Coping with Climate Anxiety

Apr 19, 2022

By Shane O’Neil-Hart, LCSW

How does climate anxiety feel?

As ecosystems strain under extreme weather, seasonal patterns tip off-kilter, and researchers deliver dire reports, people around the world are beginning to share a collective dread about the planet’s future. This dread has a name: climate anxiety.

So, what is climate anxiety? Also called “climate change anxiety” or “eco anxiety,” the term refers to all the ways in which the current climate crisis affects how we think and feel. It can manifest as sadness, anger, obsessive worry, despair, and other uncomfortable experiences.

Anxiety and other forms of distress related to climate change should not be seen as a manifestation of mental illness. They are a natural response to the profound threat facing our planet and way of life. In fact, the true psychological dysfunction we face is large-scale climate change denial.

The most recent climate report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) painted a sobering picture of current and future consequences, including extensive changes to ecosystems, impacts on food and water security, eroding coastlines, an increase in extreme weather events, and population migration away from vulnerable areas. Long term, many species on our planet could face extinction and millions more people could be displaced as the climate grows more unstable. Today’s climate change mitigation measures will determine the severity of these potential outcomes.

Even reading about these threats can evoke distress and bring up an urge to avoid or look away. Of course, it’s easy to see how doing that will only exacerbate and prolong the problem. As individuals and as a society, we need to develop our capacity to tolerate the uncomfortable emotions stemming from this crisis in order to focus our efforts on mitigating it.

Dealing with climate anxiety isn’t just about fearing the future. According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the physical repercussions of climate change can directly affect human psychology. Severe weather events like floods, droughts, and storms upend lives and cause trauma. Extreme heat events have been associated with everything from increased violence to increased suicide risk. Food and water scarcity create a host of psychological stressors, as does forced migration. Humanity is battling immediate threats and ambiguous long-term threats at the same time.

Populations especially impacted by climate anxiety

Some groups suffer from eco anxiety at higher rates, including young people, who will spend their adult years living with the consequences of today’s environmental decisions. In a Lancet survey of 10,000 youth ages 16-25 from all over the world, more than 80 percent had anxiety about climate change, with 59 percent feeling “very or extremely worried.”

Young people aren’t the only ones at increased risk for climate change anxiety. Poor and marginalized communities will be the first to feel the climate-related disruptions. In fact, they’re already living it.

The developing world is disproportionately impacted by displacement, food and water insecurity, disease, and economic challenges related to shifting climate conditions. Stanford University researchers found that climate change has increased economic inequality between developed and developing nations by 25 percent since 1960.

Even in developed countries, marginalized communities will feel the effects first. In the U.S., American Indians and Alaska Natives are more likely to live near rising sea levels; Latino communities are more likely to live in areas where climbing temperatures will affect daytime working hours; and Black Americans are more likely to reside in regions that will see upticks in heat-related mortality.

Although they will be the first affected, these communities are less likely to have a voice in shaping public policies. They—and many others who read this grim news—may grapple with anger and hopelessness as a result.

According to Dr. Robyn D. Walser, director of TL Psychological and Consultation Services and assistant professor at the University of California, Berkeley, climate anxiety feels like “a mix of dread and anger—dread about what’s happening and anger about what is perceived as a lack of caring.” 

Anna*, an analyst at a California open space planning district, says, “When I experienced climate change anxiety, I felt a distinct frustration with everyone around me who wasn’t doing everything in their power—going vegan, zero waste, etc.—to stop this. And I recognized that that wasn’t fair.” 

People often report the following feelings related to climate change: 

  • Sadness
  • Anxiety
  • Powerlessness
  • Helplessness
  • Guilt
  • Anger

In the Lancet survey, more than 45 percent of youth reported negative effects on their daily functioning and 75 percent saw the future as frightening. All of these responses are normal and valid. That being said, there are effective strategies for coping with these emotions, and it’s important to seek mental health care if they impact daily functioning.

How to deal with climate anxiety

Dealing with climate anxiety requires us to notice and acknowledge our feelings. Pushing away emotions or trying to “fix” them can lead to bigger problems such as mental exhaustion and poor physical health.

Name your anxiety, validate it, and then channel that energy into making a difference. Here are some steps you can take to turn climate anxiety into action.

Tap into compassion. Acknowledge the suffering caused by climate change and commit to doing your part to alleviate it. Cultivate compassion for others and for yourself.

Practice acceptance. We can’t change the past. The climate crisis has begun. As challenging as it is, we need to accept that reality and decide how to move forward in light of it.

Connect with caring. Allow yourself to feel sadness, anger, grief, and anxiety. Remember that you feel these things because you care about the world and its inhabitants. In order to rid yourself of these emotions, you would have to cut yourself off from your natural instinct to care for others.

Get involved. Join an organization or activist group committed to fighting climate change. 

