Climate Anxiety: Unfortunately, It’s a Thing

Terrible floods. Extreme hurricanes. Summer to winter…overnight. If you’re stressed about the planet, help is here: a new breed of therapist who specializes in eco-angst.

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Climate change won’t just kill us in the future—it’s killing us today.

And that’s not a sensationalized, Kardashian-click-bait statement.

Take Hurricane Ian, whose death toll has already reached 77. Its powerful winds—known as rapid intensification in meteorological circles—were accelerated by warmer ocean temperatures. And warmer ocean temperatures, according to scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are likely a result of climate change.

Then there were the Kentucky floods, which left 37 people dead this summer. Rising temps in the state increased atmospheric moisture—and, as a spokesperson from the nonprofit Climate Central put it, “What goes up must come down.”

We, the world, have had our eight warmest years on record for the past eight years. On July 21 alone, around 60 million Americans sweltered in 100°F , with 100 million under heat alerts.

No wonder 48 percent of adults in the U.S. are “very” concerned about the climate, according to a recent report on mental health and climate change by the American Psychological Association (APA) and ecoAmerica. 

If “concern” doesn’t quite sum up your dread—if it’s joined up with fear, anger, sadness, or feelings of powerlessness—you may be experiencing a new type of anxiety, one that’s very much manmade: climate anxiety, or eco-anxiety.

“Climate anxiety is a term we use to describe a set of negative emotions and worry that are associated with an awareness of climate change,” says Susan Clayton, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster in Ohio and co-author of the APA and ecoAmerica report. “It is a pretty new term,” she explains. “People have been using it informally for a while, but only within the last couple of years have people begun to think about this as a phenomenon that we should be paying attention to.” 

That’s one reason you won’t currently see climate anxiety listed in a diagnostic manual. It’s still early stages for mental health experts in understanding climate anxiety and what, if any, symptoms or treatments define it. 

Though climate anxiety isn’t a technical mental health disorder, it is a real mental health concern, and there are things you can do about it, Dr. Clayton says. Here’s what to know, how to cope, and ways to take action for the environment. 

With Climate Anxiety, the Threat Is Real (and Isn’t Going Away)

So far, we do know one feature of climate anxiety that may differentiate it from an anxiety disorder—and it’s more than a wee bit disturbing. “Often, we think about people with anxiety disorders as having unrealistically negative beliefs about something or unrealistic worries, and so part of the therapy might be to help them develop a more accurate sense of the threats they’re facing,” Dr. Clayton says. 

“That’s probably not true about climate change—the worry is realistic,” she explains. “There’s a realistic threat to things that people hold dear, including the state of the world as we know it. A lot of people are worried about their future or their children’s future.” 

“Human-induced climate change is already affecting many weather and climate extremes in every region across the globe,” per a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The proof? More weather problems. More intense climate events. It’s way beyond theoretical.

Hurricane Ian and the Kentucky floods are just two examples. Last year in America, we had 20 weather or climate disasters that cost more than $1 billion each, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information. Consider the range of disasters: Severe winter weather led to a “deep freeze” in Texas in February 2021. The massive Dixie wildfire in California started last July. Hurricane Ida, a Category 4 storm, made landfall in Louisiana last August. And deadly tornadoes swept through Kentucky in December. 

“We’re not getting a lot of relief in between these high-impact events,” which is another factor in climate anxiety, says Meighen Speiser, executive director of ecoAmerica and a co-author of the APA and EcoAmerica report. 

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“Regular anxiety lets us know there’s a threat that we face and prompts us to call attention to it. Then that threat generally diminishes, so then anxiety is allowed to subside,” she explains. “But with climate change, you can see that the threat is not diminishing, so the anxiety is not diminishing.” 

Nobody’s Immune to Climate Anxiety 

True, if unfortunate, fact. “We’re used to thinking about the effects of climate change on people who have experienced wildfires or major storms, or maybe they’ve lost their home to rising sea levels,” Dr. Clayton explains. “But climate anxiety can be experienced by anybody just because of their awareness of climate change, even if they haven’t personally experienced the direct impacts.” 

