What is Climate Anxiety?: How to Cope with Climate Anxiety in an Uncertain Future

Today I made a quick trip to the grocery store. I made sure to bring along my reusable tote and tried to make sustainable choices, like purchasing the juice that comes in a glass bottle because I feel more confident it’ll be recycled. Then I looked over and watched the person next to me purchase three packages of single-use plastic water bottles… and my head started spinning as I thought about the implications. I stepped out of the grocery store, noticing that it was still 90 degrees outside at 5:30 pm. And then I reminded myself that even though I could have walked to the store, I still drove, further contributing to the worsening climate crisis. I felt helpless, ashamed, and overwhelmed when imagining the future of life on our planet and in Los Angeles. Thoughts like this have crossed my mind for years, but my fears about our world have been increasing with the worsening conditions. And I know I’m not alone.

If you were to poll your average American citizen, they would likely agree that access to fresh air, clean water, and green, healthy spaces to live and raise their families are fundamental human rights. For some marginalized groups in this country, discriminatory housing and development policies have ensured those rights were never accessible. However, as we all cope with the worsening effects of climate change, it is becoming abundantly clear that none of our futures are guaranteed. 

What is climate anxiety?

Climate anxiety is conceptualized as the vast array of feelings accompanying a person’s comprehension of the ever-escalating climate crisis. Once someone understands the current and projected impacts that development and capitalist industry have on the environment, they tend to experience heightened anxiety and bouts of hopelessness, despair, grief, and rage. Calling this “climate anxiety” is somewhat misleading for several reasons. First, while one may feel anxious, they may also feel a host of other things too. In some articles, climate anxiety is also referred to as climate change hopelessness, and climate grief would also be fitting. Furthermore, it’s important to note that these feelings are justified. Given the current state of the world and what we can project into the future, it’s valid to be concerned, scared, angry, and whatever else you may feel. It would be wrong to pathologize a very reasonable response to the current climate crisis.

What is essential to understand is that while the climate crisis is wreaking havoc on our planet and our futures, it is also wreaking havoc on our mental health. According to the American Psychological Association, over three-quarters of Americans report concern about climate change, and many report feeling “alarmed.” The most immediate effects on mental health can be observed in the aftermath of increasing disasters fueled by climate change, such as hurricanes, wildfires, and floods. The results can include trauma and shock, post-traumatic stress disorder, feelings of abandonment, and anxiety and depression that can lead to thoughts of suicide and risky behavior. Within the community, these disasters have the potential to strain social relationships, reduce social cohesion and increase interpersonal violence and child abuse. Of course, the mental health and overall implications are innumerable for those forced to evacuate their homes and who have to contend with significant loss. Many communities on the front lines of this disaster are already dealing with acute trauma from climate events and other forms of systemic oppression and marginalization that have a psychological toll attached to them.

And for many, climate anxiety can exacerbate already existing mental health concerns such as depression or generalized anxiety. Coming to terms with the reality of climate change can be incredibly destabilizing because it is such a massive and all-encompassing issue. It can be hard to access hope, considering that any possible change would seemingly require significant institutional change to rectify. And the more climate change becomes a part of the national conversation, the more common it will be for people to experience climate anxiety as it touches on the natural and human fear of uncertainty or the unknown. Also, as the temperatures climb, wildfires rage and tornadoes abound, our news reports can amplify our fear and despair. For some individuals, the fear that we won’t be able to stem the (literally) rising tides of climate change can seriously disrupt their ability to function, care for themselves or make it through the day. 

The impact seems to be disproportionate for the youth of the world, who are carrying a great deal of the worry and will be the ones bearing the cost. A recent study that surveyed 10,000 participants aged 16-25 across ten countries found that nearly 80% of respondents expressed concern about the future of our planet, and about half reported that their concerns about the state of the environment negatively impacted their ability to function in their daily lives. According to the research, their eco-anxiety, or climate anxiety, is partly caused by the feeling that governments aren’t doing enough to avoid a climate catastrophe.

