We’ve long passed the point of writing off signs of climate change as simply another phase in the normal cycle of global warming and cooling. Human actions have altered Earth’s climate, and the impact of this is becoming increasingly visible.
Most people realize climate change can affect physical health through pollution, the spread of disease, and food scarcity. Mental health professionals also point to one serious mental health consequence: eco-anxiety.
“Eco-anxiety” refers to persistent worries about the future of Earth and the life it shelters.
Related terms — “climate change distress,” “eco-trauma,” “eco-angst,” and “ecological grief,” to name a few — acknowledge that this concern often involves symptoms beyond those of anxiety alone.
Anxiety arises when your body responds to perceived threats with its fight-flight-freeze survival instinct. Often, we think of these perceived threats as being rooted in far-fetched, irrational fears.
But climate change is a real threat, however distant the outcome may seem. In this context, it’s possible to see eco-anxiety as a rare case of anxiety working as intended. It functions as a motivator for survival, a unique emotional response propelling humankind to seek out solutions for climate damage.
If the thought of permanent changes to temperature, weather, and animal and human habitats alarms you, this fear is perfectly reasonable. Maybe you, like many others, feel deeply traumatized by the harm already done to some natural environments and species.
An increased sense of hopelessness about the planet’s changes is just one way eco-anxiety might show up.
Other potential symptoms include:
- anger or frustration, particularly toward people who don’t acknowledge climate change or older generations for not making more progress
- fatalistic thinking
- existential dread
- guilt or shame related to your own carbon footprint
- post-traumatic stress after experiencing effects of climate change
- feelings of depression, anxiety, or panic
- grief and sadness over the loss of natural environments or wildlife populations
- obsessive thoughts about the climate
These feelings can contribute to secondary issues, like:
Heightened stress can also fuel tension in relationships with friends, romantic partners, or family, especially if you don’t hold the same views on climate change.
Concerns about climate change might become so overwhelming that you throw yourself into distractions to avoid those fears. Distracting yourself may not help, however, when it keeps you from working through your feelings or involves less-than-ideal coping strategies, like substance or alcohol use.
Climate change is a global concern, but also a personal one. You may not spend much time actively considering your connection to the planet, yet that link exists for everyone.
You’ve heard of Mother Earth, certainly — there’s truth behind this name. Earth is the original home, the original provider of resources.
Though you might feel pretty far removed from this reality, without Earth, you wouldn’t exist. It’s only natural to grieve as you witness the planet rapidly change.
Here’s a look at some of the other driving factors behind eco-anxiety.
Hearing about the long-term effects of climate change is one thing. Living through them is quite another.
Perhaps you’ve faced some tough times as hurricanes or wildfires drove you from your home or destroyed it entirely. Maybe you’ve lost loved ones in those same disasters — lives that, unlike homes, can never be replaced.
Gradual effects, such as extreme heat and increased rainfall, might draw less immediate notice, but don’t let that discount their significance. They can still affect you, in ways like these:
- Beyond increasing stress and irritability, high temperatures also
pose a dangerto people taking psychiatric medications that affect bodily temperature regulation.
- More rain (or dense, smoky air, depending where you are) means less sun. Sunlight promotes the production of serotonin, a hormone linked to reduced anxiety and depression and to greater overall well-being. Without sunlight, you’re at greater risk of mood-related symptoms, including seasonal depression.
Expanding news coverage
On one hand, increasing media reports of climate change are a sign of positive progress, as greater awareness can lead more people to take action.
Yet doomscrolling and feeling unable to escape news of climate change may not always motivate change.
The steady barrage of stories on shrinking rainforests, coral reef destruction, and species down to double (or single) digits can worsen your shock and grief.
This deep despair can, in some cases, make it difficult to begin taking any action at all.
Regret for your own impact
It’s easy to judge yourself harshly for lifestyle practices that contribute to climate change, like:
- using plastic and Styrofoam
- running your air conditioner
- eating a meat-heavy diet
Feelings of guilt and shame for your impact may go hand in hand with feelings of powerlessness, driven by the clock ticking away your limited time to create change.
You can certainly take steps to reduce your carbon footprint — but no single person can resolve climate change alone. It’s a large-scale problem that requires a global commitment to sweeping change.
Your own efforts, then, may seem like nothing more than a drop in an enormous bucket. This sense of powerlessness can play a significant role in eco-anxiety.
Everyone depends on the health of the planet, so eco-anxiety can affect anyone. Certain groups, however, face a higher chance of climate-related distress, in part because of their greater vulnerability to climate change.
Particularly vulnerable groups include:
- Indigenous communities
- people living in coastal or island regions, dry areas, or other regions with high geological risk
- socioeconomically disadvantaged communities
- children and older adults
- people living with disabilities or chronic health concerns
Plenty of complex factors contribute to increased risk:
- Families with lower annual income may have a harder time weathering the impact of a natural disaster, a fact likely to worsen grief and distress.
- Native Alaskans, Inuit tribes, and other Indigenous people whose lives revolve around sea ice and other changing climates face losing not only their way of life, but also their cultural and personal identity.
