Got Eco-Anxiety? Here’s How to Deal With Climate Despair
Does climate change make you feel anxious, hopeless, and helpless? You may have eco-anxiety. Here's how to cope with ecological worrying.
Courtesy Carly Kazlauskas
Climate change and mental health
New Jersey mom Carly Kazlauskas is very concerned about her child’s future because of how climate change is affecting the Earth. Kazlauskas says she does everything she can in her own life to help the planet and tries to convince others to do the same, but it feels like it’s never enough.
“The biggest intensifier of my climate change anxiety is the mass denial that climate change is even a thing,” Kazlauskas says. “You are surrounded by family members, friends, neighbors who you love and respect, and they are telling you they don’t believe in it and won’t take simple steps to help. It feels like such a betrayal of your child’s future.”
Like many people, Kazlauskas is experiencing what is known as eco-anxiety.
What is eco-anxiety?
“Eco-anxiety is used to refer to negative emotions experienced in the face of environmental problems, particularly grief, anxiety, or hopelessness,” says Susan Clayton, psychology chair at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, conservation psychologist, and an expert on how climate change affects emotional well-being.
A 2020 Harris Poll for the American Psychological Association (APA) found that more than two-thirds of adults (68 percent) surveyed felt at least some eco-anxiety. This sense of helplessness that efforts to save the planet are futile has been compounded by recent wildfires and hurricanes that seem to be evidence that things are getting worse.
Although “eco-anxiety” is not an official diagnosis, the APA’s 2017 report on mental health and climate change recognizes that worry about climate change can lead to stress levels that can increase the risk of substance abuse disorder, anxiety, and depression.
The report also noted climate change affects the psychological health of communities, leading to more hostility and a loss of social identity.
How do you know if you have eco-anxiety?
“I think if people notice that they are having a negative reaction to another story about environmental damage or anti-environmental policies, or another image of environmental destruction—a sense that it is all accumulating and a feeling of ‘oh no, not another one’—that may signal eco-anxiety,” Clayton says. “But it’s not necessarily bad, and it’s certainly appropriate, to feel something like this.”
The symptoms of eco-anxiety can vary depending on the person, says Kristi White, a clinical psychologist in Minnesota who has treated patients experiencing it.
“For an individual whose community is disproportionately impacted by climate change, eco-anxiety may reflect distress about experiencing the health impacts of pollution and exposure to environmental toxins,” White says. “For someone else, eco-anxiety may show up as fear about surviving climate change-related disasters. For yet another person, eco-anxiety may lead to difficulty in making a decision about whether to start a family.”
White says signs of eco-anxiety can include worry, preoccupation, difficulty with decision-making, difficulty sleeping, helplessness, hopelessness, and fear and worry about an unknown future. It can range from mild, in which you worry about it from time to time, to severe, which could even involve thoughts of self-harm.
Warding off climate anxiety
White says the same coping techniques that are used for anxiety in general can help with climate anxiety.
“I am particularly in favor of a specific approach called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT),” she says. “What I like about this treatment approach is that the goal is to help people engage in meaningful action while accepting the difficult, and often painful, emotions that go along with doing so.”
For example, I have to accept my discomfort that the future is unknown, while also knowing that there are things that I can do to help make a difference.
Empowering yourself to take action and learning to view difficult emotions as inherently valuable, not something to be avoided, can be a helpful way to address eco-anxiety as well as the climate crisis itself.
“Given that anxiety is an appropriate response to the impacts of climate change and that meaningful action is what we need, ACT is a nice framework for addressing this concern, and the patients I have worked with on this concern have responded well and benefited from this approach,” White says. (Here are some tips for managing anxiety.)
Another strategy may be to avoid catastrophizing or believing the worst will happen—even though the state of the planet does seem to be an actual catastrophe. But experiencing this level of climate despair isn’t helpful to you, or the environment.
“Despair sounds pretty serious,” Clayton says. “Sometimes it might help to get some more specific information; we often overgeneralize about environmental catastrophe, and it might not be quite as bad as our first response, such as ‘we’re all doomed,’ might suggest. Accurate information can help us to feel a greater sense of control.” (For example, find out the facts about how plastic is harmful.)
Despair might also be a self-fulfilling prophecy; whereas finding hope can actually help you be a more effective champion for the environment.
“Our research also shows the importance of hope,” says Edward Maibach, a communication scientist at the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication in Fairfax, Virginia. “People who are more hopeful that we can make a difference in addressing climate change are much more likely to take helpful actions than people who have less hope.”
Another way to maintain hope is to remind yourself of good things that people are doing or about promising new technological developments, Clayton says. Seeking out positive information and good news like this can help.
Once you have more information, you can strategize a plan for how you can contribute to helping the planet, which can in turn lead to greater feelings of resilience.
“Doing something, whether it means preparing for a problem or trying to do something to mitigate it, can be important in changing a person’s position from passive to active, and contribute to resilience in that way,” Clayton says.
The APA’s report on climate change and mental health says lifestyle changes like biking, walking, or taking public transportation to work can reduce stress levels. Plus, making small diet changes is one of the best things you can do for the planet. (Try these plant-based meat alternatives.)
