Eco anxiety: how climate change might affect your mental health

12 January 2021 | Aimee Tweedale

We all know that spending time in nature can be a mood booster – so it makes sense that climate change can also have an impact on your mental health.

Living in a world of constant negative headlines and fear for the future can take its toll. In the US, a study by Yale in 2018 found that 62% of Americans were at least “somewhat worried” about climate change, with 21% (or one in 5) describing themselves as “very worried”1.

So: what are eco anxiety and climate grief, and how can we treat these new mental health problems? Read on to find out more about the effects of climate change on mental health, and how to protect yours.

How does climate change affect people’s mental wellbeing?

The impact of climate change on mental health can show up in lots of ways – from the obvious, to the not-so-obvious. 

Those who’ve experienced firsthand the effects of the climate crisis near their homes may of course experience shock and trauma in the aftermath of a natural disaster like a flood or fire. After the Australian bushfires in 2020, for instance, the Australian government spent $76 million on counselling for people affected2.

There are also more subtle – but still very difficult – effects of climate change on mental health. As we read dire news headlines every day, it’s understandable that many of us feel a sense of climate anxiety, grief for our natural world, and a feeling that more bad things could happen in the future.

There are no concrete statistics about how many of us suffer from climate change anxiety – but it’s enough of a worry that the psychology and psychotherapy community has written a lot about it. A leading report produced by the American Psychological Association in 2017 noted: “Whether experienced indirectly or directly, stressors to our climate translate into impaired mental health that can result in depression and anxiety.”

Of course, living with knowledge of the climate crisis can be tough, but we need to talk about it more – not less. If you’re looking for ways to talk about the environment without making it too heavy, read our guide to talking to children about the climate crisis.

What is eco anxiety?

Eco anxiety is a term you might have heard a lot in the media in recent years. It’s not an official medical condition – instead, it’s a general phrase to describe a feeling of anxiety or distress related to the climate crisis. 

Someone with eco anxiety might feel constantly worried about things that might happen in the future because of climate change – to the point where they can’t sleep, or focus on other tasks. This can be especially common among people who work or campaign around the issue of climate change on a regular basis, but you might also get the same problem from simply reading a lot of news reports about our changing world. 

It’s important to remember that eco anxiety is a totally normal response to the scale of the problem we’re facing. What’s key is that we don’t bury those feelings of anxiety, or let them overwhelm us. Instead, let’s figure out how to act on them.

How to deal with eco anxiety

In a brilliant TED Talk about how to turn climate anxiety into action, researcher Renee Lertzmann talks about the importance of the “window of tolerance”. This idea, coined by Dr Dan Siegel in 1999, refers to the sweet spot between being totally numb, and totally overwhelmed. 

Basically, it’s good to feel a bit of eco anxiety, because that can motivate us to act – but we mustn’t get so overwhelmed by those feelings that we can’t act on them. So while you should stay informed about climate change and what you can do about it, remember to also take steps to take care of yourself, and not let your symptoms of anxiety become too severe.

So how can you cope with eco anxiety? The same way you cope with any anxiety symptoms. Mindfulness, physical exercise, and breathing exercises are a good place to start. But as with any mental health condition, if you feel it’s making a significant impact, it’s a good idea to seek the advice of a medical professional.

Once you’ve established a few good habits, you’ll be in a good place to begin taking action to fight climate change. You could start with these easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint, for instance.

What is climate grief?

Climate grief is the feeling of loss associated with seeing our world change because of global warming. You might feel climate grief as a result of biodiversity loss, or a change in your local environment, or daily life. Or you might feel what’s called anticipatory grief, as you think about losses that may come in the future.

Grief is one word for a whole host of different emotions. People who are grieving might feel anger, sadness, hopelessness, or disbelief. Grief is just the tip of the iceberg.

How to deal with climate grief

As with eco anxiety, it’s important not to let climate grief become so stifling that it stops us from acting. But feeling our grief is a good thing. It’s only natural to feel sad or despondent when we think about some of the realities of climate change and our changing world. 

Working through feelings of grief involves several different stages, including shame, sadness, anger, and acceptance – but these stages don’t follow the same order for everyone. What’s most important is to work through those emotions in whatever order they come. Then we can get to work.

Psychologist Steffi Bednarek writes: “If we allow the grief underneath our numbness to touch us, we can bring our exiled humanity back home and become more intimate with the state of the world.”

What is solastalgia?

Solastalgia is a more specific form of climate grief. The term was coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2005, as a combination of the words for “solace”, and “algos” (Greek for “pain”).

It describes the particular feeling of distress, loss, or sadness that comes from seeing environmental changes around your home. If you’ve seen floods or fires change the landscape near your home, or you’ve observed changes in the wildlife that come to your back garden, you might be feeling a bit of solastalgia. It’s a bit like nostalgia for nature.

10 tips to protect your mental health

10 tips to protect your mental health in the fight against climate change

  1. Spend time in nature: nature itself really is the best salve when you’re feeling disconnected or afraid. Check out our guide to the mental health benefits of forest bathing.
  2. Get involved in gardening and restoring nature: rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck into nature has the dual effect of making you feel happier, and healing some of the effects of climate change. There are so many benefits to tree planting, whether you do it at home or in your community. If you’re interested, check out how to volunteer with our tree planting partners I Dig Trees.
  3. Meet with other climate activists: spending time talking with other people who are feeling the same way as you can be a great way to lower anxiety, and build a sense of community. Try attending an online climate cafe, to meet like-minded activists.
  4. Talk to friends and family about climate change: when it comes to climate change, the biggest influence you can have is in your immediate circle of friends, family, and colleagues. Tell them about your fears – they’re more likely to listen to you than to the news. Plus, they’ll be able to lend emotional support.
  5. Protest, and demand action from politicians: there are lots of campaigns and activist groups you can get involved with, to help bring about major change.
  6. Make climate change a factor in your personal decisions: making sure your actions align with your values is a great way to deal with anxiety or guilt about climate change. Take whatever steps you can manage – whether it’s switching your bank account, changing your shopping habits, switching your energy supplier, or making your home more energy efficient.
  7. But remember to give yourself a break: everybody needs to relax sometimes! Make sure you allow yourself some time to think about things other than climate change, and have fun. While it’s important to take whatever steps you can, remember that dwelling on excessive guilt and shame won’t fix the climate crisis – it’s not all on you. 
  8. Take care of your physical health: mental health goes hand in hand with physical health, so make sure to take care of your body, too. Even better if you can get out for a run or walk in the great outdoors!
  9. Learn more about coping with grief: if you’re feeling climate grief right now, you might find that learning about grief therapy can be helpful to you. The activist group Extinction Rebellion often hosts grief workshops, and there are resources that can teach you more online.
  10. Get professional help if you need it: remember you don’t have to suffer alone. If you feel like your anxiety or depression is affecting your everyday life, reach out for help.

Are you trying to be more eco-conscious in 2021? Here’s some suggestions for greener New Year’s Resolutions, and how to cut down on the carbon footprint of your internet use.

And if you've ever wondered why us Brits are so obsessed with the weather, learn all the intriguing answers in our blog.

If you’re looking for greener home energy, consider switching to OVO for 100% renewable electricity3. Plus: we’ll plant a tree for every year you’re with us.

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