Are you feeling concerned when you see thousands of motor vehicles running on the streets emitting greenhouse gases? Or perhaps, are you feel stressed when you hear another hot prime news story about climate change? There has been a lot of talk about it recently. Or maybe you are a person who continuously watches social media videos of falling icebergs in Greenland, wildfires in France, hose pipe bans, or failing crops in rural areas of Great Britain. Are you the one who is continuously thinking about what will happen to our beloved planet Earth if the average global temperatures are going to increase every year at the same rate? Or maybe you are concerned about your children’s and grandchildren’s uncertain future facing climate change? This summer’s heat waves seriously made me stop and think about what climate change means to me, what part I am contributing to it, and what I can do about it.
If you are searching for words that best describe the feeling of uncertainty and anxiousness about the Earth's future and how it will impact your life, the two possible words are - climate anxiety.
In this blog, you’ll learn about climate anxiety, the common symptoms, and how you can reduce them.
What is climate anxiety?
Before getting a clearer picture of climate anxiety, let’s define what anxiety is.
Healthline defines anxiety as “your body’s natural response to stress”. Further, “It’s a feeling of fear or apprehension about what’s to come”. For instance, going for a new job interview, or giving a speech in front of your peers may cause you to get anxious or stressed. But having extremely anxious and stressful thoughts about something real or imaginary for six months or more may lead to an anxiety condition or disorder.
Now, come to climate anxiety. Climate anxiety, a 21st-century word – was first mentioned by American Psychiatric Association (APA). It is a form of emotional distress that defines the stress or anxiety associated with a person related to global climate change and potential environmental disasters.
Eco-anxiety: (n) a feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease triggered by an awareness of the ecological threats facing the earth due to climate change.
It’s okay to feel anxious or stressed about global warming, failing crops, frequent floods, wildfires, etc. It may feel unpleasant and distressing, but it can also guide you in the right direction to do things that may lower climate change effects.
Let’s understand this with some real-life examples. Today we can see thousands of people going to their offices on foot. Instead of using cars, they go to their destinations on bicycles. By becoming more aware of pollution and climate change, we are using less and less plastic, and trying to recycle as much as possible. It makes you a responsible citizen. Normal anxiety about climate change is a thought that comes and goes without disturbing or interfering with your everyday life.
On the other hand, with an elevated level of anxiety, the feeling of fear may linger all the time. It gets concentrated, and with each passing day, it can become devastating. Climate anxiety can affect anyone at any time, no matter how old they are and where they live.
How common is climate anxiety?
With each passing day, as more and more people understand the looming effects of climate change and the immediate threats posed by it, the more common climate anxiety becomes. I have certainly noticed it in my practice where some of the clients seek therapy specifically for this reason, or it unravels as a theme during the therapy journey.
It is a convoy, and you are not alone. The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) survey with YouGov 2020 showed that a staggering 55% of UK adults are affected by eco-anxiety.
A 2021 survey conducted by Yale Program on Climate Change, marked that out of 1000 respondents, 70% were deeply or somewhat worried about global warming and climate change.
Another survey conducted by The Lancet Planetary Health in 2021 of about 10,000 young participants from all over the globe found that about half of the participants said climate change anxiety affected their daily lives and functioning, with at least 75% unfolding the near future and future of their children and grandchildren as “frightening”. Generation Z is most certainly the most concerned about the future of the planet. It’s a natural time to be looking into your future. In my clinical experience, about 1/3rd of the millennials I work with, express climate anxiety or come to therapy because of it.
Further, the chance event of heightened climate anxiety is far greater in people who have been beforehand treated for depression or anxiety. It is prevalent in climate scientists and activists due to the nature of their work. Additionally, people previously affected by climate change anxiety are more likely to be affected by post-traumatic stress disorder (PSDT), depression, and anxiety.
How climate change affects our mental health?
We are social beings. We hold immense gratitude and thankfulness to Mother Nature. Most millennials and all the post-millennials have heard about the impact of climate change: warming oceans, melting glaciers, raising sea levels, severe storms and droughts, and increased heat waves.
In an open poll conducted by an APA in 2019, nearly half of the participants mentioned in the survey that climate change is already impacting their mental health.
In another report confirmed by APA, 2/3rds of the whole youth population in the developed nations is somewhat affected by the stress of climate change.
According to the APA report of 2021, “The mental health consequences of events linked to a changing global climate include mild stress and distress, high-risk coping behaviour such as increased alcohol use, and, occasionally, mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress.”
The term eco-anxiety was first coined by APA in 2019 to describe the unwelcomed recurring feelings and thoughts of helplessness, powerlessness, and frustration some people are experiencing when anticipating climate change.
