Coping with Climate Anxiety

How exactly is climate change impacting mental health? Climate change has negative impacts on mental health in two clear ways.

Feeling anxious about the future of our planet? You’re not the only one. Climate anxiety or eco-anxiety is described by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”Being aware of the current climate crisis is certain to spark at least some worry for the future. It makes sense when faced with news about melting ice caps, ocean acidification, and increases in extreme weather events. Most of the time this anxiety response is entirely normal and manageable. However, climate anxiety can become overwhelming and detrimental to your mental health. When climate anxiety is debilitating it can cause people to become paralyzed by fear, feel guilty about their actions, or result in numbing and avoidance of the issue. None of these responses are beneficial for mental health or helpful in responding to climate change.

First, extreme weather events impact the mental health of community members as well as the ability for mental health systems to operate effectively in affected communities. Our community here in the Okanagan was impacted by several extreme weather events in 2021 including heatwaves, wildfires, and severe flooding. The stress of being evacuated, witnessing the devastation of extreme weather, and losing a home or employment all have an impact on mental health. These extreme weather events can also prevent mental health services from being able to serve their affected community through closures and impacts to staff.

Second, climate change as a global environmental threat is creating emotional distress and anxiety about the future. Many people (young and old) are worrying more about their future. This can include how climate change will impact careers, communities, food systems, and future generations. Decisions about where to live, whether to have kids, and what career path to pursue can feel more complicated in light of the climate crisis. There is also an immense pressure on individuals to find solutions and take action.

So, what can I do to prevent climate anxiety? If I’m already experiencing it, what can I do to be less anxious about the climate? While we might not have big solutions for climate change, the good news is that you can take steps to reduce climate anxiety.

Unhelpful Responses

It can be easy to fall into these unhelpful responses when we’re feeling overwhelmed by climate anxiety. One way to limit climate anxiety is to be aware of unhelpful reactions. Recognize these responses as unhelpful and choose a different response instead.

  1. Guilt and shame. While we each have a role to play in responding to climate change, feeling excessive guilt and shame about your individual actions is not helpful. In fact, research shows that feeling guilt is less likely to encourage people to take meaningful action.
  • Psychic numbing. Psychic numbing is described as indifference or avoidance when confronted with an overwhelming threat. Numbing and avoidance are reactions that try to protect us from feeling overwhelmed. Unfortunately, avoidance is not effective in reducing anxiety and instead can increase it over time, while numbing results in disengagement from the issue and inaction.

Helpful Responses

Thankfully, there are things you can do to reduce anxiety while continuing to engage with the fight against climate change.

  1. Take action. Consider what you enjoy doing, what your interests and strengths are. There are many ways to take small meaningful actions towards reducing climate change. This might include volunteering for a local agency, educating your friends and family about sustainable practices, or campaigning for a political party that has a strong platform on climate change. Learn about what actions have the most significant impact and commit to fewer, but more impactful, changes.
  2. Find balance. Know when to take a break from hearing, reading, or thinking about climate change. With technology in our pockets, we have the ability to be tuned in to the latest news and updates 24/7. Take time away from news about climate change to rest and recharge. Variety is the spice of life! Remind yourself of other interests, hobbies, or topics of conversation that you can engage in when feeling overwhelmed by climate anxiety.
  3. Enjoy nature. Spend time taking in the wonders of the outdoors! Becoming immersed in nature has an immediate impact on stress levels. Take a mindful walk and notice what is happening in the natural environment around you. Engage your sense of smell and touch to really tune in to your experience. Witnessing the wonders of the natural environment positively impacts mental health while reminding us why we are invested in protecting our natural spaces.

Climate change is a daunting problem that all human beings are facing. The impact of climate anxiety is real but doesn’t need to be unmanageable. If you’re struggling with climate anxiety our counselors are here to help.

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Written By: Cassie Hager MACP Counsellor

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