- Communities that rely on fishing, hunting, or farming face the loss of land, income, and their way of life. The link between long periods of drought and
higher suicide rates among farmersillustrates just one devastating outcome of eco-anxiety.
- Many travel destinations attract tourists because they feature beautiful natural environments. Alteration and destruction of these environments will likely lead to sharp drops in tourism and a substantial decline in community income.
What’s more, many of the communities with the highest risk also contend with more barriers to medical treatment and mental healthcare. This lack of access prevents them from seeking the kind of support needed to manage climate-related stress.
Although climate change can seem like a concern of impossible magnitude, you can still take actions to protect your mental health.
Take a look at your personal habits
Adopting “greener” (more sustainable) lifestyle practices can often make a difference in your outlook, since living more in line with your personal values can help you cultivate your sense of self.
Plus, modeling climate-friendly behaviors may encourage others to do the same. Some ways to do this include:
- Calculating your carbon footprint can give you a better idea of ways to reduce your impact.
- Choosing physical commuting, such as biking or walking, over driving can improve your physical and mental health while reducing carbon emissions.
- Reaching out to community organizations working toward climate protection can help you get involved in broader policy efforts to address climate change.
Say no to denial
Climate change is a terrifying thought. It’s perfectly understandable to want to avoid eco-anxiety by shutting your misery out entirely.
But putting your head in the sand makes it harder to take action. It also won’t help you feel any better, since masking unwanted feelings generally only intensifies them.
It’s easier said than done, but these tips can help you stay on the path forward:
- Instead of denying the reality of climate change or pushing aside fear and grief, allow yourself to fully acknowledge those feelings.
- If you feel guilt over past behaviors that fell short of climate-friendly, forgive yourself and commit to better choices moving forward.
- Have compassion for yourself and others. You’re only one person, and there’s only so much a single person can do.
- Spend time on those beaches, hiking trails, and mountain lakes you want to protect. Nature, imperiled as it is, offers healing benefits that can help you feel more at peace.
Connect with your community
Participating in neighborhood gardening, trash pickup, or waste reduction efforts can also reduce feelings of eco-anxiety.
Working with others who also want to protect the environment can increase your sense of connection and ease the sensation of struggling alone. Emotional and social support can help boost resilience, increasing your optimism and hope.
Many voices ring louder than one voice alone. Efforts to protect community green spaces — including parks, nature preserves, and forests — may have a higher chance of success when you stand together as a community.
Children experience eco-anxiety, too, though younger children might struggle to understand and process these complicated emotions.
Older children might express distress, even resentment, at the bleak image of their future as adults pass down a world on the brink of collapse.
These strategies can help you cope together.
Talk about it
You might worry that discussing climate change will make your kids feel worse, but talking through fear often helps dull its intensity. Making space to discuss something that may alter their future allows them to begin expressing and coming to terms with their concerns.
Validate their distress, and let them know you’re feeling it, too. Listen to their questions and offer age-appropriate, fact-based answers. If they ask something you can’t answer, do some research instead of giving vague responses.
Start with these helpful guides:
- Your Guide to Talking with Kids of All Ages About Climate Change
- What Is Climate Change? A Really Simple Guide
Open, honest conversation leads to a more conscious and informed generation. Talking about climate change can empower children by providing them with a sense of agency to explore actions themselves.
Take action as a family
Just as committing to environmentally friendly practices can help lessen your eco-anxiety, a family effort can make a difference for your children.
Spend some time discussing feasible options to conserve energy and resources in your household.
You might, for example:
- adjust the thermostat by a few degrees and dress more warmly indoors
- get creative with leftovers to reduce food waste
- choose to cycle or walk to school and work
- shop at thrift stores instead of purchasing new items
- start a backyard garden
Once you develop a family plan, encourage everyone’s participation and make it an ongoing effort.
Appreciate nature together
Providing children with opportunities to enjoy nature from an early age helps them become more familiar with the natural world.
Children who experience what nature has to offer through activities such as forest bathing, stargazing, or studying the array of life found in tide pools and ponds will likely develop a stronger resolve to protect and repair natural environments.
They’ll also learn how nature can promote well-being and emotional health — knowledge that can offer protection against eco-anxiety.
Though eco-anxiety isn’t a specific mental health diagnosis (yet), therapists and other mental health professionals agree it can have a heavy emotional impact for many.
Even efforts to address climate change sometimes worsen distress, since trying to do too much can leave you with little energy for self-care.
If you’re struggling to cope with the effects of eco-anxiety or feeling burned out by activism or news exposure, therapy can help.
All therapists can provide a safe space to:
- work on self-compassion
- develop coping skills to manage emotional distress
- get help for depression or anxiety
- create an individualized self-care plan
Ecotherapists may have even more to offer in the way of guidance and support for eco-anxiety.
Ecotherapy, an emerging approach to mental health treatment, makes use of the healing benefits of nature and emphasizes the importance of nurturing not just the environment, but the connection you share to the planet.
Emotional turmoil related to climate change may seem less pressing than the tangible, serious damage many people already face around the world.
But it’s still essential to take notice of these feelings instead of blocking them out. Awareness, after all, is the key to change.
We only get one planet. We don’t have a way to leave it, so quelling eco-anxiety means we’ll have to fight for it instead.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.