That said, some people may be at higher risk for climate anxiety or poor mental health due to climate change. Some potentially high-risk groups include…

Young Adults
As the group most likely to be affected by climate change over time, Gen Z’ers may be especially fearful—even “terrified”—about the future, Dr. Clayton says. “For young people who are experiencing climate anxiety, there’s a sense that the people in charge aren’t doing their jobs.” (Perhaps a worst-case scenario of ok, Boomer.)

In fact, in a survey of 10,000 people between 16 and 25 years old in 10 countries, more than 50 percent reported feeling “sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty” about climate change. What’s more, 83 percent said they believe “people have failed to take care of the planet”—and many feel betrayed by their government. 

People with an Anxiety Disorder
It’s possible to have an anxiety disorder and climate anxiety, but the relationship between the two isn’t clear yet. “People who experience climate anxiety are more likely to experience other, more general anxiety, but it’s also different,” Dr. Clayton says. 

GOTTA READ: Horror Movies Can Scare Away Anxiety—Science Says So!

If you have generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), for example, don’t assume climate anxiety is merely an extension of GAD. Consider the two as overlapping concerns, and take steps to manage both. 

Marginalized Populations
Sucky reality: Communities who already experience high levels of inequity are at higher risk of poorer physical and mental health, and that stands for climate anxiety, too, according to the APA and ecoAmerica report. 

Here’s just one example of many: Historically discriminatory housing policies mean Black, Hispanic or Latinx, and Indigenous people often live in areas that are more vulnerable to rising temperatures, air pollution, and toxic waste. At the same time, disparities in wealth may make it difficult for them to evacuate or relocate if needed. 

Protect Your Mental Health—and the Climate 

Though you may feel powerless against both climate change and any related anxiety, here’s the (metaphorical, not heat-induced) bright spot in all of this: There are many ways you can care for yourself and help the environment—and doing something, no matter how small, generally helps with those I’ve got zero control vibes. Try any of these strategies. 

1. Get a handle on the feels. “If your emotions are overpowering you, it’s hard to take action,” Dr. Clayton says. In fact, high levels of anxiety can make it harder to think clearly, interfere with sleep, and even cause physical symptoms like muscle tension. 

Many coping techniques for other types of anxiety are also appropriate for climate anxiety, Dr. Clayton says. Try mindful breathing, stepping away from the news, or merely allowing yourself a break from thinking about the issue. 

2. Go for a walk, preferably in DA GREAT OUTDOORS. Walking in nature is one of the best ways to give yourself a mental health break. Plus, people with climate anxiety may feel a personal connection to nature and may particularly benefit from being outdoors, Dr. Clayton says. 

Need inspo? Spending at least 120 minutes per week in nature is linked to better health and well-being, according to one study. You can break this up however you’d like, such as taking a 20-minute walk, six days a week, or going for a 40-minute walk, three days a week. Find trails near you at alltrails.com. 

3. Seek expert help if you need it. No shame in therapy, ever. Whatever the cause is, you don’t have to deal with out-of-control anxiety on your own. 

“If your feelings and mental state are causing great distress or interfering with your life and you’re not able to do the things that you need to do, that’s the time to seek mental health support,” Dr. Clayton says. “Mental health professionals can help you cope with those emotions and feelings.” 

For climate anxiety, she suggests considering a climate-aware therapist (yes, this is also now a thing—thanks, fossil fuels), though, as you might expect, availability may be limited because this is a new specialty. You can also find support through the therapist directory of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. 

4. Get accurate information. One reason climate change can be so unsettling is there’s so much uncertainty. “Even though we have a high degree of certainty that climate change is happening, I can’t say in my specific town that the temperature will go up by this much or that we’ll see, say, two more storms a year,” Dr. Clayton explains. “We don’t have that level of specificity.” 

But you can gain some control by learning more about the topic. “Even if the information is negative, you don’t feel quite so confused and disoriented,” Dr. Clayton says. 

Speiser recommends two books (both written by women, yay): All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis and Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. For mothers (or anyone) who wants to learn more about climate change, she also suggests the Science Moms site.

5. Look for ways to save energy and resources. Living a climate-friendly life doesn’t have to feel like joining the cast of Alone. “Start with what is most accessible to you,” Speiser says. Often, that’s conserving energy and resources at home and in your neighborhood, which can also help you save money and be healthier. 

