It’s easy to get overwhelmed when you’re learning about climate change. The problem is so immense that it feels…scary.
If you find yourself worrying or losing sleep over climate change, you may be experiencing eco-anxiety. Read on to learn more about it and possible coping strategies.
What is eco-anxiety?
The American Psychological Association briefly defined eco-anxiety as “the chronic fear of environmental doom” in its 2017 report on the impacts of climate change on mental health. But what does that really mean?
Eco-anxiety is a broad term to describe the mental health issues that arise in response to climate change. For some, it stems from a personal experience of climate change’s harm to the planet through a natural disaster or home loss. This can lead to PTSD, depression, or substance abuse.
Most people with eco-anxiety have not directly experienced a climate disaster, however. Their symptoms arise from learning about climate change, and everyone reacts differently.
In my experience, eco-anxiety pops up every time I make a purchase. I get stuck in analysis paralysis when deciding which product to buy- do I get the cheaper option that’s packaged in plastic, or spend extra money on something more sustainable?
Dr. Sarah Anne Edwards and Linda Buzzell describe “the waking up syndrome”, in which a person learns about the climate crisis and has a variety of reactions to it. They describe the feeling of loss some people have, and how it’s different from the typical grieving process:
It’s not a one-time loss one can accommodate and simply move on. It is a chronic, on-going, permanent situation that will not only not improve, but actually continue to worsen and become more uncomfortable in the foreseeable future, probably for the entire lifetime of most people living today.
Since eco-anxiety isn’t an official medical diagnosis, there is no clinical list of symptoms that are common with the condition. Some symptoms, like uncontrollable thoughts, overwhelming fear or worry, and feelings of hopelessness or despair can fall under other mental illnesses like anxiety or depression.
If you feel that your eco-anxiety is getting in the way of your ability to work or maintain healthy relationships, it might be time to speak with a professional.
The research behind eco-anxiety
While eco-anxiety is still pretty new, its rise in prevalence has incentivized new researchers to investigate it.
The number of people who experience eco-anxiety is growing. A 2018 study from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 29% of Americans are “alarmed” about climate change, the most worried option on a six-point scale.
In addition, a 2020 poll from the American Psychiatric Association found that 67% of Americans were “somewhat or extremely anxious” about climate change’s impact on the planet.
Eco-anxiety in young people
Young people are particularly susceptible to experiencing the detrimental effects of eco-anxiety. With more access to information through the internet and social media, they’re able to easily learn about the harm that humans have done to the planet.
Greta Thunberg has used her social media platform to push for global governments to stop using fossil fuels. She put it best when she spoke at the World Economic Forum in 2019:
“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people, to give them hope, but I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”
The 2017 report from the American Psychological Association also describes the mental health impacts of climate change for children. Within the report, Elizabeth Haase describes:
Children also develop symptoms because they fear losing control over an unknown future. Often obsessive-compulsive behaviors result, such as picking up every piece of garbage on the way to school or running relentlessly through “what if” scenarios. One young patient, terrified that climate ruin would leave him poisoned by toxins, developed a rigid nightly schedule of self-improvement to prepare and educate himself. Only by checking off every evening ritual could he ward off panic attacks and insomnia.
8 coping strategies for when it’s all too much
No matter your experience with eco-anxiety, there are plenty of ways you can take care of yourself so you can start feeling better.
1. Give yourself space to grieve
Allow yourself to feel whatever emotions you feel. The climate crisis is truly a tragedy, and any reactions you may have are valid.
Processing the feelings you experience in response to climate change will help inspire you to take action. We tend to focus on the issues that we care most about, so allowing your emotions to guide you will push you to work for a sustainable future.
2. Make changes in your personal life
Every small action helps create a more sustainable future for everyone. Start with things you know you can do better with- they’ll likely be your biggest source of guilt.
If you’re feeling guilty about your plastic waste, try replacing one bathroom or kitchen item with a zero-waste alternative. If you’re worried about your carbon footprint, see if you can buy renewable energy through your utility company.
3. Hold politicians accountable
Individual actions aren’t everything. It’s also important to advocate for change from your representatives, even if you didn’t vote for them.
A good place to start is by voting in every election. You can also write or call your representatives at the federal, state, and local levels. You can use a template or write your own letter focusing on the issues most important to you.
4. Go easy on yourself
While it’s important to take individual action, you can’t do everything perfectly. One of my favorite quotes on this topic is from Shelbizleee, a sustainable living influencer:
You cannot do all the good the world needs, but the world needs all the good you can do.
Remember that you alone didn’t cause climate change, and it’s not your sole responsibility to solve it.
5. Acknowledge what you’ve already done
Think about all the things you already do that help the planet. Maybe you’re feeling guilty because you drank coffee from a disposable cup. But what about the reusable water bottle you use every day?
Pat yourself on the back for the changes you’ve already made to your lifestyle. You might even consider keeping a journal about your sustainability journey to track your progress. Recognizing your hard work will recharge your batteries for all the work to come.
6. Find others with eco-anxiety
Talking with others about your experience can be a big help for eco-anxiety. It can feel isolating when many people continue “business as usual” in the face of a worldwide crisis.
7. Keep learning
There’s always more to learn! Keep posted on climate news and read more about what you can do.
Remember to keep a balance of positive and negative news- getting stuck on a doomscrolling spiral will just make you feel worse. Keeping tabs on uplifting news will help shield you from nihilism and apathy.
Sites like Ocean Optimism and Happy Eco News are a great place to start if you’re feeling hopeless. Find the right balance so you’re still ready to call for change but not too discouraged by bad news.
8. Share what you know
Share your sustainable living journey with friends and family! Talk about your new favorite zero waste toothpaste or share a meal made with farmer's market veggies.
Have conversations about climate change and what you’ve learned. Think of the domino effect- if you help three people be more sustainable, and they each help three more people… Suddenly you’ve made a big impact!
If you’re experiencing eco-anxiety, you’re not alone. Remember to take be kind to yourself, and keep doing what you can.