Talk to friends and family. Share your feelings with people who care about you. They can validate you and provide love and camaraderie on difficult days. You also encourage collective action by educating them on the crisis.

Get outside. Spending time outdoors brings many psychological benefits, so take up an enjoyable activity like walking, biking, or gardening. Appreciating nature can also remind you of the beauty of our planet and offer motivation to push for continued change.

Monitor your media intake. It’s important to stay informed, but that doesn’t mean you must go down the “rabbit hole” of doomsday headlines and catastrophizing. The news media generally reports on the negative effects of climate change but often overlooks the stories of the people and organizations fighting against it. Take Mr. Rogers’ timeless advice and “look for the helpers.”

Find community. Seek out people who share your concern for our planet. You can bear witness to each other’s pain, offer support at difficult moments, and share solutions and good news.

Remember that the onus is not just on the individual. Dr. Walser explains, “Me putting my plastic bottles in the recycle bin is not going to make a big enough difference. What we need to do is stop making plastic.” Focus your efforts on advocating for broad-scale change. 

According to Anna, a significant step in coping with climate change anxiety was understanding the limits of her influence when it came to such a large-scale need for change. She says, “That’s why I chose to work in a field that considered and analyzed how greater policy changes could impact this issue.” 

How can workplaces help employees with climate crisis anxiety?

Offer resources. As with any source of employee stress, the best response from an employer is first and foremost to offer resources that can help, such as comprehensive mental health benefits. This is critically important because climate change requires collective action, which means a large number of people need emotional support to move past despair and into action.

Acknowledge the problem. This builds psychological safety so employees can share how eco anxiety affects them and seek help. When your workplace proactively acknowledges the crisis, you send the message to employees that their response to climate change is rational given the high stakes, and that the problem is a collective, societal issue.

Create a policy. If you haven’t already, create an environmental policy for your organization, and include your employees’ ideas so they feel ownership in moving toward a goal. If your organization already has an environmental policy or goal in place, make sure it is publicized and that employees receive periodic updates about it.

Host an awareness event. Take your climate awareness a step further and host a climate expert or advocacy group to answer questions your employees might have. Information is power, and those who work for you will appreciate the chance to voice their concerns to experts.

How mental health providers can help clients with climate anxiety

Mental health providers play a pivotal role in guiding people through climate change anxiety. Here are a few ways to do this:

Practice self-care. Therapists, counselors, and other mental health providers may have their own fears about climate change. It’s important to acknowledge and respond to those feelings so you can better help clients. Consider sharing your feelings about the climate crisis with your clients as a way to validate and humanize their experience. 

Focus on empowerment. It’s a natural impulse to want to “fix” unpleasant emotions, but the healthiest approach is often to help empower clients to take action in their lives. Anxiety is rational when faced with a crisis of this magnitude, and taking action against the threat is an effective way to channel those emotions.

Consider eco anxiety as a form of complex trauma. Unlike a single-event trauma, the trauma of climate change is ongoing. We face repeated exposure through headlines, extreme weather events, climate reports, and other triggers. On top of that, the scale of climate change is above what we’re wired to handle. Human emotions were developed to respond to short-term threats. When a threat drags on, especially if the outcome is nebulous, it can be much more difficult to cope. 

The truth is, no one fully knows how climate change and mitigation measures will affect the world in our lifetime, and that is a true cause for concern. This type of complex trauma is difficult to treat, so give your clients (and yourself) grace if the process of dealing with climate anxiety is rocky.

Notice your own avoidance. If you avoid your own feelings about climate change, you diminish your capacity to help others with theirs. Be aware if you’re trying to minimize uncomfortable thoughts or feelings.

What many clients want is someone to sit with them in their grief, sadness, and anger, before they work on a solution. Approach climate anxiety treatment in two stages.

  1. Validate and normalize the client’s feelings first. “You feel upset about this because you care about our planet and other people. Your pain is rooted in compassion. That’s a very positive quality.”
  2. Move from despair to action. “How can we hold onto that compassion without becoming bogged down in hopelessness? Often the best way to get unstuck is to take action.”

Collective action in response to climate anxiety

With climate change anxiety, collective action is the best medicine—for the planet and for the people who live here. It’s critical to recognize the pain of eco anxiety so we can transform it into actions that breed hope for change. Burying the pain solves neither the threat nor the long-term emotional struggle.

Lyra can help. We offer comprehensive mental health care with support, tools, and resources for employees, organizations, and providers. We offer culturally responsive, high-quality care with providers who can address the full range of mental health concerns, including climate change anxiety. Contact Lyra today to learn more.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Shane O’Neil-Hart, LCSW, is the Senior Clinical Manager of the Mental Health Coaching Program Lyra Health and an expert in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). He serves as the Vice President of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS), and provides psychotherapy, supervision, and training in ACT.