Climate disasters are taking a toll on mental health. via Envato

How to cope with eco-anxiety

A quick-start guide to climate and mental health

Anxiety is literally in our DNA. From physical harms to social exclusion, we worry about potentially dangerous situations that might never happen – and it’s proven adaptive over the 6-million-year journey of human evolution.

“There is widespread agreement that almost everyone experiences mild to moderate anxiety on a regular basis,” said clinical psychologist Jeffrey Mermelstein in a 2022 article. “Anxiety is a significant component of the human condition.”

Much modern psychology has focused on ‘maladaptive’ anxiety that’s out of proportion to the threats at hand. After all, most of us are not currently at risk of being ambushed by tigers or abandoned on an uninhabited steppe.

Yet when it comes to the climate crisis and ecological tipping points, it seems justified – perhaps even necessary – to be worried.

And as governments, corporations and communities fumble in response, growing numbers of us are increasingly concerned.

Eco-anxiety
Eco-anxiety is on the rise among young people globally. via Envato

What is eco-anxiety?

In a recent large-scale global study, almost 60 percent of young people aged 16 to 25 reported feeling very or extremely worried about the climate crisis, while over 45 percent said those feelings negatively affected their daily life and functioning.

There’s a term for this: eco-anxiety. You might also hear it talked about as climate change distress, climate anxiety, eco-angst or ecological grief, as the emotions associated with the phenomenon can be complex and go beyond anxiety alone.

And over the past 15 years, the phenomenon has gone from a niche concern within psychology to something quite mainstream.

“It’s been very validating and rewarding to see the psychological community begin to recognize that they have an important role to play in responding to climate change and other environmental challenges,” said Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster, during a GLF Live on the topic in 2021. “There’s been an explosion of interest and awareness.”

That’s a necessary shift, particularly as it’s still unclear how today’s young people will be impacted as they come of age during a time of ecological breakdown.

“The experiences children have can permanently alter the trajectory of their lives – in a way that isn’t quite the case for adults – because young people are still forming their sense of who they are and what their capabilities are,” said Clayton.

“So, events that traumatize them, or lead them to question some basic assumptions about the future, can impair their sense of security – and that can have long-term impacts.”

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How to cope with eco-anxiety

If you’re struggling with eco-anxiety, one of the best remedies is to take action, said Clayton.

“One of the negative aspects of climate anxiety is feeling helpless and powerless, and like a passive victim to these unstoppable forces,” she explained.

“So, taking action can help you to feel as though you have some control over what’s going on – and having an impact is extremely validating and can give your life a sense of meaning and purpose.”

But, importantly, taking action can also add to your anxiety – especially if you feel guilty about not doing enough, or if you’re taking on too much personal responsibility for managing the crises that humanity is facing.

In fact, that’s something that our governments and corporations often encourage through discourse about free markets and conscious consumers.

“Rather than tackle the systemic problems they have caused, institutions often respond to disaster by projecting a false sense of responsibility onto the individual,” said science writer Erica Berry in an essay on how environmental change affects how we form and navigate intimate relationships.

“As a result, many of us are told to “fight” climate change by winnowing our “carbon footprints”, a term BP invented to deflect from their own carbon football fields. Capitalism thrives on the aspirational self-reliant individual, and on the sense that marginal changes, taken together, obviate the need for systemic transformation. If I just buy or wear or eat the right thing, then I will feel better.”

Person by the sea
Spending time in nature can benefit your mental health. Keegan Houser, Unsplash

Start with self-care

Indeed, if we want to ‘feel better,’ we first need to take care of our own mental health, noted Clayton.

“It’s not self-indulgence to try and cope with these somewhat overwhelming emotions by getting help: things like getting tips on how to cope with anxiety, how to step back and destress, how to be mindful, deep breathing techniques.”

Spending time in nature can be another effective remedy that can have positive long-term impacts, too. According to a study published in 2019, children who grew up close to green space reported better mental health later in life.

In the bigger picture, it can help massively to find communities that care about similar things, and hold on together to the hope and opportunities presented before us in the midst of this global challenge.

“I think that we should be aiming not just to avoid the worst of the problem,” said Clayton. “We should think of this as an opportunity to reimagine society in a way that is better than it was 10 years ago.

“There are a whole lot of other problems in the world beside climate change. There are vast levels of inequality, there’s disease – there are so many people leading lives that do not provide them with a source of meaning or joy.

“So, reimagining some of the basic ways in which we go about living can help to address climate change but can also address some of these other problems. I’m optimistic that in a few decades, society will actually be better.”

Such optimism is not naive or denialist. It requires us to look squarely in the face of all that has already changed and all we risk losing, to truly feel whatever that inspires in us – and then to act accordingly, together.

“These days, I don’t imagine a different planet,” said Berry. “I imagine what ours could look like if we collectively acknowledged its loss.

“To clock what is gone is to clock all we can still save. A world where we are mad, but we’re working out of love. Building better systems of care. Fighting for a place where dragonflies can shimmer in the light.”

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