Got Eco-Anxiety? Here’s How to Manage Climate Despair

Does the state of our planet make you feel anxious, hopeless, and helpless? You may have eco-anxiety. Here's how to turn your environmental worry into something more encouraging.

According to a 2020 poll by the American Psychiatric Association (APA), more than 67% of American adults surveyed felt moderate or extreme anxiety about the impact of climate change on the planet and 55% responded that they were “somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change on their own mental health.” 

While there is currently no set phrase to label these types of worry, some mental health professionals have begun to coin a term to describe these planetary and climate anxieties: Eco-anxiety. 

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What is eco-anxiety?

“Eco-anxiety is used to refer to negative emotions experienced in the face of environmental problems, particularly grief, anxiety, or hopelessness,” says Susan Clayton, psychology chair at the College of Wooster in Wooster, OH, conservation psychologist, and an expert on how climate change affects emotional well-being.

Charlie Kurth, a fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies and Professor of Philosophy at Western Michigan University, elaborates, explaining that mental health professionals, and their related organizations and associations, are still working out what precisely eco-anxiety means. “There’s no settled definition of eco-anxiety,” Kurth says. “But, in broad brushstrokes, we can understand it as the anxiety or unease that we experience in the face of ecological crises like climate change. Some people offer more fraught definitions—for instance, the American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as ‘chronic fear of environmental doom.’ I, and others, don’t like this way of thinking about eco-anxiety because it makes the emotion seem like a pathology and, in so doing, overlooks the ways that eco-anxiety can be an appropriate—even valuable—response to climate change and related challenges.”

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While there still may be no official consensus on what exactly eco-anxiety is and its impacts on mental health, several studies show that climate related anxiety is top of mind for a many people. In a 2019 poll run by the APA, more than half of participants said climate change is the most pressing issue currently facing society. And the APA and other organizations note that eco-anxiety can lead to several clinical disorders, including:

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How do you know if you have eco-anxiety?

To put it simply, Clayton says, if you are anxious about the state of the natural environment, you have eco-anxiety to some extent. “I think if people notice that they are having a negative reaction to another story about environmental damage or anti-environmental policies, or another image of environmental destruction—a sense that it is all accumulating and a feeling of Oh no, not another one—that may signal eco-anxiety,” Clayton says. “But it’s not necessarily bad, and it’s certainly appropriate, to feel something like this.”

The symptoms of eco-anxiety can vary depending on the person, says Kristi White, PhD a clinical psychologist in Minnesota who has treated patients experiencing it. “For an individual whose community is disproportionately impacted by climate change, eco-anxiety may reflect distress about experiencing the health impacts of pollution and exposure to environmental toxins,” White says. “For someone else, eco-anxiety may show up as fear about surviving climate change-related disasters. For yet another person, eco-anxiety may lead to difficulty in making a decision about whether to start a family.”

White says signs of eco-anxiety can include worry, preoccupation, difficulty with decision-making, difficulty sleeping, helplessness, hopelessness, and fear and worry about an unknown future. It can range from mild, in which you worry about it from time to time, to severe, which could even involve thoughts of self-harm.

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How to manage climate anxiety

White says the same coping techniques that are used for anxiety in general can help with climate anxiety.

“I am particularly in favor of a specific approach called acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT),” she says. “What I like about this treatment approach is that the goal is to help people engage in meaningful action while accepting the difficult, and often painful, emotions that go along with doing so.”

For example, I have to accept my discomfort that the future is unknown, while also knowing that there are things that I can do to help make a difference.

Empowering yourself to take action and learning to view difficult emotions as inherently valuable, not something to be avoided, can be a helpful way to address eco-anxiety and the climate crisis itself.

“Given that anxiety is an appropriate response to the impacts of climate change and that meaningful action is what we need, ACT is a nice framework for addressing this concern, and the patients I have worked with on this concern have responded well and benefited from this approach,” White says.

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Don’t despair

Another strategy may be to avoid catastrophizing or believing the worst will happen—even though the state of the planet does seem to be an actual catastrophe. But experiencing this level of climate despair isn’t helpful to you, or the environment.

“Despair sounds pretty serious,” Clayton says. “Sometimes it might help to get some more specific information; we often overgeneralize about environmental catastrophe, and it might not be quite as bad as our first response, such as ‘we’re all doomed,’ might suggest. Accurate information can help us to feel a greater sense of control.”

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Despair might also be a self-fulfilling prophecy; whereas finding hope can actually help you be a more effective champion for the environment. “Our research also shows the importance of hope,” says Edward Maibach, PhD, MPH, a communication scientist at the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication in Fairfax, VA. “People who are more hopeful that we can make a difference in addressing climate change are much more likely to take helpful actions than people who have less hope.”

Another way to maintain hope is to remind yourself of good things that people are doing or about promising new technological developments, Clayton says. Seeking out positive information and good news like this can help.

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Take action

Once you have more information, you can strategize a plan for how you can contribute to helping the planet…which can in turn lead to greater feelings of resilience.

“Doing something, whether it means preparing for a problem or trying to do something to mitigate it, can be important in changing a person’s position from passive to active, and contribute to resilience in that way,” Clayton says.

The APA’s report on climate change and mental health says lifestyle changes like biking, walking, or taking public transportation to work can reduce stress levels. Plus, making small diet changes diet changes, like switching to a mostly plant-based diet, is one of the best things you can do for the planet.

