Last year, before the coronavirus disrupted daily life in ways we couldn’t have even imagined, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg dominated the 24-hour news cycle with her grim and strong-willed call-to-action to combat climate change. Armed with harrowing statistics at the U.N. Climate Action Summit, she demanded action from heads of state, presidents, and other prominent world leaders.
Her September 2019 global climate strike involved more than 4 million people, becoming the largest climate demonstration in history. She was named Time’s 2019 Person of the Year.
“I want you to panic,” Thunberg said at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.”
People worldwide like Thunberg are harboring fear over the effects of climate change. Mounting research confirms that we cannot dismiss the realities of these unprecedented changes, leading many to feel climate anxiety — the fear that the current system is pushing the Earth beyond its ecological limits.
Beyond climate anxiety, psychologists are now seeing an increase in trauma caused by experiencing climate-related disasters. Storms, wildfires, and droughts impact millions physically, while leaving a lasting impact on mental well-being.
Coping with climate anxiety starts by understanding the facts, followed by developing the skills to cope, in order to then inspire change.
Validate the Problem
Throughout history, the Earth’s climate has changed. So what’s different about climate change in the 21st century? It’s the fact that it’s extremely likely that warming trends are due to human activity, and at a rate never seen before according to NASA. Experts point to rising global temperatures, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, extreme weather events, ocean acidification, and more as proof points for the reality of global climate change and the need to act.
Dr. Patrick Kennedy-Williams, a clinical psychologist from Oxford, has noticed a growing level of environment-related stress and anxiety in people of all ages, including young children like his own.
“My own daughter was just six when she came to me and said: ‘Daddy, are we winning the war against climate change?’ and I was just flummoxed by that question in the moment,” he told The Guardian.
To begin addressing your anxiety, acknowledge the reality of this large-scale problem and validate your feelings about it. Believing that your concerns are warranted is a key aspect of acceptance and determining how to move forward. You may still have feelings that aren’t fully justified, but removing internal judgement and choosing acceptance will help you better understand yourself and pave a healthy path forward.
Understand Your Triggers
In our digital world, it’s challenging to tune out and escape the negativity that can trigger feelings of anxiety. Social media is a powerful force for sharing important facts and making a difference, but the constant influx of information may leave you feeling overwhelmed. Consider intermittent “social media fasts” that let you recharge in the real world before re-engaging across your various channels. If national news outlets spur anxious thoughts, consider limiting your screen time overall and diving into another topic via a good book or podcast.
Overthinking, in general, can lead to a spiral effect that leads to anxiety. Ruminative thoughts are words or experiences that play over and over in your mind. It could be a soundbite with especially jarring details about the future of our Earth, or a specific conversation you had with a climate change skeptic that has you anxious about your peers’ lack of understanding. Try these strategies for overthinking and then try to reframe how you view the problem. By looking at the problem constructively, you can slow down the spiral effect of overthinking.
There are many elements of modern life that can cause anxiety beyond climate change, so pay attention to what precedes or precipitates your anxious feelings in order to understand how to address those triggers.
Develop Coping Skills
The right coping skills vary by individual, so it’s best to have a variety of tools and options available to you. Many of the same recommendations for treating generalized anxiety disorder apply. A licensed therapist can help guide you through these techniques or recommend other strategies for coping with your climate change anxiety.
Grounding techniques can help you reconnect to the present if you’re experiencing a panic attack, PTSD flashback, or distressing emotion. They help separate you from the distress caused by your emotional state or situation.
Talkspace therapist Joanna Filidor, LMFT says, “Grounding techniques are tools used to self-regulate in moments of stress and anxiety. They serve as gentle reminders to stay focused and anchored in the present moment, which is what helps reduce the feelings of anxiety and overwhelm.”
Mindful distractions like talking to a loved one or physical approaches like boxed breathing or light stretches can be effective.
Meditation or yoga can help calm your thoughts, while journaling can provide a healthy outlet for expressing your concerns and hopes for the future.
Find Your Role
One of the most powerful ways to cope with anxiety is to channel those feelings into action. In the case of climate change anxiety, this could mean making daily choices that limit your carbon footprint like driving less or taking public transit (when that’s a safe a viable option again), eating less meat, or minimizing food waste. It could also mean joining local or national organizations committed to supporting widespread action or simply making a financial donation.
Even if you’re not Jeff Bezos, who recently committed $10 billion to fight climate change, you can still make a difference, while simultaneously coping with climate anxiety.
For Oxford psychologist Dr. Kennedy-Williams, addressing climate anxiety and the climate crisis is linked.
“The positive thing from our perspective as psychologists is that we soon realized the cure to climate anxiety is the same as the cure for climate change – action. It is about getting out and doing something that helps,” he notes. Remember that choosing to acknowledge your climate anxiety, develop coping mechanisms, and advocate for change is a valuable combination.
“Record and celebrate the changes you make. Nobody is too small. Make connections with other people and at the same time realize that you are not going to cure this problem on your own. This isn’t all on you and it’s not sustainable to be working on solving climate change 24/7,” he said.
Your climate anxiety can be a motivator to help the greater good. If you continuously struggling, reach out to an online therapist today.