Here's what climate anxiety is doing to our minds

Feelings of stress and dread over climate change are very common, and should probably be even more so.

A survey by Gumtree found that, of 2,000 British participants, 74% said they feel climate anxiety.

This anxiety is particularly strong among 18-24-year-olds, with 51% saying they felt they weren’t doing enough to be sustainable.

But what is living under this constant – and very justifiable – stress doing to our brains?

Broadcaster and author Britt Wray, who has a PhD in science communication, tells us climate change is ‘a kind of trauma that threatens our ability to feel safe in the world’.

‘It is a kind of existential pressure,’ she says. ‘It can manifest in many different ways, from very severe and chronic distress to fleeting feelings of worry and overwhelm that one cycles through.

‘It can affect one’s personal relationships, their ability to sleep or work, and the decisions one makes, like whether or not to have a child, or where to move to (in order to get out of the way of extreme weather events, like recurring wildfires, for example), what food to buy, and how to get around (no more flying or only electric cars).’

And these anxieties can manifest in a host of different ways.

Seattle-based therapist Andrew Bryant manages a site called Climate & Mind, which seeks to ‘explore how climate change impacts our thoughts, emotions, and behavior’. He tells us: ‘Everyone, I think, experiences [climate anxiety] differently. For some it can be nervous avoidance; for others, it can be manic action that can lead to burn-out.

‘Others experience it more as a depression about the world, a hopelessness and sense of defeat. Others get caught up in the news cycle and social media, constantly checking for the next piece of terrible news about the planet.

‘Many feel guilty for existing, for not doing more, for having kids, and so on. And many of us are simply in denial, which I think takes a lot of mental energy in itself.’

Counselling Directory member and eco-psychotherapist Tim McLoughlin tells us that feeling powerlessness is a big one for the clients who appear the most anxious about the climate

‘When someone feels powerless to stop what looks to be an impending catastrophe,’ he explains, ‘this arouses significant anxiety.

‘Some will become motivated to “do their bit” to help the situation. Though at first, this might seem laudable, it can lead to an even greater sense of frustration when they perceive others, including large corporations, as not doing enough.

‘Some clients dread, almost continually, a so-called “tipping point” which they view as signalling impending disaster and causes a background anxiety over which they feel they have little control. 

‘The size of the problem seems to affect some people differently. Some are able to “bracket” their worries but readily talk about it as they are aware that it is running in the back of their minds all the time.

‘Others who might choose to become more active in supporting green causes often find the political aspects both cathartic and a source of camaraderie so that their feelings are useful and shared with many others in their work or social network.’

Meanwhile, others might disassociate entirely.

Tim says: ‘There is an unwillingness to engage with the issue, due to the sheer enormity of it and the existential threat it presents.

‘This can sometimes manifest in a psychological shrugging of the shoulders, which can appear dismissive, though is perhaps more likely to be a defensive positioning.’ 

Britt, who also runs a newsletter all about ‘staying sane in the climate crisis’, tells us that ecoanxiety isn’t a disorder as much as an ‘appropriate type of distress’ given the current situation.

Counselling Directory member Kate Graham agrees, saying: ‘The challenge for our mental health is that while climate change anxiety is similar to other forms of anxiety – in terms of compulsive worrying, feeling powerless, frustrated and depressed – it is actually very different. 

‘Climate change is real, so while a troubled childhood, or greater sensitivity might increase levels of anxiety, they aren’t the cause of it: climate change cannot be argued away. For young people in particular this can lead to depression, despair, cynicism and apathy.

‘In fact, feeling worried about climate change is essentially a positive, healthy thing to do. It takes courage to come out from the relative safety of denial to be willing to make contact with this very difficult reality. However, some of us do find it harder than others to cope with such an apparently overwhelming fear.’

Andrew confesses that he experiences climate dread himself, but says it’s still hard to know exactly how many people suffer from ecoanxiety.

He says: ‘I am hoping there are people doing research on that as we speak, because it would be great to know. According to the Yale Program on Climate Communications, in the U.S. at least, 26% of those surveyed express alarm and 28% express concern about the climate. This is up significantly since 10 years ago.

‘I also think that climate anxiety manifests in different ways, so is hard to measure. I think it manifests in overt ways – such as, people saying they are worried about climate change; and subtle ways – such as in people’s avoidance and denial of the topic.’

‘I think we should all be more anxious. The fact that we are not is indicative of how hard it is to grapple with such a huge issue.’

But he also argues that this fear still needs to be functional.

‘The situation calls for fear because it raises questions about our existential safety and the health of our only home,’ says Andrew.

‘Hopefully fear, when dealt with, can lead to action.’

So what can people do for relief if they feel climate anxiety?

Andrew says: ‘I recommend that they allow themselves to feel their feelings, and not judge them or push them away.

‘Then I recommend that they talk with others about their feelings – it could be a friend, a therapist, a neighbour or a co-worker. This tends to help people feel less alone. Then I recommend that they find a group of some sort – and climate activism group, a climate support group, an outdoors group.

‘If there are none around, there are online resources, or they can form their own local “Climate Cafe” or “Climate Circle” (our website, Climate & Mind, has templates for such groups). Uniting with others who have common concerns can be inspiring.’

Britt agrees that connecting with others who feel similarly is a good way to go.

She tells us: ‘First and foremost, connect with others who are similarly awake to the severity of the threat humanity is now facing and can mirror your concerns.

‘Too often, people with climate anxiety feel isolated in their feelings since there are no social norms yet around how to discuss these psychological experiences of relating to what is happening to the earth (with family, friends, co-workers, etc). This sense of aloneness makes the distress much harder to deal with.

‘They can look for groups like the Good Grief Network, or emotionally intelligent friends and environmental groups where people know how to talk about – and sit in – these feelings.

‘When you connect with others who “get it”, you have more support in how you cope.’

She also says that ‘your awakening to the full extent of the crisis’ can get easier to deal with when you ‘learn how to mourn’.

‘Build some new forms of resilience,’ she adds, ‘and find some purpose from it all.’

When asked what the general public needs to understand about climate change above everything else, Andrew tells us: ‘At the most basic level, they need to know that it is real, and poses an existential threat to us (humans) as well as the ecosystem that sustains us.

‘They also need to know that it is not hopeless, and that there are things we can do collectively to slow the process down.’

When asked the same question, Britt says: ‘The world we grew up with is not the world that we are going to be able to hold onto.

‘Everything is changing due to climate change: food and water availability, the frequency of heatwaves and other extreme weather events, infectious disease, mental health problems, international conflict, gender equality, you name it. It touches everything, and it deepens existing injustices.

‘Our job is to face up to this fact, mourn what’s being lost and use the power of those feelings to move us into action, so we don’t forsake what can still be saved.’

Need support?

For emotional support you can call the Samaritans 24-hour helpline on 116 123, email [email protected], visit a Samaritans branch in person or go to the Samaritans website.

If you’re a young person, or concerned about a young person, you can also contact PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide UK. Their HOPELINK digital support platform is open 24/7, or you can call 0800 068 4141, text 07860039967 or email: [email protected] between the hours of 9am and midnight.

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