What I’ve learned about climate anxiety

I’ve always been concerned about the environment and what humans were doing to it. But in my early twenties, this concern manifested into something more closely resembling anxiety. I was anxious about losing precious ecosystems and I worried about what the future might look like in a climate changed world. I would often wake in the middle of the night, unable to fall back to sleep because of the distress and helplessness I felt.

Experiencing eco-anxiety

With the benefit of hindsight, I have realised that I was experiencing a form of ‘eco-anxiety’. The term ‘eco-anxiety’, also known as ‘climate anxiety’ or ‘climate distress’, refers to anxiety related to the global climate crisis and the threat of environmental disaster.[1]

Eco-anxiety is increasingly common among children and young people globally. According to a recent survey of 10,000 16-25 year-olds from across the globe, almost half of those surveyed said that their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives.[2] This isn’t surprising when the same survey showed that three quarters of young people believe that the “future is frightening” and more than half believe that “humanity is doomed.” This distress is made worse when young people perceive that the government response to climate change is completely inadequate.[3]

While some politicians have recently suggested that climate activism is “alarmist” and can “cause mental health problems for young people,”[4] feelings of anxiety or distress about the climate crisis are entirely valid and reasonable given the trajectory we are on for catastrophic global warming.  

How do we cope?

The question then is, how do we manage this emotional distress and channel it into something positive?

We know that taking action on climate change, no matter how small, can help us to manage our own distress.[5] Acting personally and collectively can contribute to climate solutions and can be the best antidote to despair and helplessness.[6]

For me, I have chosen education as a way to empower myself so that I can understand the current environmental issues we face and develop the knowledge and skills to be part of the solution. I am fortunate to work for an organisation that actively advocates for climate action to protect health and wellbeing. It feels good to be part of the larger climate movement, working towards making the world a better place.

There are other practical things we can do to manage distressing feelings about climate change. Taking time out for ourselves away from the 24/7 news feed or spending time in nature can be helpful strategies.[7] In fact, engaging with nature and green spaces can have a plethora of benefits including improving our mood, reducing stress, making us more active, and boosting feelings of relaxation.[8] Research shows that spending time in nature also increases our likelihood to take up other environmentally friendly behaviours too.[9]

Look for action

Working in the climate space, I’ve met many young people who are deeply concerned about the planet and the future of humanity. To cope, some people (like me) choose to work for organisations tackling the problem. Others join local action groups. Others create stories and art to help us imagine the world we want, and the world we don’t. Others do all they can to reduce their own personal carbon footprint. From what I’ve seen, the best thing you can do for climate anxiety is just that — do. As Greta said at a rally, “When we start to act, hope is everywhere. So instead of looking for hope, look for action. Then the hope will come.”

Whatever it is that makes you feel like you’re contributing to a better planet, do it. It’s good for the climate, and it’s good for your mental health.

*Please note that I am not a qualified mental health professional and I am speaking from my own experience. If the content of this article raises any concerns for you, please seek assistance​.

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About the author

Portrait of the authorMilly Burgess is the Projects and Operations Officer at the Climate and Health Alliance and is a founding member of Australian Youth for International Climate Engagement (AYFICE). Milly has previously graduated with a Bachelor of Psychology and a Master of Environment, and is particularly interested in the link between climate change, (mental) health and behaviour change.

[1] Wu, J, Snell, G & Samji, H (2020). Climate anxiety in young people: a call to action. The Lancet Planetary Health, 4(10), E435-E436. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(20)30223-0/fulltext

[2] Hickman, C, Marks, E, Pihkala, P, Clayton, S, Lewandowski, ER, Mayal, EE, Wray, B, Mellor, C & van Susteren L (under review). Young people’s voices on climate anxiety, government betrayal and moral injury: a global phenomenon. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3918955

[3] As above.

[4]Karp, P (31 Aug 2021). Coalition MPs want more school chaplains to help children suffering mentally due to ‘alarmist’ climate activism. Available at https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/aug/31/coalition-mps-want-more-school-chaplains-to-help-children-suffering-mentally-due-to-climate-activism?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other&fbclid=IwAR3N_hhUxNxf8srPXkqu522zxlSF8HyoI8YJXB5GjNe6uHuobBbhd2nHC5s

[5] Australian Psychological Society (2017). The climate change empowerment handbook: psychological strategies to tackle climate change. Available at https://psychology.org.au/getmedia/88ee1716-2604-44ce-b87a-ca0408dfaa12/climate-change-empowerment-handbook.pdf

[6] As above.

[7] Australian Conservation Foundation, The Climate Reality Project Australia, Australian Psychological Society, and Psychology for a Safe Climate (n.d.). Coping with climate change distress. Available at https://psychology.org.au/getmedia/cf076d33-4470-415d-8acc-75f375adf2f3/coping_with_climate_change.pdf.pdf

[8] Sandifer, PA, Sutton-Grier, AE, & Ward, BP (2015). Exploring connections among nature, biodiversity, ecosystem services, and human health and well-being: Opportunities to enhance health and biodiversity conservation. Ecosystem Services, 12, 1-15. Doi:10.1016/j.ecoser.2014.12.007

[9] Whitburn, J., Linklater, W. & Abrahamse, W. (2019). Meta-analysis of human connection to nature and proenvironmental behaviour. Conservation Biology, 34(1), 180-193. Doi:10.1111/cobi.13381