Climate Anxiety: The Psychological Impact of Climate Change
By Megan Kennedy Woodard & Dr. Patrick Kennedy Williams
Justin is 28 and he and his partner are active in their local grassroots climate action community. He finds it tough to hear or see stories about climate change and everywhere he looks, he sees evidence of the crisis and its seriousness. For this reason, he finds it incredibly difficult when his partner talks about having children, as he is worried about what the future will be like for a child.
Manuel is struggling as last year, he and his family were forced to flee their home twice as wildfires raged around them. Their house survived but three of his neighbours lost everything. He can’t stop thinking about how dry it has been and knows fire season is arriving sooner with every passing year.
Marie is 45 and works as a manager for a sustainability charity. She feels like she is burning the candle at both ends between her work, running her daughter’s eco-club, and acting as a lead in the Parents 4 Future movement. Yet she feels like it’s not ‘enough’. She lays awake at night worrying about what’s happening and it’s hard for her to talk to her friends about it.
Climate (or Eco) Anxiety is a relatively new but increasingly familiar term that refers to the mental health impacts of climate change. Primarily, this is associated with feelings of fear, grief, rage, and depression, which can lead to an inability to engage in climate action due to a sense of overwhelm or paralysis. We recognise this in a presentation of difficulty in work and social groups, distraction, feelings of burnout, loss of sleep and concentration, feeling unable to be present, panic attacks and more.
The American Psychological Association defines climate anxiety as a ‘chronic fear of environmental doom’. Importantly though, climate anxiety is not a formally recognised psychiatric disorder, nearly all those whom we have worked with do not believe it should be. Nor, as it turns out, does the UK Royal College of Psychiatrists, who in 2021 emphatically stated that climate anxiety ‘should not be pathologised and is not a mental disorder, and it should be considered a meaningful response to the climate and ecological emergency’. Rather, that it is a completely appropriate response to the biggest existential crisis humanity has faced. Indeed, that it is irrational not to be alarmed and it is essential to take action.
Climate change can impact us directly by living through localised extreme weather events such as fires, floods, droughts, or typhoons. These direct impacts can result in loss of life, livelihood, eco-systems, or our homes. This in turn can have secondary mental health consequences, including increased rates of depression, anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). ‘Secondary’ health consequences also emerge in these affected communities, with higher documented cases of substance abuse, suicide and even domestic violence. The World Health Organisation offers a stark reality, by declaring climate change to be the biggest health threat facing humanity.
But it doesn’t end there. Alongside the direct mental health consequences of extreme weather events, there are also indirect impacts of climate change, often referred to as “Climate” or “Eco-Anxiety’. Though these terms have recently entered the popular lexicon, it’s worth recognising that emotions like worry, grief, fear, anger, sadness and more have been associated with an environmental loss for a long time, especially amongst indigenous cultures and those vulnerable to extreme weather events who often contribute the least to the climate crisis. This is not necessarily a new problem.
Source: Uselei Marcelino
Recent studies have shown that climate anxiety is increasing as people become more aware or are directly affected by climate change. For example, the Peoples Climate Vote, in 2021 found that amongst 1.2 million responses from 50 worldwide countries, the recognition that we are facing a global climate emergency ranges from 58% (in Least Developed Countries) to 74% (in Small Island Developing States). Similarly, the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication in 2020 reported that the percentage of Americans that fell into the ‘Alarmed’ segment in response to climate change rose proportionately from 11% to 26% in the decade to 2020.
Though we know that climate change can affect people across race, gender, class and age, there is a distinct presence in reporting from younger people. One landmark study found that among 10,000 young people (16-25), 75% reported feeling that the future is frightening, whilst 64% reported feeling that governments were not doing enough. What is more, the rates of climate anxiety increased dramatically in areas of the world where extreme weather events were more common (such as the Philippines and Portugal). This clearly highlights a key overlap. That although climate anxiety describes a distress that we experience when we learn about the threat we face (rather than experiencing it directly), it also increases in areas more directly affected by climate change. This means we can make a fairly confident prediction that as destruction due to increased global temperatures becomes more commonplace, so too will climate change-related psychological distress.
So what can we do? The science is in and the impact is real. We and future generations will need to navigate a way to the best of our abilities to minimise and adapt to the effects of climate change, whilst simultaneously managing the emotional implications that will accompany this.
The climate crisis is complex for our brains to process. According to eminent psychologist and environmental researcher Susan Clayton, the threat is real, the status is changing, the outcome is uncertain and the awareness is global. There’s also the notion that ‘Climate change has an image problem’. It has often been portrayed as distant, not only as another ‘place’, but also a different ‘time’ and with overly technical language and lacking the human narrative which makes it harder to engage with. We see polar bears starving, floods, or fires burning. This can shock us or make us sad, but the next required steps, both emotionally and practically, are not clear. We often feel we lack agency or self-efficacy which can cause us to feel paralysed or to disengage.
We may be triggered by something we see on the news or on social media. We may realise a green space that we once loved to visit is filled with garbage and no bird song. Our brains recognise the threat but, as opposed to fending off a wild animal or leaping out of the way of a car, it is harder to evaluate exactly what this threat is when it comes to global warming. Also, it requires sustained action which is something our brains don’t like. We prefer immediate resolution and reward. This makes it all the more important to understand the psychological impacts of climate change, the defences that we engage when we hear about the climate crisis, how it affects us emotionally, and how we can steel ourselves to commit to long-term climate action.
As climate psychologists, we work with a lot of people that are on the front line of the climate crisis, though increasingly, this is involving each and every one of us. Scientists and activists yes, but we’re also seeing an increase in clients that are parents, educators, corporate leaders, and young people who all share a deep concern for how we are to move forward. We understand what is happening and what we need to do, and our job is to help people move from climate anxiety, to sustainable climate action – that is, action that is sustainable for our mental health as well as for the planet. We have found that often climate action alleviates climate anxiety when done in a way that encompasses self-compassion, community and meaningful goals.
Here are a few tips to help you stay resilient in your climate work:
1) Understand and accept the facts. You don’t have to be a climate scientist to learn and talk about climate change and how it makes you feel. It is important to balance your information. We say that for each negative piece of climate information you read or see, look for positive stories and solutions to keep yourself actively optimistic and engaged. (Avoid doomscrolling).
2) Validate and normalise the psychological impacts of these facts. Talking about how climate change makes us feel allows us to explore with others why this matters to us and how we can support each other through empathy and kindness to take care of ourselves. Remember, these are normal responses to the greatest threat we have faced. What you feel is okay, and you aren’t alone.
3) Schedule in self-care and reconnect with nature.
4) Create your ‘sustainable action’ plan. Make short-term and long-term meaningful climate goals that are realistic and achievable. Celebrate your successes and then make new plans!
5) Nudge others. Talk about your climate work and how much you are enjoying it. Small actions like switching energy providers; divesting pensions and banking from banks that don’t support fossil fuels; litter picks; a green holiday; and letting others know about how great being green is and asking them to get involved.
Megan Kennedy Woodard & Dr. Patrick Kennedy Williams
Megan and Patrick are the co-directors of Climate Psychologists, an independent organisation providing individual therapeutic support and wider consultation regarding the mental health implications of climate change. Central to their work is climate change communication. They work with individuals, parents, educators, national government and media organisations to promote psychologically-informed, constructive communication. Their aim is to inspire hope and positive, sustainable action to combat climate change. They are the authors Turn the Tide on Climate Anxiety which came out in January 2022.
Contact Megan and Patrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.