Around the world, awareness and concern about the escalating effects of climate change have grown substantially even in just the past 3–5 years. For many people, this awareness can turn into acute and sometimes even debilitating feelings of anxiety.
Says Dr Daniel N. Alvarez Núñez, Coordinator of the Master in Neuropsychology at CETYS University, Mexicali Campus: ‘The American Psychological Association (APA) describes this type of anxiety as the chronic fear of suffering an environmental cataclysm that occurs when observing the apparently irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for the future of oneself and future generations. The development of these mental health problems can occur even if people have not directly experienced the direct effects of climate change.’ It’s vital to be aware of the impacts of climate anxiety and how to combat it.
The realities of climate change
Even though there are still thought leaders who argue against the validity or scope of climate change, the evidence is becoming steadily more difficult to ignore. The real consequences of climate change will affect more and more people as they intensify.
In just one form of climate change’s effects, more than 39 million people were affected by natural disasters in 2018 alone. That number is set to steadily increase as droughts, wildfires, storms, hurricanes, and other natural phenomena show signs of increasing strength and severity. Why does climate change anxiety exist? Because climate change is affecting our worldwide reality. Here is what you need to know to face it.
Identifying Experiences of Climate Anxiety
For many sufferers, climate anxiety is a form of chronic fear. ‘Chronic fear induces stress, depression, and anxiety; strain[s] social and community relationships; and [has] been linked to increases in aggression, violence, and crime,# explained Dr Marina Alvelais Alarcón, Dean of Psychology and Coordinator of the Masters in Neuropsychology at CETYS University. ‘People experience intense feelings of grief as people suffer climate-related losses to valued species, ecosystems and landscapes. Worries about storms, wildfires, and droughts are common.’
In order to deal with climate anxiety, both in ourselves and in others, we first have to be able to identify it. Dr Alarcón continues by sharing common symptoms associated with the experience of climate anxiety. These may include feeling overwhelmed or powerless; experiences of depression; the presence of unhealthy coping mechanisms making their way into one’s routines; nightmares about climate change; concerns about climate change interfering with fun activities; and more. If you or someone you are close to has experienced these symptoms, and especially if you or someone you know has experienced multiple at once or at high levels of severity or frequency, it is very likely that those experiences could indicate the presence of climate anxiety.
Proactive steps for coping with climate anxiety
A number of steps can be implemented to help combat an experience of climate anxiety:
- Prioritise healthy sleep patterns. ‘It can be very difficult to put anxieties into perspective when we are extraordinarily tired or groggy,’ stated Dr Nathaniel N. Ivers, Associate Professor and Chair for the Department of Counseling at Wake Forest University. “Our problems may appear significantly larger when we are extraordinarily tired than when we are alert.’
- Get informed about ways to help. It can help you or anyone experiencing climate anxiety to learn about what methods we have at our disposal to combat climate change. For instance, promoting and utilising forms of clean energy is one major tactic that we can use to mitigate our effects on our environment that many people don’t know much about. And we have other options available to us as well. Understanding the tools we have available to us can help lessen the feelings of overwhelm and powerlessness that often accompany climate change.
- Get involved. Can you join an activist group that focuses on climate change? Spread awareness with your socials. Advocate for politicians who will action climate-sensitive legislation? Throw or support a local event that informs others. All of us have some way of contributing to the cause available to us. Even small actions move the collective forward.
- Advocate for large-scale change. Putting pressure on larger organizations and decision-makers to change their policies, procedures, and priorities can create substantial change over time. Start with your workplace and/or local companies – what do their corporate social responsibility plans look like? Do they have them in place? Do those plans address their impact on the local climate and environment and take active steps to lessen that impact? Speaking out and calling for more action from organisations both large and small can create domino effects that can create tangible outcomes.
- Get professional help. Sometimes climate anxiety can manifest in severe, long-lasting, or acute symptoms. If your well-being is being affected and you are having difficulties reversing the anxiety’s influence on your life, seek a professional counsellor or therapist to help you. Getting a professional to help you identify the problem and equip you with coping skills can sometimes be the best action plan available and should not be discounted.
Climate anxiety is real and can be very serious. Utilize the information above to identify possible cases, put together an action plan to combat it for yourself or your loved ones, and develop the coping tools necessary to thrive despite the climate change crisis we’re experiencing.
Ellen Diamond did her degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.