What It Is and How to Cope With Climate Change Fears

Judith Zeng

Perhaps you’ve had your share of middle-of-the-night wake-ups lately: Between the usual pressing work deadlines, kid drama and (oh, right!) a global pandemic that keeps surging, anxieties are running high. But on top of these day-to-day concerns, there’s another pot of worry simmering, and it’s moving off the back burner for many of us: anxiety about climate change.

Lately, the increase in climate-related catastrophes and ever-more-vocal calls for action (often by young people) are forcing the issue to the forefront. While this discourse will hopefully encourage individuals, communities and countries to mitigate climate change, it may be making your personal anxiety worsen, especially if you’re likely to be directly affected by climate change. After Hurricane Harvey struck Houston in 2017, researchers estimated that nearly half the city’s population had symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an extreme form of anxiety. Being impacted more than once can push you even further over the edge. “If you experience two 100-year floods in a few years, your capacity to cope is going to be depleted,” says Christie Manning, Ph.D., Director of Sustainability at Macalester College in Saint Paul, MN.

And even if your community has been spared so far, knowing something bad is likely coming is a big stressor, especially for women and people who have been marginalized. In general, women are more likely to be the family caretaker, and so are responsible for helping elderly parents and children through any climate-caused weather events, and research is finding heightened climate worry in people of color. That’s because decades of discrimination by banks and governments have pushed marginalized people into neighborhoods at lower altitudes or close to highways and airports, and with fewer parks and trees, making these neighborhoods more vulnerable to flooding, pollution and heat.

Fortunately, there are ways to get a handle on it all.

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What exactly is eco-anxiety?

First, it’s important to understand how the climate crisis — caused by all the greenhouse gasses humans have pumped into the atmosphere since the nineteenth century — affects our emotional health. Scientists have long understood the physical side of things: Rising temperatures result in dehydration, heat stroke and heart disease, as well as warm-weather health conditions such as Lyme disease and allergies sticking around longer. Extreme weather, such as the California wildfires, Midwest floods and stronger hurricanes, can hamper access to medical care.

But the notion that climate change affects our psyches is a more recent phenomenon. “Even 10 years ago, the idea that climate change has mental health impacts was something most people didn’t think about — including me,” says Susan Clayton, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the College of Wooster in Ohio and coauthor of a comprehensive 2021 report on the topic by the American Psychological Association and the nonprofit EcoAmerica. These effects include everything from stress and anxiety to depression and PTSD.

Research is ongoing, but it’s clear that our angst is rising, says Clayton. More than three quarters of Americans understand that the planet is warming, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, with a majority believing it will harm their own communities. This may be why 70% of us are at least somewhat worried, with 35% “very worried.” Google searches for terms like climate anxiety or eco-anxiety have skyrocketed the past few years, according to a study by researcher Kelton Minor at the University of Copenhagen.

Parents are especially uneasy. “I hear from people a lot that they’re worried about the world they’re leaving their children,” Clayton says. And kids are worked up about climate change, too. While younger children haven’t yet been queried, a large international study Clayton coauthored in 2021 found that 45 % of teens and young adults say their climate stress affects their daily lives. “After we see a climate disaster on the news, my 8-year-old son peppers me with questions on what we will do if it happens here. I can see the anxiety on his face, and it is heartbreaking,” says Ricki Weisberg, a 42-year-old public relations executive in Ardmore, PA. Compounding Ricki’s own climate anxiety is that she can’t even tell him those disasters are unlikely — several previously rare tornadoes struck a nearby city last year.

Is eco-anxiety a mental illness?

In some respects, climate angst is like other anxieties, which involve feeling tense and fearful when we ponder something that might happen in the future. Anxiety can bring on insomnia, nightmares, dizziness, panic attacks and high blood pressure. In its worst form, it can derail a person’s work and family life.

But in other ways, climate anxiety is unique. Unlike a lot of what we typically focus on when we’re anxious (which may be overblown) there’s good evidence that what we are worried about may well come to pass. “Climate anxiety is not a mental illness, because it’s rational to be concerned,” Clayton says.

climate anxiety

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The things you might normally do to soothe exaggerated or irrational fears aren’t enough. If you’re anxious that your child’s poor grades at school will lead him to a life of failure, for instance, a friend or therapist might help you view the situation more rationally. But with Earth in the balance, it is rational to be concerned. “Anxiety is a sensible response to what we’re facing. Everyone, everything and every place you love is at stake,” says Katharine Hayhoe, Ph.D., chief scientist for the nonprofit Nature Conservancy and author of the book Saving Us. Plus, that worry about your kid’s grades should dissipate once his study habits improve or when summer comes. But shifts in our climate are here to stay, even if countries around the world start to curtail it.

In its healthiest form, climate anxiety can be a good thing: calling your attention to a problem you need to prepare for, psychologists say. Such preparation might include learning more about what’s coming from websites like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), creating a family emergency plan in case of wildfires or storms or even choosing to buy your next home away from a low-lying coast.

