From rising sea levels and wildfires to sudden hurricanes and unusual droughts, the devastating impact of climate change has been felt across the planet. It has taken lives, homes, and livelihoods from millions of people, affecting every facet of their being.
But the impact of climate change on mental health has only come to light in recent times. And climate anxiety, in particular, has drawn much attention from researchers, scientists, and mental health practitioners because of the very real impact it is having on mental wellbeing.
So, what is climate anxiety?
The terms climate anxiety, eco-anxiety, and climate distress refer to the anxiety caused by a climate change-related event. It could result from experiencing such an event or could even be triggered by the threat of a potential climate catastrophe.
For example, the loss of personal property during a devastating climate-led event could be a traumatic experience for many people. But seeing the catastrophic impact of such an incident on others could also lead to increased distress.
And the impact of these on mental health could be quite severe. For example, a study that focused on individuals affected by the 2005 Hurricane Katrina shows some alarming results. Suicide and suicide ideation had increased by more than 100%, while 49% reported anxiety or a mood disorder such as depression.
According to the American Psychological Association, it’s not just the sudden environmental events such as hurricanes and wildfires that could cause climate anxiety. Even the long-term impacts of climate change could have a similar effect.
For example, increasing sea levels could force individuals to leave their hometowns and migrate to other areas. Prolonged droughts and changing weather patterns could affect the livelihood of farmers over time. And all these events could cause severe anxiety in the long term.
Those with a greater interest in environmental issues such as climate activists, conservationists, researchers, and scientists are also at high risk of experiencing climate change-related anxiety. This is primarily due to their intense awareness of growing threats and the frustrations experienced when convincing non-believers.
And climate change-related experiences could also affect children and adolescents. One study of 8- to 16-year-olds shows that the impact of climate change worried most of them. And two in five participants did not believe that adults would effectively tackle climate challenges.
Moreover, climate events can also intensify any existing conditions of non-environmental related anxiety. So, the overall impact of climate anxiety could be much severe than what appears at first glance.
Adaptive and Maladaptive Climate Anxiety
Climate anxiety could have adaptive or maladaptive responses. And understanding this distinction could help determine possible coping techniques.
For some people, climate-related distress could trigger adaptive responses. For example, it could lead to climate activism or rallying support to tackle a particular environmental issue.
More young people feeling anxious about environmental matters are choosing adaptive responses. Young climate activists such as Greta Thunberg are seen leading a growing movement of protests by children and adolescents. They are voicing their worries and demanding that adults make climate change a priority.
Maladaptive climate anxiety is associated with resisting change, taking a passive stand, or feeling unable to take action. Avoidance, denial, and helplessness could further intensify the symptoms of anxiety in the long term.
How can you deal with climate anxiety?
Climate anxiety could take a severe toll on physical and mental wellbeing as worry, fear, and grief overtake every facet of life with a crippling effect. So, addressing it is essential to ease the potentially devastating impact of climate-related distress.
Here are some important steps to manage the emotional impact of climate change.
- Learn to speak out —Suppressing climate worries with maladaptive responses could further worsen stress and anxiety. So, find outlets to express concerns — join a pro-environment movement, become a climate activist, create a voice on social media, or start a blog. If you are a parent, start the conversation on climate change at home and provide an outlet for your child to be heard.
- Focus on solutions — Take small steps to minimize your eco-footprint at an individual level. For example, preserve water and electricity, reduce food wastage, or opt to recycle. Start with actions specifically related to your source of anxiety.
- Find a support group — Climate anxiety is very real and is becoming a growing mental health concern all over the world. So, finding an eco-anxiety support group could help you access others who understand its impact. This will help you deal with climate anxiety in a supportive community environment.
- Avoid distressing climate news —Overly exposure to distressing news will only serve to worsen your worries and fears. So, avoid repetitive reminders of environmental issues, and instead, focus on making a change on one climate challenge at a time.
- Seek professional help — If you feel particularly overwhelmed, speak to a mental health professional. There are many advanced coping techniques to help effectively address eco-anxiety. Ecotherapy is one such emerging treatment method used to help overcome climate-related distress.
Climate change has had a devastating impact on millions of lives, causing irreversible damage and disruptions. Yet, its overwhelming impact on mental health — from severe trauma and grief to stress and anxiety — has largely gone unnoticed until recent times.
Mental health professionals and scientists are only just beginning to understand the crippling effects of climate-related distress. Undoubtedly, there is much more to learn. And what we’re seeing right now is only a prelude to what could follow.