Again, worrying about the Earth’s future isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Maibach says his group’s research shows that how worried people are about climate change is strongly associated with how likely they are to take helpful actions. “The advice that I give to myself is: Stop worrying and just do the work—the work that is necessary to fix the problem,” he says. “Taking action is therapeutic.”

Kurth agrees that in some ways, experiencing eco-anxiety can help steer us in the right direction when it comes to making decisions about how we should act to encourage a more earth-friendly future. In a 2022 review Kurth co-authored, he writes about the potential benefits of a specific type of eco-anixety he coined, which he calls practical eco-anxiety. “Practical eco-anxiety can be a deeply valuable emotional response to threats like climate change,” Kurth and his co-author wrote in the review. “When experienced at the right time and to the right extent, practical eco-anxiety not only reflects well on one’s moral character but can also help advance individual and planetary wellbeing.”

Kurth says that generally speaking, he thinks that practical eco-anxiety shows us the good side of this eco-emotion. “Based on my research, practical eco-anxiety helps us. It helps us appreciate that we face an important, and worrisome, choice or issue, and gets us to think more about what the right decision is.”

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Connect with like-minded people

Clayton suggests making connections with a group of concerned individuals who are also committed to the cause. “That reassures people that their concerns are legitimate, and provides an avenue for talking about them,” she says.

This could also lead to taking collective action to deal with the issue in some way, helping you feel more empowered as well as providing social contacts and an outlet for your feelings.

Further, finding a group of others with similar concerns can make you realize you’re not alone in your climate anxiety. “Everyone working to address the climate crisis feels eco-anxiety—everyone,” Maibach says. “The best thing about working to address the climate crisis, as a job or as a volunteer, is the inspiring people you meet who are also doing the work. Working with these inspiring people is incredibly therapeutic.”

You can get involved by supporting organizations committed to ecological causes, lobbying for regulations and laws that protect the environment, or volunteering for political campaigns that support protective policies.

Women chatting while working in greenhouseLuis Alvarez/Getty Images

Remember self-care

White likens self-care to tending a garden: You cannot have a life that flourishes without healthy soil—and you are the soil, she says. “By taking care of yourself, you can remain engaged and more effectively take meaningful action,” she says. Start with your basic needs: “Make sure you’re getting adequate sleep, eating healthy foods, moving your body, and engaging in restorative practices.”

Clayton agrees that self-care helps us to stay more effective in the long run. “Like anything else, we need to balance it out. A life that contains multiple different roles—parent, activist, worker, friend—is healthier than one dominated by a single role or concern,” she says.

Finding ways to de-stress, such as spending time in a natural setting, might help you recharge. It’s OK if you’re not focused on the environment 24/7, and in fact, may be better that way. “When our demands exceed our resources, it becomes very stressful and is difficult to cope,” Dr. White says. “Do your best to spread out, limit, and decrease the demands, and restore and increase your resources as much as possible. Balance is key.”

Tackle multiple needs at once

White suggests putting your time to good use by choosing an Earth-friendly activity that eases eco-anxiety in several ways. “It can be very helpful to focus efforts on ‘high-impact’ coping strategies that tackle multiple needs at once.”

For example, participating in community gardening can provide physical activity, support for locally grown produce, contact with nature, and connection with the community,” she says. “These types of high-impact coping strategies give you more bang for your buck.”

Take a break from bad news

Although we want to stay informed, it can be hard not to go down the rabbit hole of negative news stories on the internet, as well as fighting against misinformation and climate change deniers on social media. “It is important to set limits on how much you consume the constant barrage of bad news—set a time limit for your ‘doom-scrolling,'” White says. “Otherwise, you spend more of your time chasing the anxiety instead of doing something useful about it.”

It doesn’t mean you don’t care or are being complacent if you recognize what you can handle. “People who are really overwhelmed might need to detach from the issue, for example by taking a media break,” Clayton says.

But this doesn’t mean you should permanently stick your head in the sand—this will just cause your worries to fester. “Be wary of the seductive effects of avoidance,” White says. “Avoidance, while it may provide some short-term anxiety relief, only exacerbates anxiety in the long run. It’s important to learn the skills for how to effectively combat avoidance, which can be done with the help of a trained mental health professional.”

When to seek professional help

If your eco-anxiety feels all-consuming, you may need help from a therapist, counselor, or psychologist to help you implement these strategies.

“You should seek professional help if your anxiety is starting to interfere with your ability to live your life: If you can’t sleep, or concentrate, or enjoy yourself, or effectively do your work, or if you find yourself frequently crying or having nightmares,” Clayton says.

Remember that help is out there if you need it. “If the anxiety is so overwhelming that you are unable to function, or it is causing significant impairment, call your doctor and request help with getting connected to a mental health professional or community support,” White says.

A trained professional can assess your individual situation and help you come up with the best strategies to ease your eco-anxiety. (Here’s how to get online therapy for mental health.)

If you or someone you know has had thoughts of self-harm, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by dialing 988 or 1-800-273-8255, which provides free, confidential support for people in distress around the clock.

Additional writing and reporting by Jennifer Huizen.

Sources
Medically reviewed by Ashley Matskevich, MD, on December 04, 2020

Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a writer, editor, and blogger who writes about health and wellness, travel, lifestyle, parenting, and culture. Her work has been published online in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, and Parents, among others. Chosen by Riverhead Books and author Elizabeth Gilbert, her writing appears in the anthology Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It: Life Journeys Inspired by the Bestselling Memoir. Tina was previously editor-in-chief of TWIST magazine, a celebrity news title for teen girls with an emphasis on health, body image, beauty, and fashion.