Author: Florence Robson
The catastrophic impact of human activities on nature is undeniable. We're living in an era where climate change, plastic pollution, biodiversity loss and so many more environmental issues are being felt by more and more people. This damage to human lives, livelihoods and wellbeing, not to mention to animals and other creatures, is visible daily on the news and social media.
For many of us, watching this happen and knowing that it’s getting worse can — quite reasonably — evoke feelings ranging from guilt, anger and frustration to dread and despair.
There’s a name for this complicated jumble of emotions: climate anxiety.
The best antidote for it? Taking tangible, meaningful action!
The best antidote for anxiety is meaningful action.
What is climate anxiety?
The Handbook of Climate Psychology refers to climate anxiety — also called eco-anxiety — as “heightened emotional, mental or [physical] distress in response to dangerous changes in the climate system.” In other words, climate anxiety is a term used to describe the chronic stress, fear and worry associated with the climate crisis and other environmental issues.
Who feels climate anxiety?
First, it is important to recognise that climate anxiety can affect anyone, across all ages, cultures and geographies. For example, more than two-thirds of all adults in America, across all age brackets, say they experience at least some climate anxiety. While some might incorrectly think of climate anxiety as a Gen Z problem, the reality is that many parents (even grandparents) are reasonably anxious about the climate and ecological challenges awaiting future generations.
Climate anxiety can affect anyone, across all ages, cultures and geographies.
That said, young people around the world are, on average, more likely to feel deeper anxiety about the world they are growing up to take responsibility for. A recent global study of more than 10,000 young people aged 16–25 years old found that “more than half (59%) reported being very or extremely worried about climate change, and 84% were at least moderately worried.” Given that there are around 1.3 billion people in this age range around the world, that’s a lot of young minds understandably concerned about our shared future!
Climate anxiety is also, unsurprisingly, higher in regions where people have already been experiencing the impacts of climate change first-hand. Of course, for those who have lived through extreme weather events like hurricanes, floods, forest fires or droughts, the mental health impacts can extend far beyond climate anxiety alone. Post-traumatic stress, depression and learning disabilities can all be long-term consequences of the trauma suffered during such extreme events.
A common thread amongst most people who feel climate anxiety is a feeling of powerlessness in the face of what they see — or sometimes are already experiencing — as a ticking time bomb that they feel they have no influence over.
What are the symptoms of climate anxiety?
Climate anxiety does not look or feel the same for everyone; and it does not exist in a vacuum. While some people might experience strong physical symptoms from climate anxiety, others might experience only mental and social symptoms; and these symptoms can be wide ranging.
Examples of physical symptoms:
Loss of appetite
Examples of mental symptoms:
Reduced ability to concentrate
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms to the extent that they are interfering with your daily life or activities, please speak with your doctor.
Climate anxiety does not look or feel the same for everyone; and it does not exist in a vacuum.
The way someone experiences climate anxiety can also depend on a range of factors, and it can change over time or in response to events. For example, personal events that trigger a sense of loss or grief might amplify a person’s sense of mourning for what has already been lost due to human action and inaction. As another example, tying back to the anxiety felt by parents, having a child can amplify worries about the state of the world we are leaving for future generations.
Personal and social risk factors can also play a role in shaping how an individual experiences climate anxiety. Populations that are at greater risk of experiencing greater impacts from climate anxiety include: the elderly and mobility impaired; those with pre-existing mental health issues; and lower socioeconomic groups that are far more likely to be negatively affected by climate change.
Is climate anxiety getting worse?
While this isn’t the first time in history that people have worried about severe global damage or even extinction, our ability to access information 24/7 increases our daily exposure to these issues and can make our concerns about the climate feel particularly intense. With each news story, these emotions grow stronger.
Climate anxiety has a ripple effect that goes beyond individuals, too. According to a Deloitte survey, almost half of Gen Z and 44% of millennials say they choose their preferred work or employers based on how well they align with their personal ethics. With climate change and protecting the environment a top concern for younger workers, businesses will struggle to get the best talent unless they are prioritising sustainability.
In this context, climate anxiety can be created and worsened by a number of intersecting factors, such as:
Personal experience: Understandably, many people experience a spike in climate anxiety after having first-hand experience of the impacts of the climate crisis, such as wildfires, drought or flooding.
Media & social media: With constant access to news coverage of environmental crises, alarming scientific reports and images and videos from people experiencing climate disaster, it’s no wonder so many of us feel anxious.
Inaction: Many people develop climate anxiety as they watch politicians, governments and corporations failing to respond to the crisis with the appropriate urgency. Sometimes this can leave us feeling like ‘climate hostages’, powerless to accelerate change.
How can I manage my climate anxiety?
While climate anxiety is not yet considered a diagnosable condition (though people are working on it), medical professionals recognise that the climate crisis can trigger an intense psychological response. Remember, while the symptoms might feel overwhelming, climate anxiety is a rational response to the scale of the challenge we are collectively facing. However, just because it’s rational does not mean it’s unmanageable.
Climate anxiety is a rational response to the scale of the challenge we are collectively facing.
The steps to manage climate anxiety can be broadly grouped into two categories: reflection and action. Below are some different approaches to reflection that can help you manage your climate anxiety (and check out our blog on channelling anxiety into action here).
Tune into your feelings
It can be tempting to numb out when you’re feeling overwhelmed but tuning into your discomfort is an important step in being able to take sustainable action. Instead of trying to force your climate anxiety into submission, find a quiet space and spend some time inviting in the challenging emotions. You could try journaling or free-writing (allowing your thoughts to bubble onto the page without editing or censoring them), or practise mindfulness or meditation techniques.
Limit your exposure
While it is important to stay informed, consuming distressing news coverage compulsively can exacerbate anxiety symptoms and cause more harm than good. Make sure you take regular breaks from the news and social media and subscribe to some positive news platforms to counterbalance the negativity (such as Positive News and the Good News section of The Daily Climate).
Research shows that spending time in nature benefits our mental health as much as it does our physical health. Go for a walk in the countryside or your nearest park to reconnect with Mother Nature and anchor your climate anxiety in your love and appreciation for the wonders of the natural world.
Remember you're not alone – talk to people about what you're feeling
Climate anxiety can make some people feel isolated so it is important to find someone you can talk to about how you’re feeling. That might be a family member or a close friend; it could be a therapist or health professional; or it could be joining an organisation like The Good Grief Network to find new friends and colleagues to speak with. The most important thing is to know that you are not alone in your struggle — so reach out and speak with others!
Find the right education for you
There is so much information out there about climate change and ecological crises. It can feel daunting, even anxiety inducing, if you feel you have to learn and understand everything about climate change.
Learning more about the climate crisis and its solutions (both practical and theoretical) can inspire hope and keep you motivated. There are so many ways that you can stay aware and educate yourself on the latest developments in the climate space, such as following the words and works of inspiring figures in the space; finding community online via like We Don’t Have Time; checking out trusted and engaging sources, like the Climate Curious podcast; or signing up for a How to Change the World Course or Bootcamp.
Ready to channel your anxiety into action? Check out our blog on finding your path to climate action here.
About the author
Florence Robson is Head of Communications at How to Change the World. As a writer, editor and content strategist, Florence helps the people changing the world for the better to tell stories that build community, teach empathy and inspire action.