Again, worrying about Earth’s future isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Maibach says his group’s research shows that how worried people are about climate change is strongly associated with how likely they are to take helpful actions.
“The advice that I give to myself is: Stop worrying and just do the work—the work that is necessary to fix the problem,” he says. “Taking action is therapeutic.”
Connect with like-minded people
Clayton suggests making connections with a group of concerned individuals who are also committed to the cause. “That reassures people that their concerns are legitimate, and provides an avenue for talking about them,” she says.
This could also lead to taking collective action to deal with the issue in some way, helping you feel more empowered as well as providing social contacts and an outlet for your feelings.
Finding a group of others with similar concerns can also make you realize you’re not alone in your climate anxiety. “Everyone working to address the climate crisis feels eco-anxiety—everyone,” Maibach says.
“The best thing about working to address the climate crisis, as a job or as a volunteer, is the inspiring people you meet who are also doing the work. Working with these inspiring people is incredibly therapeutic.”
You can get involved by supporting organizations committed to ecological causes, lobbying for regulations and laws that protect the environment, or volunteering for political campaigns that support protective policies.
Luis Alvarez/Getty Images
White likens self-care to tending a garden; you cannot have a life that flourishes without healthy soil, and you are the soil, she says.
“By taking care of yourself, you can remain engaged and more effectively take meaningful action,” she says. Start with your basic needs: “Make sure you’re getting adequate sleep, eating healthy foods, moving your body, and engaging in restorative practices.”
Clayton agrees that self-care helps us to stay more effective in the long run. “Like anything else, we need to balance it out; a life that contains multiple different roles—parent, activist, worker, friend—is healthier than one dominated by a single role or concern,” she says.
Finding ways to de-stress, such as spending time in a natural setting, might help you recharge.
It’s OK if you’re not focused on the environment 24/7, and in fact, may be better that way. “When our demands exceed our resources, it becomes very stressful and is difficult to cope,” Dr. White says. “Do your best to spread out, limit, and decrease the demands, and restore and increase your resources as much as possible. Balance is key.”
Tackle multiple needs at once
White suggests putting your time to good use by choosing an Earth-friendly activity that eases eco-anxiety in several ways. “It can be very helpful to focus efforts on ‘high-impact’ coping strategies that tackle multiple needs at once.
For example, participating in community gardening—appropriately socially distanced in the time of Covid-19 of course—can provide physical activity, support for locally grown produce, contact with nature, and connection with the community,” she says. “These types of high-impact coping strategies give you more bang for your buck.”
Take a break from bad news
Although we want to stay informed, it can be hard not to go down the rabbit hole of negative news stories on the internet, as well as fighting against misinformation and climate change deniers on social media. “It is important to set limits on how much you consume the constant barrage of bad news—set a time limit for your ‘doom-scrolling,'” White says. “Otherwise, you spend more of your time chasing the anxiety instead of doing something useful about it.”
It doesn’t mean you don’t care or are being complacent if you recognize what you can handle. “People who are really overwhelmed might need to detach from the issue, for example by taking a media break,” Clayton says.
But this doesn’t mean you should permanently stick your head in the sand—this will just cause your worries to fester. “Be wary of the seductive effects of avoidance,” White says. “Avoidance, while it may provide some short-term anxiety relief, only exacerbates anxiety in the long run. It’s important to learn the skills for how to effectively combat avoidance, which can be done with the help of a trained mental health professional.”
When to seek professional help
If your eco-anxiety feels all-consuming, you may need help from a therapist, counselor, or psychologist to help you implement these strategies.
“You should seek professional help if your anxiety is starting to interfere with your ability to live your life: if you can’t sleep, or concentrate, or enjoy yourself, or effectively do your work, or if you find yourself frequently crying or having nightmares,” Clayton says.
Remember that help is out there if you need it. “If the anxiety is so overwhelming that you are unable to function, or it is causing significant impairment, call your doctor and request help with getting connected to a mental health professional or community support,” White says.
A trained professional can assess your individual situation and help you come up with the best strategies to ease your eco-anxiety. (Here’s how to get online therapy for mental health.)
If you or someone you know has had thoughts of self-harm, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (1-800-273-8255), which provides 24/7, free, confidential support for people in distress.
- The Harris Poll: "Americans are stressed about climate change but don't know where to start in combating it"
- Nature Climate Change: "Ecological grief as a mental health response to climate change-related loss"
- Susan Clayton, PhD, psychology department chair at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, and conservation psychologist
- American Psychological Association: "Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance"
- Yale Program on Climate Change Communication: "Climate Change in the American Mind"
- Kristi White, PhD, clinical psychologist, Minnesota
- Frontiers in Psychology: "Acceptance and Commitment Therapy for Health Behavior Change: A Contextually-Driven Approach"
- Edward Maibach, PhD, MPH, a communication scientist at the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication, Fairfax, Virginia
- International Journal of Mental Health Systems: "Climate change and mental health: risks, impacts and priority actions"
- Frontiers in Psychiatry: "The Impact of Climate Change on Mental Health: A Systematic Descriptive Review"