Why “Climate Anxiety” Is Normal and What You Can Do About It
Tales from the Anthropocene by Jessica Kashdan-Brown
Climate anxiety is a serious issue affecting an increasing number of people in the world today. In the current landscape of uncertainty for the future, it’s spreading faster than you might think. If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts (read my previous one here), you’ll know that I’ve mentioned both my own personal sense of climate anxiety and a more general understanding of it. But what exactly is climate anxiety and what can we do to cope with it and keep it from disempowering us? Well, that’s what today’s blog is all about.
What is Climate Anxiety?
Climate anxiety, also known as ‘Ecoanxiety’, is defined by the American Psychological Association as: “A chronic fear of environmental doom.” In essence, climate anxiety is a kind of anxiety, stress, or fixation born from a feeling of frustration or helplessness in the face of the seemingly overwhelming threat that climate change poses. It can take root as a kind of duality in your day to day life; you are aware of the situation and want to, to the point of feeling stressed about it almost constantly, do something about it, but you also feel helpless or powerless to do enough to make a difference. It can feel like being stuck in a ‘double bind’, where whatever you do you cannot stop a negative outcome from taking place. It’s not an uncommon feeling — I know it well, and it’s a response that can be initiated by a huge range of things:
- Experiencing the effects of climate change via a traumatic event (i.e. flooding, ice or snow-melt, natural disasters, etc.)
- Overexposure to headlines, reports, negative news and pessimistic conversations surrounding climate change and the climate crisis, which is also known as ‘doomscrolling’ or ‘doomsurfing’ (the act of consuming a large quantity of negative online news at once)
- Loss or detrimental change to a place you have strong emotional attachments to; a feeling which is also known as ‘Solastalgia’ — a recently coined term combining ‘solos’ (that which gives comfort) and ‘algos’ (pain), indicating the pain or distress we feel when a much-loved place that gives us comfort is threatened
The effects of climate anxiety vary from person to person. Symptoms range from:
- Post-traumatic stress after experiencing the effects of climate change (meaning physical environmental and ecosystem changes) and/or the climate crisis (meaning the ethical, political, racial, and human/civil rights issues associated with climate change)
- A kind of professional paralysis, depression, numbness, or denial
- Fatalism or hopelessness
- Existential dread
- Frustration or anger in the face of climate denial or inaction
- Guilt or shame over inaction or lifestyle choices
- Worry over the future and other feelings of stress or distress
These mental symptoms can lead to physical symptoms like an inability to sleep, a change in appetite, or difficulty concentrating, as well as other common symptoms linked to grief, as explored in the works of Dr. Kriss Kevorkian. Climate anxiety or ecoanxiety can be overwhelming to the point of being immobilizing for many people, but it’s important to know that there are many, many ways to help alleviate this kind of anxiety and to work through it.
Coping with Climate Anxiety
The first thing you should know about climate anxiety, especially if you think you identify with any of the symptoms mentioned above, is that it is completely and utterly normal. In fact, there are many psychologists and mental health specialists who would call it a healthy response to such an existential threat. Sarah Niblock, for example, said something to this effect in her opening speech for a UK Council for Psychotherapy meeting in 2019 and Dr. Kriss Kevorkian has been working for years to help people through their environmental grief, understanding it to be a common response to climate change and the climate crisis.
The first step to coping with climate anxiety or ecoanxiety is to acknowledge the feeling in yourself and to accept that you are not alone in feeling it. From young schoolchildren to professional climate scientists, climate anxiety is affecting many people all across the world. It is not an illness or anything to feel ashamed of — it is a shared worry. In fact, it’s such a widespread feeling today that even our language is evolving to acknowledge it. Terms and phrases like climate anxiety, ecoanxiety, solastalgia, eco-trauma, and environmental and ecological grief (coined by Dr. Kriss Kevorkian in 2001), are all tools for expressing how we feel about the climate crisis, and these terms are becoming universally understood. They are words that are enabling us to communicate more effectively with each other about the topic, providing us with an all-important sense of community in acknowledging their place within our shared language.
