Climate Change Affecting Your Mental Health? How Can You Cope With ‘Eco-Anxiety’?

We have reached a stage where we can no longer dismiss the indications of climate change as a normal occurrence of the global warming and cooling cycle. Human activities have caused significant changes in the Earth's climate, and the effects of this are becoming increasingly noticeable.

Climate change can have serious mental health consequences, such as eco-anxiety, in addition to physical health impacts caused by pollution, disease spread, and food scarcity.

Eco-anxiety is a term used to describe persistent concerns about the future of the planet Earth and the living beings that inhabit it. Other related terms, such as "climate change distress," "eco-trauma," "eco-angst," and "ecological grief," recognize that these worries can cause symptoms beyond just anxiety.

Is it normal?

Anxiety arises when our body's survival instinct responds to perceived threats with fight-flight-freeze. These perceived threats are often irrational fears.

However, climate change is a genuine threat that should not be ignored, regardless of how distant the outcome may appear. In this context, eco-anxiety can be seen as a rare instance where anxiety works as intended. It functions as a motivator for survival, a unique emotional response that drives humanity to look for solutions to mitigate the impact of climate change.

What does it feel like?

If you are worried about the long-term effects of climate change on temperature, weather patterns, and the habitats of both animals and humans, your concerns are entirely understandable. Like many people, you may feel deeply affected by the damage already inflicted on some natural environments and species. A heightened feeling of despair about the planet's changes is just one manifestation of eco-anxiety.

Other symptoms include:

  • Anger toward people who don't accept climate change or older people for not making more progress
  • Fatalistic thoughts
  • Feelings of depression, anxiety, or panic
  • Grief over the loss of natural environments
  • Obsessive thoughts about the climate
  • Guilt related to your carbon footprint
  • Post-traumatic stress after experiencing the effects of climate change

These feelings can contribute to secondary issues, such as:

  • Sleep issues
  • Appetite changes
  • Trouble concentrating

The fear of climate change can be so overwhelming that you might start distracting yourself to avoid these concerns. Unfortunately, distracting yourself in this way may not be helpful as it prevents you from working through your emotions. Additionally, this may lead to using less-than-ideal coping mechanisms such as substance or alcohol use, which can be harmful.

Where does it come from?

Climate change is a global issue that affects everyone, not just the planet. Many people don't actively think about their connection to the planet, but it's there. Earth is our original home and the source of all our resources. Without it, we wouldn't even exist. It's natural to feel saddened as we witness the planet changing rapidly.

Let's take a look at some factors that contribute to eco-anxiety:

Lived experience

You may have heard about the long-term consequences of climate change, but experiencing them firsthand is an entirely different matter. You might have faced difficult times as hurricanes or wildfires forced you to leave your home. You may have even lost loved ones in those same disasters, lives that, unlike homes, cannot be replaced. Gradual effects, such as extreme heat and increased rainfall, might not draw immediate attention, but these should be considered as they are equally significant. They can still affect you in ways like:

  • Exposure to high temperatures can lead to increased stress and irritability. Moreover, it can also be dangerous for individuals who take psychiatric medications that affect the body's temperature regulation.
  • On the other hand, if there is more rain or dense, smoky air, there will be less sunlight. Lack of sunlight can result in mood-related symptoms, including seasonal depression.
Expanding news coverage

Increasing media coverage of climate change can be a positive sign, as it raises awareness and encourages people to take action. However, constantly scrolling through negative news and feeling overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the issue may not necessarily lead to action. In some instances, this can lead to a lack of action altogether.

Who's most at risk?

Climate change affects everyone, but vulnerable groups are at higher risk of climate-related distress due to their greater susceptibility.

Particularly vulnerable groups include:

  • Indigenous communities
  • People living in coastal or island regions, dry areas, or other regions with high geological risk
  • Socioeconomically disadvantaged communities
  • Children and older adults
  • People with disabilities or chronic health concerns

How can you manage it?

Although climate change may seem overwhelming, taking action to protect your mental health is still possible.

Take a look at your habits

Making a shift towards sustainable lifestyle practices can have a positive impact on your overall well-being since it aligns with your values. This can help you enhance your sense of self and promote a more mindful outlook towards life. Some of the ways to achieve this include:

  • Physical commuting, such as biking or walking, can improve your physical and mental health while reducing carbon emissions.
  • Reaching out to community organizations working toward climate protection can help you get involved in broader policy efforts to address climate change.
Say no to denial

Climate change can be a scary and overwhelming topic. It's natural to want to avoid feelings of eco-anxiety by ignoring the issue altogether. However, ignoring the problem won't make it go away and can even make it harder to take action. Suppressing negative emotions intensifies them rather than helping us feel better.

It's easier said than done, but the following tips can help you:

  • Instead of denying the reality of climate change, allow yourself to acknowledge those feelings.
  • If you feel guilt over past behaviors that were not climate-friendly, forgive yourself and commit to making better choices in the future.
  • Spend time enjoying the healing benefits of nature by visiting beaches, hiking trails, and mountain lakes that you want to protect.

How therapy can help<

Eco-anxiety is not currently recognized as a specific mental health disorder, but mental health professionals acknowledge that it can have a significant emotional impact on individuals. Even efforts to address climate change can sometimes worsen the distress caused by eco-anxiety. If you're struggling to cope with the effects of eco-anxiety or feeling burnt out by activism or news exposure, seeking therapy can be helpful.

All therapists can provide a safe space to:

  • work on self-compassion
  • develop coping skills to manage emotional distress
  • get help for depression or anxiety
  • make an individualized self-care plan

Final Words

It may seem that emotional distress caused by climate change is less significant than the physical damage already affecting people worldwide. However, it's crucial to acknowledge these feelings instead of ignoring them. Being aware of our emotions is the first step towards making a change. We only have one planet, and we cannot leave it, so instead of letting eco-anxiety consume us, we should fight for it.