that occurs because of the consequences of a warming climate. People who have climate anxiety may feel overwhelmed by emotions like sadness, fear, anger, frustration, despair, hopelessness, or fatigue when thinking and talking about climate change. This anxiety stems from the internally perceived threat of losing our homes and senses of safety. Even when your home isn’t directly in danger, it can still be scary to consider living in a world where plants, animals, and people are not safe.
Climate anxiety generally stems from the repercussions of difficult emotions like dread or anticipatory suffering. These emotions are complex because of their forward-looking perspective and the feeling of foreboding. There’s also a sense of helplessness when it comes to climate change, despite the incredible work of activists (including ecotherapists!). Helplessness is a common mental health symptom where an individual feels like no matter how hard they work or how many solutions they implement, they will still end up with the same result. The psychological impact of helplessness, especially in the case of climate change, is huge.
Climate anxiety is exacerbated by climate change’s position as another system of oppression: it’s also a social justice issue. Jessica Morgan, a Climate Anxiety and Despair Specialist in New York, states, “We know that climate change is hitting BIPOC and other marginalized communities first and worst so the manifestations of chronic stress are now compounded by the experiences of intergenerational trauma, genocide, cultural appropriation and so much more.” For many, seeing the injustices that are further highlighted with climate change adds another layer to their climate anxiety.
What are the signs & symptoms of climate anxiety?
Climate anxiety is more than just feeling nervous about environmental issues. It comes with an overarching feeling of loss, grief, and difficult transition. There are many emotions that arise with climate anxiety, including:
These emotions, when felt chronically, can become overwhelming and may lead to the development of mental health concerns like anxiety, depression, or even PTSD. These feelings can also manifest into physical symptoms like headaches, stomachaches, muscle tension, chronic pain, or heart disease. This is because climate anxiety triggers our stress systems, flooding our bodies with stress hormones that can linger for days and weeks.
Many young people must consider what the Earth will be like in 50 years – and they don’t like what they see.
“Existential dread and paralysis are the top two trends I have noticed in working with folks both young and old in regards to climate anxiety,” shares Morgan. She continues, “Emotionally, these two phenomena manifest as worry, despair, and fear. Behaviorally, this can look like lack of motivation or loss of interest which for many people translates to anything from not being able to get out of bed to reckless decision making.”
If you find yourself reacting in these ways to news about climate change, you may have climate anxiety. It’s difficult to escape hearing about the negative impacts of climate change, so it’s easy to become overwhelmed with the information. Many people experience climate anxiety, so you certainly aren’t alone!
How can you cope with climate anxiety?
If you find yourself impacted by climate anxiety, there are many ways to cope with it so that it doesn’t drag you down.
Because climate anxiety places your body into a state of increased stress, taking the time to destress is of high importance. Destressing can look like going on walks, baking banana bread, or painting - but it can also look like taking deep breaths, visualizing your happy place, or incorporating a mantra into your daily routine. By allowing your body to relax, your system can find a more comfortable homeostasis where you don’t feel the physical symptoms of anxiety.
It’s also important for you to feel connected to others to combat the effects of climate anxiety. Consider joining an activism group or a political group to meet other people who are passionate about advocating for the environment. Finding people to talk to about your climate anxiety can help you realize that you aren’t alone. It also gives you space to process your emotional reactions to current events.
If you still find yourself feeling overwhelmed by your climate anxiety, working with a therapist may help. There’s even a name for therapists who specialize in climate anxiety – ecotherapists.
“Therapists are change-makers and those who can learn to hold space for an individual's relationship to the global stage (be it, climate, institutional racism, or transphobia, etc) instead of pathologizing this relationship are actually participating in creating a more just and livable future,” says Morgan. She continues to say that in therapy, clients can learn how to process through existential hopelessness and become “unstuck.”
The environment plays a huge role in many people’s mental health – for many, their self-care is to spend time outside and in nature. If you suffer from climate anxiety, there are ways to take action to feel less anxious while maintaining your drive to make change in the world. This Earth Day, take the time to prioritize your mental health so you can keep yourself healthy and engaged in the fight for climate justice.