Added to the eco-anxiety, some people are also facing the trauma of ‘eco-guilt’. Eco-guilt is related to people’s actions that may result in climate change and affect future generations.
Moreover, the victims of climate change-induced disasters such as floods and wildfires may be more prone to depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. This will trigger new anxiety symptoms and add to already ongoing psychological illnesses.
Climate change is related to rising temperatures. Increasing temperatures are also linked with an increase in dementia, suicides, and anxiety disorders. The APA underlines that the risk of catching diseases and death among people with mental problems doubles or even triples with extreme heat.
What are the symptoms of climate anxiety?
A study conducted by Susie Burke and colleagues found that both the direct and flow-on effects of climate change place children at risk of mental health consequences including PTSD, depression, anxiety, phobias, sleep disorders, attachment disorders, and substance abuse. These in turn can lead to problems with emotion regulation, cognition, learning, behaviour, language development, and academic performance.
In adults, climate distress can add up with other daily stressors to directly affect overall well-being and mental health, possibly leading to increased health-related problems such as substance use disorders, anxiety disorders, and depression. The following are some of the symptoms of climate anxiety, and it may differ between people, regions, and cultures. Anxiety may range from low, mild worry to severe:
Unhappiness, sadness, and misery
Anger at people or older generations who aren’t climate change conscious
Guilt about one’s previous actions
Grief related to environmental losses
How can I reduce symptoms of climate anxiety?
What if I tell you that you have complete control over your thoughts, your immediate environment, or how you feel, and the things you can do individually or in groups to make a difference in reducing climate anxiety? Shifting your focus from eco-guilt or what you can’t do to what you can help you to reduce climate anxiety.
You can reduce your climate anxiety paradox by taking the following steps.
Stay Informed. If you feel like you’re overwhelmed with the bad news of overheating, the melting of glaciers, and the immediate and near future of the planet Earth, it’s crucial to know that some of what is out there in the news and online sites might be alarmist or just inaccurate.
“There is a lot of misinformation out there about climate change and the science behind it, but we have to be careful about what information we are reading. What’s the source of the information and are we talking about science or is it a piece that might be trying to be more alarmist and trying to get us emotionally to respond.”
Spend some quality time in nature. Don’t stay indoors surrounded by four walls all (most) of the time. Pack your travel bag and set off to visit a beach, a peaceful forest, and a mighty snow-covered mountain. Pack your picnic bag and visit your nearest park, riverside or if you are lucky - your garden or allotment. Various studies suggest that being in nature frees you from anxiousness and improves your mood. In this regard, Japan took a step further to make forest bathing a thing for its citizens.
Baby steps to start with. When you wake up in the morning, think about what you can do today to save your nature from being eaten up by climate change. You can plant a tree in your garden, or a bee and butterfly-friendly plant in a recycled pot. You can walk to your office, take a bicycle ride, or even opt for public transport. It will also do good for your physical health.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has” - Margaret Mead
Find people who share an interest in mitigating climate change and create a community. You can spread the message of climate change with your family over dinner, with your friends, and even start a blog, Facebook page, or YouTube channel. Talking about the subject frees your mind and allows you to connect with more and more like-minded people.
When to seek professional help?
Climate anxiety is a common problem among young people these days. More often, it can be overwhelming, but you don’t have to deal with it alone. If you can't cope with it on your own, it’s best to seek the help of a professional.
Due to limited research on this topic, there is not a single evidence-based treatment, but existing treatments regarding anxiety should be helpful. I would also recommend looking for a therapist from an existential school of thought, who is climate-aware. Therapists can help deal with the problem in an empathic, supportive and non-judgemental way. Moreover, they can help you to find a calmer and more present direction forward.
If you have lost your loved ones to extreme climatic conditions or natural disasters, you may get help from a trained professional to help you to deal with the grief and make sense of your loss.
Consider online therapy. If you have a reliable internet connection, you can access therapy from any location. You don't have to deal with traffic sitting in your car or public transportation, parking, waiting in a waiting area, paying for child care, or taking time off of work. The convenience of online therapy eliminates many of the barriers that keep people from seeking in-person therapy.
Climate anxiety is the new form of anxiety that started taking shape after the industrial revolution. Today it’s affecting millions of young children and adults around the globe.
If you’re dealing with climate anxiety, you can take concrete steps to connect more with Mother Nature and help reduce ecological obliteration.
After taking the steps discussed in this article on your own, if you’re still feeling nervous and lost, consider looking for help and direction from a climate-aware therapist. I realise the important role climate-aware therapists play in helping mitigate the experience of climate change by researching and implementing approaches to helping people cope with its impacts. So, get in touch with a therapist, have a cup of tea and talk about it.