What is Climate Change Anxiety, and How Does it Impact Mental Health?

December 15, 2023   •  Posted in: 

There’s a new phenomenon in the mental health world called climate anxiety, also called eco-anxiety. Just like it sounds, climate anxiety causes someone to develop severe anxiety surrounding climate change and the future of planet Earth.

Although climate anxiety has many symptoms in common with other mental health conditions like generalized anxiety disorder, it’s important to note it is not a mental health condition and differs from generalized anxiety in many ways.

Symptoms of climate anxiety

Climate anxiety describes any fear or worry about climate change and increasingly dangerous weather conditions[1]. You might have different specific worries depending on where you live and who you are.

For example, someone living on the West Coast of the U.S. could have anxiety about increasing fire danger. Someone who works in agriculture could have anxiety about drought. Others have overarching worries about climate change in general. For example, you could worry about how inhabitable the world will be for your children or grandchildren.

Climate anxiety shares many symptoms with other anxiety disorders, like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) or panic disorder. Some of the most commonly observed signs and symptoms of climate anxiety include:

  • Excessive worries about climate change and other environmental issues that take up most or all of your time
  • Panic attacks
  • Loss of appetite
  • Difficulty sleeping (insomnia) due to worrying about the environment
  • Irritability and angry outbursts
  • Intrusive thoughts or excessive emotional distress about the risk of future natural disasters
  • Physical symptoms like stomach ache, shortness of breath, and racing heart
  • Feelings of overwhelming helplessness or despair about the future of the planet
  • Anxiety that gets in the way of everyday functioning, whether it’s at home, school, or work

It’s important to note that what we refer to as climate anxiety is not the same thing as worrying or being concerned about climate change.

Reports show that most people (over two-thirds) are concerned about the environment and global warming. Not all of those people live with climate anxiety. It’s expected to be somewhat concerned about our changing climate and what this might mean for our future.

But if this anxiety is constant for you and interferes with your daily functioning, then you might have climate anxiety.

Is climate anxiety a diagnosis?

Although climate anxiety is becoming more and more common in surveys and reports, it isn’t (yet) recognized as an official diagnosis in either the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM) or the mental disorders section of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

If you have climate anxiety, you’d likely be diagnosed with a different anxiety disorder like GAD.

Climate anxiety can also be a sign of another mental health condition called obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD around climate change might engage in repetitive or ritualistic behaviors to try to calm their intense anxiety around a specific intrusive thought. For example, they might become obsessed with the risk of contaminated water and test their water repeatedly for pollutants.

Who feels climate anxiety?

Anyone can feel climate anxiety, but reports show it’s more common in young people. Unsurprisingly, you’re also at higher risk if you tend to care more about environmental issues.

You may also be at higher risk of developing climate anxiety if you live with anxiety to begin with. When you’re already prone to anxiety, it makes sense these pre-existing worries start to revolve around climate change.

Race and culture also play a role, primarily because people in developing countries and those at an economic disadvantage are the ones who are most directly impacted by climate change. Rising temperatures may be more of an issue if you can’t afford air conditioning. Droughts may be more immediately concerning if you depend on your crops’ harvest to feed your family.

For example, one study found that a whopping 87% of the residents of Tuvalu, a Pacific island country at significant risk of being wiped out by climate change in the near future, experience climate anxiety so intensely it interferes with their daily functioning[2].

Despite BIPOC and people in the Global South being the most immediately impacted by climate change, some experts say the phenomenon of “climate anxiety” – turning these worries into a mental health concern – is an overwhelmingly white occurrence[3].

In general, however, climate anxiety doesn’t discriminate – just like any other mental health issue. There may be some things that put you at higher risk, but anyone can develop climate anxiety.

How to cope with climate anxiety

Again – being concerned about the environment is not the same thing as having climate anxiety. It’s normal, and can even be healthy, to be concerned. It’s a concerning issue – and a healthy level of worry can motivate us to act.

But any type of anxiety or panic, including climate anxiety, can be immobilizing. Excessive anxiety isn’t healthy for anyone, and it tends to block us (rather than motivate us) from taking meaningful action.

This begs an important question: How can we cope with climate anxiety when the dangers of climate change are genuine? This might look different from coping with other types of anxiety in which your fears may be very irrational. Climate anxiety is such a unique situation that even many therapists are stumped with how to deal with it.

For example, if you have social anxiety disorder, you might worry that everyone is laughing at you. Even if this fear is irrational and highly improbable, you continue to worry about it. Your therapist might help you to identify, challenge, and change these untrue thoughts to more accurate ones.

But in the case of climate anxiety, climate change is happening, and there is no way to deny that fact.

The Climate Psychology Alliance recommends that therapists “support individuals and communities to build strong containers that allow the expression and exploration of their emotions [about climate change] without collapsing under it or turning away.” Trying to get rid of climate anxiety might backfire[4].

Climate anxiety isn’t something you need to fix or make disappear. If you live with any level of climate anxiety, there are ways to cope while still honoring the worries you have about our planet. Here are three tips.

Be mindful of your feelings

Because climate anxiety is based on such real and frightening changes, it won’t work to try to “fix” or change it. Trying to push your feelings away may even make them stronger.

Instead, practice mindfulness of your emotions. What are you feeling, and where do you feel those emotions in your body? What are your triggers?

For example, you may notice your muscles tense when you read a news story about climate change or feel more irritable than usual when you see your family member using single-use plastics. Notice these sensations without judgment. You might say something like, “I’m feeling upset and anxious because this reminds me of climate change. It’s okay to feel this way, but permit myself to focus on other things.”

Practicing mindfulness can have the added benefit of keeping you rooted in the here and now instead of focusing too much on worries about the future. How can you balance your valid concerns about the planet’s future with enjoying the present moment?

Find small ways to take action

Don’t allow climate anxiety to paralyze you. It’s easy to start feeling pessimistic or helpless about climate change – like nothing you do will matter. And it’s true: You aren’t going to save the world on your own. But that doesn’t mean your actions are futile. You can find small but sustainable ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

Being personally proactive can help combat feelings of helplessness or despair you might feel due to climate anxiety.

Don’t overload yourself

At the same time, it’s also important not to go to extremes. Any type of extreme behavior can quickly become a sign of a mental illness like OCD. For example, avoid checking the news constantly or taking on activism responsibilities even when burnt out.

Everyone needs some time away from the media to avoid information overload. You don’t need to be connected constantly to make a difference. Notice when you’re feeling burnt out, and take breaks as necessary. One big sign you’re consuming too much media is when you consume, it makes you feel overwhelmed and helpless – rather than motivated and fired up.

Treatment for climate anxiety

Climate anxiety is different from other types of anxiety in many ways – the most important being there are rational worries about the planet’s future. But at the end of the day, if anxiety about anything – including climate change – is interfering with your daily functioning, then you could benefit from mental health treatment.

At The Center • A Place of HOPE, we use a unique Whole Person Care approach to mental health treatment that considers every aspect of your well-being. We understand mental illness isn’t just about your symptoms – so many facets of your life and environment play a role. Our team can help you understand climate change’s role in your emotional state and learn how to heal.

Schedule a call with us for more information about our treatment options.

1 – https://sustainability.yale.edu/explainers/yale-experts-explain-climate-anxiety
2 – https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32485590/
3 – https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-unbearable-whiteness-of-climate-anxiety/
4 – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8499625/

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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