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Environment

Climate crisis: How to cope with eco-anxiety

Does worrying about climate change keep you up at night? Growing numbers of people are struggling with eco-anxiety, or distress about the state of the planet. If you're one of them, these expert tips might help.

A climate activist has tears drawn on her face

Research has shown that young people in many countries are suffering from climate anxiety

Shrinking ice caps, disappearing biodiversity, fiercer bushfires, heat waves and flash floods. The effects of climate change are difficult to ignore.

These disasters not only cause immense physical destruction. A growing body of evidence shows they're also taking a toll on our mental health.

Listen to audio 48:55

Do you have climate anxiety?

Researchers say eco-anxiety is rising, especially among members of younger generations who report feeling distressed and overwhelmed by the state of the environment.

In a major study of young people aged 16 to 25 published in The Lancet last year, 75% said the "future is frightening" and more than half said "humanity is doomed."

Of the 10,000 respondents across 10 countries, 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their ability to function in daily life.

Eco-anxiety, or climate anxiety, covers a range of responses to climate change, from fear about the future, to shame and guilt over consumption, to anger and grief over what has and will be lost.

So if you find yourself grappling with these feelings, what should you do?

Recognize that difficult emotions are normal

In the Lancet study, more than 50% of young people reported feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty about climate change.

Liz Marks, co-lead author of the study and a senior lecturer in psychology at the UK's University of Bath, said a first step in dealing with these emotions is to acknowledge that they are a natural and healthy response to an existential threat.

"When talking about eco-anxiety, it's important not to pathologize it," she said. "It isn't something we need to cure or get rid of. It's much more about how we can live with it so it doesn't overwhelm us."

A fire truck in a bushfire in Australia

Fires and heat waves are expected to get more intense as a result of climate change

According to Marks, that means "giving ourselves and other people space to feel what we're feeling, whether that be grief or anger or fear or anxiety, and also recognizing that these feelings will come and go. Even in the worst moments of feeling very overwhelmed, emotions are things that change."

She also says although they are stressful, these feelings can be "a really beautiful part of your humanity," and a positive sign that someone is engaged and cares deeply about the planet, other species and people around the world.

Connect with other people

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the climate crisis, it can help to seek out communities in real life or on social media and share your thoughts with like-minded people, said climate coaching psychologist Megan Kennedy-Woodard.

"It is really wonderful because there are these communities where people can see: 'actually so much is happening here. I don't feel like this is all on my shoulders,' or 'this person is talking about grief and I was feeling it today, and it's normal and it's OK that I'm feeling that'," said Kennedy-Woodard, who is also co-director of the group Climate Psychologists.

An array of groups offering support to people struggling with eco-anxiety have popped up around the world in recent years. There are climate cafes, for example, or NGOs such as the Good Grief Network, which has a 10-step program that, according to its website, aims to "metabolize collective grief, eco-anxiety, and other heavy emotions" to help people build resilience.

A polar bear covering its face

Eco-anxiety can also mean struggling with guilt over humanity's impact on the planet

Take a break from the climate crisis

There's no shortage of gloomy news stories about species loss and natural disasters. If you're someone engaged with environmental issues, your social media feeds might be full of them.

Liz Marks says it's important to prioritize your well-being and take a break from media that causes distress.

"This isn't about pushing it away completely," she said. "You might want to remain informed, but perhaps it's about reducing the frequency and amount of time you spend reading about the climate crisis and trying to choose reliable information sources that aren't going to cause a huge spike in anxiety."

She stressed that while mindfulness is no cure for climate change, it can help relieve stress, along with regular exercise and activities that allow you to feel calm and connected to others.

Clinical psychologist Patrick Kennedy-Williams, the other co-director of Climate Psychologists, agreed that self-care is vital. "We're all in this for the long run and we have to be able to get satisfaction and enjoyment from our lives despite this crisis ... It's OK to enjoy yourself."

If the anxiety gets to a point where it affects your life, work and relationships on a daily basis, however, it's advisable to seek professional help, he added.

Patrick Kennedy-Williams and Megan Kennedy-Woodard

Patrick Kennedy-Williams and Megan Kennedy-Woodard work with people who are struggling with climate anxiety

Turn anxiety into action

Studies show eco-anxiety is more prevalent in young people, many of whom feel older generations and governments are failing to respond to the climate crisis.

Marks said taking actions, however small, to combat environmental destruction, for example, can help overcome a sense of powerlessness many young people face.

"Their eco-anxiety is less overwhelming when they feel they're doing something about it," she said. "How can you make a difference in a way that works for you? Some people have very little time, very little resources, but can still make a difference. That could be anything from engaging in green behaviors like recycling ... to writing [to] MPs."

Parents of children with eco-anxiety could perhaps plan a family activity, such as a local cleanup day, said Kennedy-Williams.

"It's the uncertainty that drives a lot of fear and anxiety in kids," he said. "So if they if they feel like they can play their part … it's incredibly relieving of anxiety."

It can also help to emphasize positive, solution-based climate news rather than only negative developments.

"Look at how we all took action to begin closing the hole in the ozone layer, banning CFCs and so on. There are wonderful examples," he added.

All three psychologists stress that while it is important to be hopeful and build optimism, it's not up to individuals to solve the crisis — a burden that can stoke guilt and anxiety in itself.

"This isn't the problem of the individual. We are all part of a system. It's the wider systems that have created this," said Kennedy-Woodard.

Edited by: Tamsin Walker 

For more about eco-anxiety and the impact of the climate crisis on mental health, listen to On the Green Fence.

Correction, April 21, 2022: A previous version of this article misspelled the name of Megan Kennedy-Woodard. DW apologizes for the error.

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