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Coping with Climate Anxiety
What is climate anxiety?
Climate anxiety refers to the negative emotions and psychological distress that arise when dealing with climate change information, whether that be fear, sadness, guilt, or hopelessness. Climate awareness about the different impacts and future threats of climate change can drive climate anxiety. As climate awareness increases and people are met with more news about climate impacts around the world, climate anxiety has also increased.
It’s important to acknowledge that talking about climate change can bring up different emotions, some of them positive and others negative. This is completely natural in the face of uncertainty and the constant stream of negative news about environmental degradation and the urgency of climate change. Climate change and environmental awareness are more and more visible in the media, and can be constantly present in our lives through social media. Experiencing climate impacts and natural disasters, such as floods and wild fires, can also have negative mental health impacts on those who experience them first hand.
Has climate awareness made climate anxiety more common?
Especially young people are experiencing high levels of climate anxiety. A study from 2021 finds that over 50% of young people between ages 16-25 feel very or extremely worried about climate change, with 84% at least moderately worried. Half of the 10,000 respondents feel all of the following emotions: “sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty.” That isn’t to say that adults aren’t experiencing these emotions too – there’s just been less research on it.
Climate awareness and the role individuals play in relation to the problem can make young people stressed about climate change. Rhetoric emphasising individual responsibility about how often we fly or the food we consume makes the issue part of every day considerations and lifestyle choices. This way of thinking exacerbates the guilt experienced along with worry for wildlife, the wellbeing of future generations, or people living in vulnerable countries. Some feel an increasing pressure to take climate action as individuals, or feel isolated as they feel those around them do not hear their concerns.
It also matters how climate news is communicated by the media. An alarmist approach talking about environmental doom can worsen climate anxiety. Being met with bad news about climate change and the state of the world can evoke negative feelings, while pushing the need to “act now” can create stress and make people feel overwhelmed or small in the face of the challenge.
Is climate anxiety all bad?
At first glance climate anxiety may seem all negative. Distressing feelings may turn to apathy: researchers have found that some young people, especially boys, may de-emphasise from climate change despite higher climate awareness, and start to think it doesn’t concern them because the issue feels too vast and difficult to influence as an individual. Others may distance themselves and not engage with climate change because it brings up too many unpleasant feelings.
Still, climate anxiety is a sign of climate change and environmental awareness that acknowledges the need for change. This can be a helpful realisation, even if it’s not a pleasant one. It can be a driver for active participation in climate activism, or lead to creating a climate change adaptation strategy or other way to take action on climate change. It may prompt people to search out information on what they can do. This can encourage lifestyle or other adjustments with the belief that individuals can make a difference on a global problem. People can also focus on appreciating small victories and place their trust in climate scientists and environmental organisations to provide credible information. Acting on climate change together with others can create feelings of hope and well-being that may coexist and even override feelings of climate anxiety.
What can you do if climate awareness is causing you to feel anxiety?
There are a few different things that can be helpful if you’re experiencing climate anxiety.
1. Acknowledge and talk about your feelings
Climate change is a major issue with many uncertainties, so it’s not surprising that it can cause many types of emotions, both positive and negative. It’s important to take a moment to accept this: things changing, especially if it seems like for the worse, will inevitably make us feel a sense of loss. The important thing is to not get swept up by these feelings, but try to find ways to address them in a way that feels right for you.
One way you can reduce climate anxiety is talking about it with your peers and colleagues. Many people are dealing with similar emotions due to increased climate awareness, and finding support from those around you can lift a part of the load off. There are even dedicated support groups that discuss the feelings brought on by climate change.
2. Find new angles to approach climate change
A lot of the news relating to climate change is negative, focusing on natural disasters and deteriorating landscapes. However, there is also a lot of encouraging information available on new innovations, individuals and groups coming up with exciting new initiatives, and success stories of habitat restoration that can give a different perspective. Many companies are taking environmental issues more seriously and creating their own climate change adaptation strategy, which can inspire change in business practices. Searching out hopeful messages can help you feel better and find a more productive state of mind to engage with climate change.
You can also make an effort to find more connectedness with the natural world. Walking in nature can create a sense of togetherness and healing, and has been shown to have positive mental health impacts. Finding the beauty in nature can help you remember why you want to address climate change, therefore replenishing your sense of motivation.
3. Take action to address climate change
Climate anxiety can often stem from the fact that individuals feel too small to make a difference. However, there are many things you can do to take climate action. But don’t just do these as an individual, invite people around you to join you!
- Help the people you know increase their climate awareness by starting conversations. Mentioning something you heard on the news can be an easy way to start, but you can try following the approach above and choosing a positive piece of news to focus on!
- Encourage your organisation to create a climate change adaptation strategy. Find out more about how to talk about sustainability with your team or learn about gamification for climate change as a way to engage your team.
- Get your group involved:
- Challenge your colleagues to bike or take public transport to work.
- Invite your best friends to buy second-hand when possible – you can recommend nice thrift shops you know to get them going.
- Plan with your family and neighbours to reduce energy consumption by lowering the room temperature in your living space.
- Challenge your colleagues to improve recycling at the office.
- Get your family to eat vegetarian food at least one day a week.
- Rally your neighbours behind replacing tiles with green verges in your street.
- Let your government representatives know you want them to address climate change by joining demonstrations or signing petitions with your friends.
4. Work together with others for a stronger sense of community
It’s easy to get stuck in negative emotions if you keep them to yourself. Instead, try to engage with other people about what thoughts climate awareness is bringing up for you. Join a local group working on a climate related topic, whether that be a neighbourhood gardening association or an activist group for climate change and environmental awareness. Advocate for a climate action committee at your work to urge management to take a proactive approach and encourage your colleagues to take part in collective climate action. You will find there are many other people who want to learn more about how to adapt to climate change, and doing it together will bring energy, fun and compassion into your actions.
Addressing climate anxiety may not always be easy. Even after taking all these steps, you may still be faced with negative emotions brought on by climate awareness from time to time. The important thing is to find ways to cope with those feelings and engage with climate change that break the cycle of negative thoughts and motivate you to keep going.
And remember: it’s also okay to take a break from serious topics and enjoy the rest of life.