Accepting and acknowledging your anxiety connected to climate change and the climate crisis does not mean that it’s something unchangeable in you. Feeling powerless or immobilized because of your anxiety is a symptom of fear, but as in all situations where we’re scared, we can move past that fear to action if we take the time to put ourselves in the right place mentally and feel supported in doing so. It’s for this reason that I love so much Caroline Hickman (a psychotherapist studying children’s attitudes towards climate change in the UK)’s use of a scuba diving mantra as a way of coping with climate anxiety: “Stop. Breathe. Think. Connect. Act.” These are important steps towards preventing climate anxiety from disempowering you. It’s about taking the space to settle your thoughts and breathe, looking after yourself and making sure you are not feeling overwhelmed by information or traumatic experiences, and reaching out for help and support and sharing your experiences with others. All these things will help you move from a state of anxiety to taking meaningful action.
Steps You Can Take
I would like to suggest some small steps you could take in order to reduce anxiety, better attune yourself to your own feelings surrounding the environmental crisis, and to protect yourself from feeling overwhelmed or hopeless. These things might help you to see what kind of practical changes and pro-environmental behaviours can help you move through the stages of “Stop. Breathe. Think. Connect. Act.”— ultimately turning your anxiety into action.
- Talk about how you’re feeling — By putting it into words, it will help you to process your thoughts and make sense of them, making it easier to break out of negative thought patterns later. This will also bring you closer to the people you choose to confide in and may end up helping them as well.
- Write about it — In much the same way, putting your thoughts and feelings down in words can be a hugely impactful way to deconstruct your climate anxiety. It can also be a great way to record and celebrate goals and changes you’ve made, whether those are physical or mental, and to share your experiences with others. This is a big part of the reason I started my family climate action blog — Our House Is On Fire. It has forced me and my family to commit to goals and to hold ourselves to a higher standard of environmental awareness and activism, celebrating victories big and small.
- Reach out to others — Whether you do this with the community you live in or by reaching out across seas and continents, finding like-minded individuals to talk to and share ideas with can help rekindle a sense of positivity and possibility.
- Enjoy more nature-based activities — This can remind you what you’re acting for and why you should care. Try to do more things like walking or caring for plants and get friends and family involved where you can or want to.
- Rethink your online presence — If you’re feeling overwhelmed by negative news and reports, cultivate your online presence selectively. Restrict your use of certain apps, or make sure you’re following accounts on your social media that will keep you informed, but in a positive way. Balance is key. Don’t blind yourself to realities, but don’t leave yourself with a news feed that makes ‘doomscrolling’ possible.
- Make it a factor in your daily decisions — When you’re thinking about what to eat, what you buy, or how you’re going to travel, make climate change a factor in your decisions. Embed the practice in your thinking so that you feel less guilty for not thinking about it; even if it doesn’t change your decision, it will make you feel more connected to the issue. Make it part of your life, but not all of your life. Don’t feel guilty about doing things that aren’t directly related to helping mitigate the climate crisis, but where possible, think about how they could be linked to it. Fighting for equality and thinking about workplace responsibilities can be just as important in taking climate action as what you’re putting on your plate and where you’re buying clothes from.
While inaction and worry can make your anxiety worse, taking action will help you to feel less anxious. However small it may seem in the context of a global crisis, it can hold huge meaning and significance for your mental health and can help you move towards bigger forms of action and change. Climate anxiety stems from awareness and awareness is key for creating change. If you can balance awareness with self-care and wellness, you have the perfect recipe for taking meaningful and positive action.
If you would like to talk to someone regarding your experiences with climate change or environmental and ecological grief, feel free to reach out to…
- Me via social media
- Dr. Kriss Kevorkian — who runs various grief support groups and mourning meetings
- Climate Journal Project’s guided climate journal books launching January 21st at 9a PST! Sign up here and donate within the first 24 hours on Kickstarter to receive the Super Early Bird special
Check out CJP’s latest podcast with Dr. Kriss Kevorkian available now on our IGTV and available soon on Spotify.
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