From longer hurricane seasons to increasingly destructive wildfires, flooding caused by sea-level rise, and air pollution, the human toll of climate change is evident all around us. A special report from the United Nations emphasizes that carbon dioxide levels are higher now than at any point in the past two million years — and that no corner of our planet is left unburdened by ill effects of human activity.
Yet while world leaders continue to pledge collective action at events like 2021’s Glasgow Climate Change Conference, surveys show that a majority of adults dread that things are only going to get worse.
A 2020 survey from the American Psychological Association (APA) found that 68 percent of Americans feel at least a little “eco-anxiety,” or worry about climate change and its impacts.
This sense of helplessness hits young adults even harder. According to the poll, at least half of people between the ages of 18 and 34 say that stress about climate change affects their daily lives.
Carly Claney, PhD, the director at Relational Psychs and a licensed clinical psychologist in Seattle who treats anxiety in young adults, she says that in recent years, climate anxiety has been on the rise among her patients.
“[It] refers to people feeling anxious or despairing about the worsening state of the environment,” she explains.
This sense of doom may also be accompanied by intense guilt about the role a person feels that they play in the global problem.
While it’s not an officially recognized mental health condition in and of itself, the APA recognizes that stress over climate change can increase someone’s risk of developing depression, anxiety, or substance abuse disorders.
“You may be experiencing climate anxiety if you find yourself feeling powerless or overwhelmed whenever you think about the current climate crisis,” says Debanjan Banerjee, MD, a consultant geriatric psychiatrist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences in Bangalore, India, and a consultant at DoctorSpring.
He says that it’s common for people to think about starting to make small, sustainable changes in their daily lives — like going vegan or reducing their plastic use — but to wonder whether doing so will make any meaningful difference for the environment.
It’s also common to experience symptoms that mirror other anxiety disorders, like:
• Excessive worry or guilt
• Difficulty focusing or making decisions
• Sleep and appetite problems
• Physical problems like unexplained pain, frequent headaches, and nausea
• Feelings of hopelessness about the future
The reasons that someone might feel eco-anxiety vary from person to person — particularly based on factors like where they live and how climate change affects their life.
Claney says that some people obsess over how they’re contributing to environmental damage, and can wind up placing unrealistic expectations on themselves to make every decision a perfectly sustainable one.
But as we hear news reports about escalating rates of damage, a person may then experience feelings of defeat, hopelessness, and terror that their best intentions are inadequate — and feel that nothing will be able to stem the tide of an impending climate disaster.
“Stress like this can occur from being exposed to climate change coverage, noticing an increase in air or water pollution in their community, or experiencing the stress of increasingly common extreme weather patterns,” she explains.
A report published in The Lancet says that parents may be at a greater risk for climate-related anxiety. Without a sufficient response to climate change, the journal points to grave risks for children born today, like:
• Increased rates of food insecurity and poor nutrition
• Spikes in infectious diseases
• Health complications due to air or water pollution
• A greater risk of extreme weather events
“These worries can lead to feelings of guilt over the possibility of their children not being able to enjoy the same quality of life they gained from generations before them,” Claney says. “[People] may also mourn the disappearance of threatened animal species.”
The journal also highlights how certain groups of people are disproportionately affected by the climate crisis. Rates of eco-grief and anxiety are likely to be greater among:
• People whose livelihoods are closely tied to the environment, like farmers and fishermen, and many Indigenous peoples throughout the world
• People who live in regions that are prone to natural disasters, where the frequency and severity of events like hurricanes, floods, and wildfires often outpace recovery efforts
• The nearly 40 percent of Americans who live in coastal areas
• First responders to environmental disasters
• People with pre-existing mental health conditions
“With news of the damaging effects of climate change always on our social media feeds and other sources, it's easy to get climate anxiety and feel nervous, worried, or scared about what’s going to happen in the future,” Banerjee says.
That’s why experts say that the first step you should take is to unplug and step back.
“While it’s understandable that you want to keep yourself updated on current issues, you don't have to do it to a point where it just increases your feelings of anxiety,” he says.
You can also manage climate-related anxiety by:
"Find ways of discussing climate change with friends and family that don't involve anxiety-provoking content,” Claney says. “It's important to stay informed about the state of the world and vote for politicians vowing to take action to combat climate change, but obsessive coverage of a problem of this scale can be overwhelming to anyone.”
Volunteering can be an empowering way to help deal with climate anxiety, says Banerjee, because it turns passive worry into active intent.
But it’s important to maintain your boundaries here, too, so that you don’t start obsessing over every choice and action to the point where you feel guilty or powerless.
Working with a professional psychologist trained in managing and resolving anxieties can be an incredibly helpful way to explore, manage, and resolve your eco-anxiety.
“Therapy can help you become more accepting of things you cannot control, and may be able to help you resolve any issues you are feeling about your effect on the environment that may be tied up with your self-worth,” Claney says.
If you have questions about climate anxiety, you can make a virtual appointment to talk to a healthcare provider via carbonhealth.com or through the Carbon Health app (virtual mental health appointments are currently available to California residents). If you or a loved one is experiencing thoughts of self-harm, seek emergency medical care or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at any time, day or night, for free and confidential support, at 1-800-273-8255.