Many people are already experiencing the effects of climate change. Eighty-five percent the global population has endured weather events made worse by rising temperatures, and more than 40% are highly vulnerable to climate change based on their location or situations, according to the IPCC report issued last August, citing inequality, socio-economic status and colonialism as factors in the uneven distribution of these effects.
We have long known that physical health is impacted by climate change – whether it be due to poor air quality, loss of shelter or dehydration. But, as the climate crisis occupies a growing space in our daily lives, our mental health has also begun to suffer.
Experiencing the smaller-scale effects of climate change daily has led to an increase in “climate-” or “eco-anxiety.” Watching your local landscapes change, you might worry about the safety of your community in the face of wildfires and drought; perhaps flooding in your area has made you more nervous to drive in poor weather; watching the news or scrolling through social media presents an onslaught of information and harrowing projections, maybe leaving you with an overwhelming sense of panic at the state of the world and our uncertain future.
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Climate anxiety is normal
In the midst of these new realities, climate anxiety is at an all-time high. The Yale Program for Climate Communication reported that 70% of Americans – a record-breaking amount – are now “very” or “somewhat” worried about climate change, with a notable increase after a summer of wildfires, floods and heatwaves in the U.S.
According to Grist, online searches for “climate anxiety” rose 565% between October 2020 and October 2021. Young people especially are suffering: 45% of young adults and teenagers feel that climate anxiety affects their daily life, and many younger Americans also report uncertainty about having children, citing climate change as a major factor in this decision.
Climate anxiety is a normal response to the reality we live in, where once-in-a-lifetime weather events are happening more and more often. While we can grieve for what we have lost and fear for our futures, there are steps we can take to manage our anxiety and even channel these difficult feelings into action.
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1. Know That Your Feelings Are Justified
First off, let yourself feel what you are feeling. You are not overreacting, or catastrophizing, or leaning into pessimism; our situation is dire, and fear, sadness and worry are proportionate responses. Pushing optimism or imploring each other to “look on the bright side” isn’t helpful.
Large corporations and fossil fuel companies carry far greater responsibility for the climate crisis than individuals, and our anger about their outsized impact is justified – but let that anger propel rather than paralyze you. Letting yourself experience these feelings is actually an important step toward meaningful climate action, and shoving them off (or insisting that others do so) is counterproductive.
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2. Practice Mindfulness
The uncertainty of the climate crisis can be overwhelming, much like other anxiety-inducing factors in our lives. Developing a mindfulness or meditation practice can help with anxiety in all forms. The popular mindfulness app Headspace offers meditations to help with climate anxiety; the app seeks to help users sit more comfortably in this place of uncertainty and practice turning their focus to the body and away from anxious thoughts.
Connecting with nature is another important antidote and is proven to help with feelings of stress and anxiety. Getting outdoors for two hours a week helps with physical symptoms related to stress, promotes calm and improves mood.
Find a way to get outside and invite nature into your daily life, whether it be a daily walk around the neighborhood, a weekend hike or going birdwatching. If you’re a city-dweller or don’t have your own form of transportation, consider joining an outdoor group. MeetUp and Facebook are great places to search for clubs and organizations that take outdoor excursions and organize carpooling.
Whether it be getting outside or settling into a meditation, develop your own tactics for handling anxiety and create a game plan for when it hits.
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3. Quit Doom Scrolling
With the world at our fingertips, it’s hard to resist the urge to scroll and scroll, inundating ourselves with information and negative news, even once it becomes harmful to our health. The 50% increase in screen time since pre-COVID times among Americans has been linked to elevated anxiety, stress and depression.
To prevent that endless scrolling, set a timer on Instagram to let you know when you’ve reached your daily time limit – or set an actual timer for five or 10 minutes to limit your screen time in short bursts. Instead of setting a wakeup alarm on your phone, use an actual alarm clock so you’re not reaching for your cell first thing (literally) in the morning. Set it aside at night, too, and try reading a book or doing another screen-less activity to wind down. If you find yourself clicking through news notifications all day, set them to Do Not Disturb so you aren’t checking the screen every time it buzzes with new stories.
