Humans aren’t well-equipped to deal with such a dangerous existential threat over a long period of time.
When Sandy Rosenthal and her husband heard that Hurricane Katrina was on the way, they packed for 3 weeks.
They boarded up their two-story house in uptown New Orleans and evacuated to a hotel, feeling safe and prepared for the coming storm.
But as they watched disaster unfold on the TV in their hotel room, something changed for Sandy. Suddenly, she couldn’t relax. She became transfixed by the news, unable to watch, listen to, or read about anything else.
“I was glued to the television set pretty much every waking minute,” she remembers. “That or the radio or reading. I was completely incapable of watching something other than the news.”
“It started when we found out that the levees broke and that we weren’t going back home,” she continues. “I was constantly working, constantly reading, constantly digging, asking questions.”
This went on for 3 months. “I could not relax; I could not watch sitcoms. I could not participate in meaningless chat,” Sandy says.
At the time, Sandy thought this was a normal response. Looking back, though, she likens the experience to having a nervous breakdown.
“Years later, I understand that I was suffering a mental health impact,” she says.
Sandy’s experience eventually turned into a book, Words Whispered in Water: Why the Levees Broke in Hurricane Katrina. But her story also serves as a warning about the impact climate change will continue to take on our mental health.
According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a warming world is expected to lead to an increase in the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as heat waves, floods, and hurricanes.
In fact, the 2018 National Climate Assessment notes that the number and intensity of heat waves, heavy downpours, and major hurricanes has already increased.
Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year due to malnutrition, diseases, diarrhea, and heat stress.
According to one report, 25 to 50 percent of people exposed to an extreme weather disaster are at risk of an adverse mental health effect. That same report adds that up to 54 percent of adults and 45 percent of children experience depression after a natural disaster.
The immediate effects
After Hurricane Katrina, for example, 49 percent of survivors developed an anxiety or mood disorder. Plus, 1 in 6 developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and suicide and suicidal thoughts doubled.
Following natural disasters, psychologists have seen a rise in what they call distress reactions, which include things like:
- increased substance use
While these reactions can fade and heal with time, that’s not always the case — especially if the people directly affected don’t seek help or cope with their trauma. In those cases, more severe mental health impacts might arise, including PTSD, depression, and anxiety disorders.
This is especially true, explains Susan Clayton, professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster, if people already live with a mental health condition or are affected multiple times by a natural disaster.
The gradual effects
Because climate change is causing slow changes to our planet, we’re also starting to see those gradual impacts affecting mental health over time.
Other 2017 research suggests a connection between extreme heat and an increase in irritability, aggressiveness, and even violence.
There also may be a correlation between anxiety, schizophrenia, and personality disorders and exposure to poor air quality, according to a large 2019 study of people in the United States and Denmark.
However, research is still ongoing to determine how, exactly, air pollution affects mental health conditions.
Simply watching the news or reading about climate change and natural disasters — or hearing from loved ones experiencing severe weather events — can have an impact on your mental health
In 2019, 66 percent of people surveyed by the Yale Program on Climate Change mentioned being at least somewhat worried about climate change — a 10 percent increase from 2014.
“There’s definitely evidence that even people who have not experienced direct impacts are beginning to experience anxiety,” says Clayton.
Elissa Epel, vice chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a faculty lead of the Climate Change and Mental Health Task Force at the University of California, San Francisco agrees.
Elissa Epel agrees. She’s the vice chair of the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and a faculty lead of the Climate Change and Mental Health Task Force at the University of California, San Francisco.
“Climate change is creating a generation of climate distress and hopelessness,” says Epel. That climate distress, she continues, is a “complex conglomeration of aspects of emotional distress, including depression, anxiety, and hopelessness.”
This issue of climate distress is particularly concerning when it comes to young people.
“Our youth are already more emotionally vulnerable to news that is about things we cannot control,” Epel explains. “Anything that sounds apocalyptic, the younger the child is, the more vulnerable they are to feel distressed by it because they’re not emotionally equipped to handle the weightiness and the burden of the climate crisis.”
But even as those children become teenagers, their anxiety around climate change isn’t lessening.
“Older teens realize that they are inheriting the world as it is with damage baked in and that’s a little formula for hopelessness and climate distress,” Epel says.