Here are just a few ideas:

  • Home: Turn off unnecessary lights, and use your heating and cooling systems wisely. If you have a programmable thermostat, the U.S. Department of Energy suggests turning it 7°-10°F lower (in winter) and higher (in summer) for eight hours a day, which can slash your bills by up to 10 percent.
  • Transportation: The group that errands together saves fuel together. (And, at the sky-high gas rates right now, dollars, too!) See if friends or neighbors want to carpool, take public transport, or consider walking, biking, or switching to a hybrid or electric vehicle.
  • Diet: Eat more fruits and vegetables. Meat production creates more carbon pollution. According to ecoAmerica: “If every American cut their meat consumption by half, we could cut agricultural carbon pollution.” Avoid food waste by buying only what you need and getting creative with leftovers. 

To reiterate: You don’t have to “make your life perfect” to help the climate, Clayton says. Everyone has different circumstances, and your own situation can vary from day to day. Keep Speiser’s motto in mind: “Do what you can when you can.”

6. Find and give social support. Talking with friends and other people who share your climate concerns helps build resilience, both at the you-level and the community-level, boosting your ability to function through adversity. 

“This is something that often comes up in families. Parents might think they shouldn’t talk to their children about climate change because they’ll get scared, but social support is just saying, ‘Yes, your feelings are reasonable,’” Dr. Clayton explains. “That can actually be very validating and calming.”

7. Use your voting power. Individual actions definitely matter, but there’s only so much we can do in our personal lives to mitigate climate change. “Our biggest lever is voting, and voting for leaders and policies that will lead us to a healthy, stable, and vibrant climate future that we all want,” Speiser says. 

“A lot of the action on climate can happen locally within our own town or state, so mayors matter, governors matter, senators matter,” she adds. Also, don’t miss out on opportunities to vote on specific policies that might be available on your ballot. 

GOTTA READ: Why Voting is Good For Mental Health

You can usually find out what a candidate’s stance is on environmental issues or what policies will be on a ballot by looking it up online. Watch or listen for these phrases: “energy efficiency, saving energy, electrifying the grid, electric vehicle, charging location, electric transport, wind and solar energy,” Speiser suggests.

 

Hurricanes and Climate Change: https://climate.nasa.gov/news/3184/a-force-of-nature-hurricanes-in-a-changing-climate/

Hurricane Ian and Rapid Intensification: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/hurricane-ian-climate-change-rapid-intensification/

Hurricane Ian Casualties: https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/ian-hurricane-death-toll-grows-florida-south-carolina-virginia-rcna50312

Casualties of Kentucky Flooding: https://www.deseret.com/u-s-world/2022/8/3/23290414/dead-eastern-kentucky-2022-flooding-swept-away-died-who-were-victims-massive-rainstorm-appalachia

Kentucky Flooding and Climate Central: https://www.courier-journal.com/story/news/local/2022/07/29/as-floods-hit-eastern-kentucky-what-else-will-climate-change-bring/65385683007/

Warmest Years and U.S. Climate Stats: https://www.carbonbrief.org/state-of-the-climate-2022-on-track-for-a-summer-of-extreme-heat/

Climate Anxiety Information: American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica. (2021.) “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Inequities, Responses.” https://ecoamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/mental-health-climate-change-2021-ea-apa.pdf

Climate Change Across the Globe: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. (2021.) “Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers.” https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM_final.pdf 

Weather and Climate Events in the U.S.: National Centers for Environmental Information. (2022.) “U.S. Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters.” https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/ 

Climate Anxiety in Young People: The Lancet: Planetary Health. (2021.) “Climate Anxiety in Children and Young People and Their Beliefs About Government Responses to Climate Change: A Global Survey.” https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00278-3 

Time in Nature: Scientific Reports. (2019.) “Spending at Least 120 Minutes a Week in Nature Is Associated with Good Health and Wellbeing.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6565732/

Climate Tips for Home and Neighborhood: ecoAmerica. (2021.) “Climate Solutions for Your Home and Neighborhood.” https://ecoamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/home-neighborhood-climate-solutions-ea-p2p.pdf

Thermostat Tips: https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/programmable-thermostats

Meat Production and Pollution: https://ecoamerica.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/home-neighborhood-climate-solutions-ea-p2p.pdf

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