But the anxiety so many of us feel about the planet we love can be paralyzing, says Renée Lertzman, Ph.D., a consultant on the environment, psychology and culture whose 2019 TED Talk on the topic has millions of views. “There’s a myth that people don’t care about the climate. But many feel conflicted about how to respond, so they numb out,” she says. Let’s say that you understand the ways that flying, driving and even eating meat contribute to the problem, but you like having those things in your life — this may cause you to freeze instead of taking individual actions, she explains.

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And because the problem feels so huge — and because we know we need widespread change to systems — we can feel overwhelmed to the point of being debilitated, says Manning. “Not many of us feel we have the training, skills, influence or time to know how to get elected officials and corporations to listen and make changes,” she adds. In fact, more than half of us don’t know where to start in turning things around, the American Psychological Association found in 2020.

This is why conquering climate anxiety is so important: Optimism helps. When 5,000 people were asked how they felt when they thought about taking a climate action, anxious people who felt most hopeful were more likely to want to act, while anxious but unhopeful people were not as motivated, a study published in August in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found.

How to cope with climate anxiety

Anxiety feels terrible, and it will not help the planet, so take these steps instead:

  • List what you love about your life. It may not seem directly related, but you need to calm your brain before ideas about how to make a difference can come to you, Manning says. This involves developing what psychologists call “meaning-focused coping,” which can include everything from thinking about what you appreciate in your career or family or the natural world around you, to enjoying weekly sunset walks with a friend.
  • Recognize we can all affect change. Think about how women got the vote, gay marriage became legal and South African apartheid ended, suggests Hayhoe. “Those didn’t happen because some influential person or a president decided it was time, but because ordinary people decided the world had to be different and they used their voices to start the change,” she says. For example, a hospital technician started a petition to divest their institution’s retirement funds out of fossil fuels, Hayhoe says. “We often picture climate action as a giant boulder at the bottom of a hill with a few hands on it, but when we look at what so many people and groups are already doing, we realize the giant boulder is at the top and already rolling down, and it has millions of hands on it that we can join,” she says.
  • Find your people. “If you have deep concerns about the climate, it’s really important that you have people who take those concerns seriously and don’t gaslight you,” Manning says. Plus, joining forces amplifies solutions. There are national environmental organizations like the Sierra Club and niche groups like the nonpartisan Protect our Winters for those who enjoy snow sports. Finding groups in your own community is especially valuable, because the practical solutions that can arise — more green spaces to help with cooling, say, or bike lanes to reduce driving — will help your locality. Besides, being part of a group is in and of itself a stress reducer.
  • Push the powerful. The biggest impacts will be made by those whose decisions affect us all, so voice your concerns to companies you do business with and campaign and vote for politicians who understand the urgency.
  • Know small actions matter. Every step you take (using a colder wash cycle, or driving an electric car) has merit, so don’t worry about being perfect. Lertzman and Hayhoe have both cut down, but not cut out, airplane travel (a huge contributor of heat-trapping carbon) by bundling multiple speaking engagements at each location. Last fall, Katy Romita, a 45-year-old meditation instructor in Mamaroneck, NY, started a website, One Small Stone, offering online meditations to others seeking to calm their climate anxiety.
  • Ease your kids’ angst. Involve your children in climate solutions in a fun way, such as by volunteering to plant trees during your city’s annual drive or joining the NASA-sponsored GLOBE Program, where parents and kids monitor things like clouds, trees and land cover to support our knowledge of the environment, suggests Sandi Schwartz, author of Finding EcoHappiness. Actions like these are beneficial for making children feel better, but “it’s important not to make the child feel like it’s his problem to fix,” Clayton says.
  • Spread the word. When you make any climate-friendly shift in your life, tell friends and relatives so they might follow. Almost everyone can be influenced if you help them connect the dots by using language reflecting their values. “It’s not about telling them they should care for the same reasons you care. It’s about listening for what they’re passionate about,” Hayhoe says. When climate-skeptical Republicans in two congressional districts were shown ads featuring people and terms they related to — an Air Force general describing national security implications and an evangelical Christian (Dr. Hayhoe) emphasizing her faith’s teachings about caring for the planet — they became more open to the climate’s harms, a recent study published in Nature Climate Change found. Other researchers have documented how a dismissive audience becomes more keen to act when local impacts of the crisis are emphasized.
  • Don’t argue with deniers. Fortunately, 7 % of the population feels strongly that global warming isn’t happening. “If that’s your family member, say ‘I love you but you’re wrong,’ and move on. Don’t try to have a productive conversation,” Hayhoe advises.
  • Get help if you need. Reach out to a therapist if climate anxiety starts overwhelming you. You can also talk to others in online climate cafes or at the 10-step climate support group Good Grief Network. And remind yourself that even if your own community is directly impacted, you will bounce back. “Resilience is the ability to function and thrive in the face of negative events,” and humans have this resource in spades, Clayton says. As we tackle climate change, that’s something to feel good about.

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