People living with chronic conditions as well as those most impacted by climate change — such as people of lower socio-economic status, migrants, refugees, first responders, and the unsheltered — are also more likely to experience to climate distress.
The effects of climate change are here to stay, and it’s likely things will get worse.
Consider September 2020, the hottest September on record (as of April 2021). Epel points out that, going forward, September 2020 might seem relatively cool as warm temperatures continue to break records.
“That’s more realistic, but it’s very harsh and people are not well equipped to deal with such a threatening future,” she says.
So, we try to ignore it. We deny it until something forces us, once again, to confront it. And these reminders are getting more frequent and more urgent, from devastating wild fires to increasingly destructive hurricanes.
You may not be able to reverse the course of climate change, but you can take steps to protect your mental health.
Acknowledge your feelings
It’s OK to be anxious or afraid about how climate change might impact your life, your kids’ lives, or the planet as a whole. Don’t hide these feelings.
Instead, talk with friends and family. You may find that they share many of your same concerns, which can help you feel less alone.
“Finding other people who also care is important,” says Clayton.
Let your kids know it’s OK to talk about their feelings, too
News about climate change is hard to escape, so it’s important to let kids talk about what they hear and see.
Let them ask questions and answer honestly, but in a developmentally appropriate way.
“Parents and teachers can talk to them about the information in a way so that they see hope and learn about all the good change that is happening right now, too,” says Epel.
Not sure where to find positive, age-appropriate news to share with your child? Yale Climate Connections has some helpful sources.
Make a safety plan
Climate change can make you feel out of control. An effective way to regain some of that control is to make yourself — and your family — a little more resilient and prepared.
“You can try to get a sense of control by finding something that you can do, like getting go bags ready if you’re in a wildfire area so you can evacuate quickly,” Clayton says.
You can also prep your car, make an emergency plan, and stock your house with safety supplies, like fire extinguishers, water, flashlights, and a hand-crank radio.
Get involved in your community
One older study conducted during hurricane season in Florida found that places where there was a strong sense of community saw less mental health distress after storms.
If you don’t feel a strong sense of community where you are, get involved with local groups or organizations, whether that’s a weekly workout group or a neighborhood buy-nothing group. Even something as simple as getting to know your neighbors can help.
“Working at your local community level to help strengthen the community infrastructure or social infrastructure can be beneficial in helping you feel a sense of control,” says Clayton. “Advocating politically for more attention to climate change can, too. It will help people because they’ll feel a sense of agency.”
Learn your triggers
“Worry is a habitual process,” says Michelle Newman, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Pennsylvania State University. “And if you’re a person that worries, you tend to look for things to worry about.”
She recommends learning to identify what triggers those worries. Maybe it’s photos of hurricane-ravaged homes or stories of wildlife being impacted by wildfires.
Once you’re aware of what triggers you, you can cut off your anxiety when it’s not helpful by learning to avoid — or limit — your access to your triggers when you feel like it’s all becoming too much.
This might mean limiting your news intake or being upfront with friends when they start talking about something triggering.
Give yourself breaks to avoid burnout
While it can be helpful to get involved in environmental causes because it gives you some agency in the face of a large threat, burnout doesn’t help anyone.
“Sometimes we all need to detach,” says Clayton. “That could mean taking a deep breath or finding things that physiologically calm you down, like taking walks, getting out into nature,” she adds.
In addition, she says, “multiple roles can be a source of resilience. So if you’re doing your part for climate change, make sure you’re also doing family things, making sure you’re gardening, or getting involved in extracurriculars.”
Seek mental healthcare if you need it
If your climate distress or anxiety about the future is becoming so consuming that it’s interfering with your life, there’s help available.
You can always speak with your doctor, a mental health professional. or a therapist.
There are also online groups and courses, like the one that Epel and her colleagues are testing. “It’s a class to help people cope with climate distress,” she explains.
Other online resources include:
If the effects of climate change are affecting your mental health, you aren’t alone.
Experts expect this trend to continue, but there are steps you can take to build resilience and mental wellness, even when it feels like things are beyond your control.
Simone M. Scully is a new mom and journalist who writes about health, science, and parenting. Find her on her website or on Facebook and Twitter.