Managing Mental Health and “Eco-Anxiety” in the Face of Climate Change

With the number of news headlines that report on wildfires, droughts, floods and other ecological disasters, it can be easy to get discouraged about the state of the Earth. But for some people, that blip in the news cycle can spiral into a longer-lasting sense of worry, with many medical professionals now acknowledging a whole range of symptoms that they classify as “eco-anxiety.”

Who is Affected by Eco-Anxiety?

It’s long been known that climate change has a range of effects on humans’ physical health – respiratory issues caused by pollution, heat-related illness, flood-borne diseases, and more – but as the crisis continues to worsen, many people find that climate change has a direct correlation to their mental health as well. 

So whom does eco-anxiety affect? The range of people is as broad as the climate issues they face, but commonly affected groups include:

  • Residents of coastal communities
  • Workers in fields such as fishing, tourism, and farming
  • Indigenous peoples who rely primarily on natural resources 
  • First responders and healthcare workers 
  • Those with existing mental or physical health conditions
  • Economically disadvantaged people
  • Older adults

Another group rightfully concerned about the future of the planet: children, teenagers and young adults. A 2021 global study surveyed 10,000 teenagers and young adults aged 16-25, finding that around 60% of survey respondents said that they felt “very” or “extremely” worried about climate change, with 75% describing the future as “frightening.”  

And while a parent’s instinct is to shield their child from scary or distressing topics, experts advise that speaking openly and honestly with children can both empower and comfort them. The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council has an excellent guide about how to discuss climate change with children at all stages of development.

Managing Eco-Anxiety

If you find yourself feeling hopeless about the planet, feeling anger at those who don’t do their part, or experiencing guilt about your own contributions to the climate crisis, you might be suffering from eco-anxiety. Other indications are feelings of depression, anxiety, panic, obsessive thinking, and even post-traumatic stress after experiencing a climate event like wildfire or flood.

Dealing with these very real feelings is critical to preserving your mental health, so here are some tactics to manage eco-anxiety:

  • Take action. Even small contributions add up, so make greener personal choices like recycling and eating sustainably, and consider volunteering with an environmental group. The feeling that you’re contributing to a solution can be empowering.
  • Delve into the issues. Don’t simply skim headlines or view bite-sized videos optimized for social media – dig into factual research about current events and broader climate studies. In managing eco-anxiety, knowledge is power.
  • Tune out. However, know when to take a break. Whether you’re being exposed passively to climate information on social media or actively researching a topic, constant exposure can sometimes cause additional stress and anxiety. If you find that having more info is hurting more than helping, take a break to clear your head. 
  • Bond with nature. If natural disasters are a source of worry for you, then taking time to enjoy the peaceful side of nature can be a great way to offset those concerns. Go for a hike, have a picnic in a park, sit out in your backyard – just take a minute to breathe in the beauty of the natural world to be reminded that it’s not all doom and gloom. 
  • Break a sweat. As with many other types of mental stress, exercise can be a very effective treatment for eco-anxiety. Not only will you get the serotonin boost associated with physical activity, you can also choose an exercise that helps support your cause – bike to work instead of driving, walk your child to school instead of putting them on the bus, try actually “running” your errands for a change.
  • Confide in a friend. Discussing your fears with a close friend or family member might help you to feel less alone in your worries, knowing that others share some of the same concerns and learning how they manage their own feelings about the environment. 

Seek help. If you’re taking steps to ease your anxiety but nothing seems to be working, consider seeking professional help. Although not a clinically recognized condition, many doctors and therapists are now trained to help patients cope with what the American Psychiatric Association (APA) describes as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”