Headlines appear in the news about the latest natural disaster tied to the effects of climate change nearly every day, such as Yellowstone National Park’s flooding and Lake Mead’s shrinking water levels. The impact of climate change is only expected to worsen, and large portions of the public report feeling distressed about their future.
Studies have shown that about two-thirds of Americans experience “climate anxiety.” This form of anxiety, caused by climate change-related fears, is pervasive among younger people who will see many of the effects of climate change in their lifetimes.
Traditionally, combatting anxiety can mean going to therapy, meditating, and exercising more, according to mental health experts. However, climate anxiety is a creature of its own. While conquering generalized anxiety is a personal journey, experts say communities must unite to defeat this mental health threat.
Sarah Jaquette Ray, a professor of environmental studies at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, tells Popular Science that climate anxiety isn’t the same as generalized anxiety. Climate anxiety connects to a threat that affects us all, though in unique ways.
She says one crucial way is for people to discuss their feelings about climate change cooperatively. One way communities can do this is through support groups. Several organizations, such as the Good Grief Network and Climate Awakening, have methods and programs that allow people to come together and work through climate-related anxiety. There are also online tools for starting your own climate support group for your workplace or community through the All We Can Save project. Resources also exist to connect people to climate-aware therapists.
“I would like to see collective therapy,” Ray says. “The causes of stress and the causes angst are in fact social and political, therefore the arena that the solutions need to happen in and the services need to happen in ought to be at the collective level as a way to get people to simultaneously address their emotional distress and also build the kind of structures that are going to be needed to adapt to and mitigate climate change.”
Ray authored a 2020 book called “A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety,” which goes in-depth on the causes and potential solutions to climate anxiety. She says that one of the best ways for people to handle their climate anxiety is to take climate action. Feeling like they’re part of a group doing something about the problem can provide relief to an anxious individual and build a community of similarly climate-minded individuals.
“The vast majority of Americans care about climate change and are worried about climate change but just don’t know what to do about it,” Ray says. “They feel like it’s such a big problem that they have no way of controlling it, and that can make them completely check out. A different story needs to be told that what you do matters, and you can get a sense of purpose from it. You can build community while you do it, and it’s happening all over the place.”
Research has shown that young people who engage in climate activism or join environmental organizations tend to be less anxious about climate change. Ray adds that people involved in these collective actions are more capable of helping fight climate change because they are experiencing less anxiety about it.
“The mental health of a populace is necessary for significant climate action and social change,” Ray says. “The fact that people are mentally despairing actually increases their ineffectiveness. If we’re going to be effective in dealing with this stuff, we need to actually have our mental health intact.”
If you aren’t feeling anxious about climate change but know someone who is, there are a few ways to be effective in helping them. First, Ray says, don’t tell those experiencing it that climate change is not a problem they can solve and to just not worry about it. This type of advice is called “toxic positivity,” when someone hears to stay positive regardless of their circumstances and feelings. Being told to “think positively” can have detrimental effects on anxiety patients.
“I think there’s a real need to accept the fact that this is going to involve some pretty uncomfortable emotions and learn the skills needed for dealing with those emotions,” Ray says.
On a grander scale, governments and other big players can do two things to help with a climate anxiety crisis: do more to solve climate change and fund mental health programs. A significant source of this anxiety comes from people feeling like not enough is being done to address the issue. But considering the climate will continue to get worse no matter how quickly governments act, people will still need support.
If you’re finding yourself depressed or anxious about climate change, you aren’t alone. Luckily, chapters of existing climate organizations like 350.org or the Sunrise Movement are worldwide. Getting involved, talking to other people struggling with climate anxiety, and using those emotions to push for real change can help heal and strengthen your mind.