When the Google Doodle to celebrate Earth Day 2022 did a side-by-side timelapse of the climate changes, I completely forgot what I was about to Google. While I’ve always had climate change looming over me as I watch the polar bears get thinner, my climate anxiety has intensified in the last few years.
If you haven’t heard the term before, climate anxiety, or eco-anxiety, is the psychological or emotional distress related to the “overwhelming sense of fear, sadness, and existential dread in the face of a warming planet.” From droughts, warming oceans, and rising sea levels to carbon pollution, climate change continues to pose a danger to planetary life as we know it. Depressingly, the climate crisis is primarily thanks to us humans and the greenhouse gas emissions we generate – and even worse, these emissions are only getting higher.
As Earth continues to warm and weather patterns change, our anxiety grows. A recent Yale study showed that a majority of Americans (64 percent) are at least “somewhat worried” about global warming. One in four report being “very worried.”
But what exactly is climate anxiety as it relates to mental health, and how can you address it? Here’s what to know.
What is climate anxiety?
According to psychologist Maria Ojala, the anxiety related to climate change is focused more on the well-being of others – like future generations, people living in economically deprived countries, and the natural world. Climate anxiety is often experienced more intensely by younger generations, those on the front lines of climate-related natural disasters, climate scientists, and activists.
While distressing, climate anxiety is not irrational (especially considering the uncertainty, worry, anger, and grief around the loss already experienced). Instead, climate anxiety is a natural response to climate change threats. One common effect of climate anxiety is that it can cause some to search for more information about the situation and solutions. In fact, some climate activists believe that climate anxiety isn’t something to be cured. Instead, it should be used to drive others to take action.
Climate anxiety can present itself physically, leaving you with a tightness in your chest or clenching your jaw. Depression can grow around the idea that things will never improve or leave you contemplating what feels like impending doom. For some, ‘anticipatory mourning’ around apocalyptic fears can have a debilitating impact on your sleep and day to day.
Dealing with climate anxiety
The complexity of climate change can nonetheless become too overwhelming, and the need for resources and support is growing. In the last year alone, Google searches for “climate anxiety” rose 565 percent and “what can I do about climate change” by 2,600 percent. A March 2021 study by the Yale Program on Climate Communications showed that 71 percent of Americans are worried about the harmful effects of global warming on future generations. So if you’re experiencing climate anxiety, you certainly aren’t alone.
The impact an individual can have versus changes enacted by society as a whole can leave you feeling completely powerless when it comes to climate change. While we can’t control the actions of others, there are still steps we can take – both for our mental health and for the world around us.
First, it’s important to take care of our mental health. As social science researcher Susanne Moser stated, “burnt-out people aren’t equipped to serve a burning planet.” Start from within by trying meditation or practicing being present. Talk to someone you’re comfortable with about the anxiety that you’ve been feeling. Or, for more structured help, meet with a therapist or join a support group.
And, of course, staying active helps improve your mood and relieve stress and anxiety. Make movement a regular part of your routine and get outside whenever possible. That way, you can appreciate the natural world around you and remind yourself of the importance of fighting climate change.
Does taking action make you feel better than talking out your climate anxiety? Educate yourself on which companies put recycling and sustainability at the forefront of their operations, from production to customer consumption to recycling again. Then, make it a priority to shop from and support those companies. Consider what type of changes you can enact in your local community. Participate in your local elections and discussions that impact climate change.
To quote Eve Andrews, staff writer at Grist, ”All of this is to say, dear reader, when you feel anxious and out of control in the face of a changing planet, choose the thing that you can do best and most effectively, and then don’t let others ruin your faith in it.” Remember, by taking care of yourself, you’ll be stronger and more resilient when faced with a wave of climate anxiety.