All of this can be too heavy for today’s youth and the rest of us. It’s no wonder people are contending with anxiety, depression, despair, anger, and hopelessness. The stress of the climate crisis has a far reach, as does the impact of the climate crisis. It makes sense that some are having difficulty getting out of bed in the morning or are struggling to imagine making plans for the future. It makes sense that many are enraged with our governments and the decisions made by corporations. And it makes sense that we struggle with making choices ourselves or feel guilty for how we have contributed to, or are contributing to, climate change.

So what can be done?

How do we work to combat the effects of climate anxiety, stay engaged and informed about the state of our environment, and mitigate the impact on our mental health? Our response has to be two-pronged and address the actions we can take to combat the climate crisis while also caring for our own (and each other’s) mental health. 

Tips to combat climate anxiety:

Validate your feelings and fears.

According to Britt Wray, a Stanford researcher specializing in climate change and mental health, climate anxiety itself isn’t the problem. She shares, “It’s actually a very healthy and normal response to have when one understands the escalating civilizational threat that we’re dealing with when it comes to the climate crisis. However, it can become a huge problem if the feelings become so severe that a person starts to lose their ability to function and access wellbeing and get through the day.” Instead of trying to talk yourself out of your feelings or trying to ignore them, give yourself permission to feel them. Sometimes, they can even be helpful to you by motivating you to take action. You’re not wrong for having them, even though it may be difficult and even if your friends and family don’t share your feelings. And notice if your feelings are making it difficult to function.

Engage in self-soothing. 

Finding ways to soothe yourself is necessary if you feel overwhelmed and panicked, and your fight, flight, or freeze response is activated. Take deep breaths, spend time outside and in nature if it’s safe to do so, take off your shoes and dig your toes into the soil, hug yourself, and do what you need to in order to calm your nervous system. Self-soothing doesn’t mean you should neglect your feelings or disregard your fears; it means honoring them and coming back to yourself so that you can take care of yourself and do what you can to also care for the planet.

Be thoughtful about your news consumption.

Yes, it is crucial to stay informed about current affairs, to stay vigilant, and to know what actions to take. But climate anxiety can be heightened by the sheer volume of negative news on the subject. Limiting your exposure to the news can be helpful, and it can also help to seek out positive climate developments or outlooks. Consider following Alaina Wood, a sustainability scientist on TikTok (@thegarbagequeen), as a place to start. It’s there that I learned about scientists recently discovering an enzyme that breaks down environment-damaging plastics in under 24 hours!

Take Action.

You can start small. This can feel especially hard to do when you consider reports suggesting that the world must cut its emissions in half by 2030 to stop the projected sea level rise that would put ⅔ of the world’s global population underwater. While these stats can be incredibly demoralizing, the only way we can prevent that future is by holding ourselves accountable just like we would governments or corporations. Each of our small, individual actions has had a cumulative effect in getting us to this point, and it will take each of us committing to changing our behaviors to create a more significant change. You don’t have to be perfect, and each step matters. If you have economic privilege, this is a great time to use it in your choices. The next time you buy something, you can be a conscious consumer. You can look at aspects of a product and its associated company to ensure it aligns with your values. Make more sustainable choices: keep the windows open instead of using the air-conditioning if/when you can, using bar shampoos and conditioners can be excellent alternatives to those in plastic bottles, and maybe you could consider biking, walking, or public transportation when possible. 

Find community.

Experiencing climate anxiety can be a lonely experience, which can intensify the feelings of fear, hopelessness, and despair. For many, their anxiety is made worse by trying to talk to family and friends who aren’t ready to hear their concerns and legitimize them. Finding others who support your concerns can be a way to build solidarity and to think of creative ideas to tackle the climate feelings and climate crisis together. It can also help you foster hope, knowing that others care and are doing what they can to create positive change. 

Please reach out to us if you need help managing your climate anxiety beyond this list of tips and if you’re finding that your climate anxiety is making it difficult to engage in your life. Our therapists won’t tell you that feeling fear and despair about the climate crisis means you’re engaging in catastrophic thinking. Instead, we will help you honor your feelings and work to support you in taking care of yourself and the environment around you. Call or text (323) 388-5578 or email info@takeroottherapy.com. We are here. 

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