This is not to say, however, that we shouldn’t stay informed; arming ourselves with knowledge is an important aspect of climate action. Fill your feed with a balance of both positive and negative environmental news, making sure you’re exposing yourself to the great work that climate champions are doing every day.
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4. Lean Into Your Climate Community
Fostering a sense of community is vital to combatting climate doom-ism. In her TED Talk on turning climate anxiety into action, Renée Lertzman describes the concept of a double bind: feeling stuck between panic and motivation, constantly bombarding with messaging telling us that we must act now. She encourages us to practice attunement by tuning into how we’re feeling and being compassionate about the difficulty we are facing. This inward reflection and empathy then allow us to attune socially and take action. She emphasizes that being understood and being a part of a group is vital; working together is more powerful and motivating than working alone.
Turn to friends who feel similarly, surrounding yourself with them in your daily life for support. Or find an online community that shares your values and provides a space for discussion. Climate cafés are an accessible online resource where the conversation is guided by facilitators and participants on topics and emotions related to climate change. The Good Grief Network also offers peer-to-peer support groups, inspired by the Alcoholics Anonymous model, which help participants recognize and process emotions around climate anxiety, and learn how to turn them into meaningful action.
If you prefer in-person interaction, join a group with people who share similar causes and interests. Find a local biking club, volunteer group or excursion club to connect with like-minded people and broaden your support network.
To bring some comfort to your feed (and remind yourself that you are not alone in your feelings), follow climate activists and groups for information and support, Like Chicks for Climate, Isaias Hernandez (@queerbrownvegan), Leah Thomas (greengirlleah) and nonprofits like the Sunrise Movement, or subscribe to climate-themed newsletters like Gen Dread or Heated.
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5. Channel Your Feelings Into Action
Corporations are responsible for the vast majority of emissions, and many of the discriminatory systems we have in place allow for unchecked environmental exploitation far beyond the individual scale – but that doesn’t mean we are powerless. Taking action makes us feel more empowered and involved; falling down and staying there helps neither the cause nor our own anxiety.
“Don’t be put off by people who tell you there’s no point in individual actions, or in changing consumer habits,” says psychoanalyst and author Anouchka Grose. “It is better for your mental health to live according to your personal ethics, and it’s also possible to pressure companies to change if enough of us make better choices.” The power of individual people and grassroots work is evident; look no further than the rise of alternative milk and meat products as the market responds to higher demand.
Think of what you can do in your daily life. What are you angry about? Start there. Maybe you’re worried about food waste. Develop an at-home compost system or contribute to a local community fridge. Determine the small things you can do every day, like taking public transportation instead of driving, limiting meat and dairy consumption or ditching your cultivated lawn for native species. Vote and campaign for candidates that champion environmental causes. Join a group to bring about change in your community, like a mutual aid group that fights for better environmental legislation, organizes clean-ups, and offers resources to the community. We can accomplish much more together than we can alone.
Acknowledge too that action looks different for everyone. Take diet, for example: the cost and cultural importance of food might be a barrier to vegetarianism or veganism to many, and promoting shame or laying blame is not productive. Promote your beliefs, but acknowledge the nuances and difficulties of these complex issues, and focus on what you are capable of doing given your own privilege and circumstances.
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6. Be Cautious of Burnout
Take breaks. You are allowed to rest – in fact, you must. When the work becomes overwhelming or the news too difficult, step away for a day (or longer) to recharge.
Protecting yourself from burnout also means choosing your battles with caution. Ten percent of the population believes that climate change is not happening: a group that might include friends, family or neighbors. Don’t waste your energy and time on unproductive conversations that leave you feeling drained.
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7. Get Help If You Are Struggling
If you are struggling with your mental health, talk to a therapist or school counselor, if you are able. Utilize any student or employee resources that might be available to you, like low-cost counseling or meditation workshops and classes. Some states or cities will provide free resources as well; New York City, for one, provides free and confidential texting, calling and chatting with professionals through NYC Well. No matter what, know that you are not alone.
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