The Science Behind Eco-Anxiety (and What to Do About It)
With extreme weather events on the rise, there’s no denying climate change threatens our physical wellbeing. But as these occurrences accelerate and become more tangible, they threaten our mental wellbeing, too.
If you’re struggling to navigate the climate crisis, you’re not alone. More than half (55%) of Americans are anxious about the impact of climate change on their mental health.
This phenomenon is called eco-anxiety. It’s also known as climate distress, eco-trauma, or climate grief.
What is Eco-Anxiety – and Why Do I Feel This Way?
Negative emotions occur when there’s a rift between how we want things to be and how things are. We all want to live in a world with bountiful resources, rich biodiversity, and plentiful prosperity for all. But in a fossil-fueled world, those values are often in conflict with reality.
There’s no singular symptom of eco-anxiety. As a person, you may encounter it when you feel anything from panic watching wildfire footage, to guilt after filling up your trash bin, to grief from witnessing climate trauma in your past.
2 Key Forms of Eco-Anxiety
We feel eco-anxiety in the present, but our emotions are grounded in the future and the past.
Pre-traumatic stress happens when we feel fearful, hopeless, or anxious about things that may happen in the future (like mass-extinctions, sea-level rise, or the fate of future generations).
Post-traumatic stress stems from difficult experiences in our past. It can be caused by big things, like losing your home to a wildfire. It can also look like guilt about daily choices that contribute to the climate crisis, like driving a gas-guzzling car or eating a meat-heavy diet.
4 Driving Factors for Eco-Anxiety
Eco-anxiety is a perfectly reasonable, human response to an existential threat. But understanding what triggers these emotions can help you take control of your experience.
According to David Pogue, author of How to Prepare for Climate Change, there are four psychological factors at play:
- Social Pressure: Climate change is polarizing, and when we minimize or withhold our valid worries around others it disrupts our mental health.
- Negativity Bias: Humans are wired to identify threats in our environment. And when the worst-case scenario is climate catastrophe, we’re wired for mental anguish.
- Avoidance: When we feel powerless to change a situation, we may avoid or deny it as a defense mechanism. But keeping our fears bottled up makes our suffering less manageable.
- Threats to Identity: To reverse climate change, we need to reckon with the way our lifestyles are driving the crisis; that can deal a frightening blow to our sense of self.
Eco-anxiety is painful, but it reflects how much you care. And psychology can do more than explain why you feel this way; it can help you gain a sense of agency over your experience.
5 Ways to Take Control of Eco-Anxiety
1. Alleviate Anxiety with Action
If you feel like you can’t do anything – start small. Small victories dilute feelings of powerlessness and make you feel better. And when it comes to climate change, they have important cumulative effects.
As an individual, skipping a burger has little impact. But if all Americans swapped out just a quarter of their proteins for plant-based proteins, we’d save about 82 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year, a reduction of more than 1 percent - and we’d free up 23 million acres of farmland for sustainable use. That’s the entire state of Indiana!
Plus, eco-conscious choices act as social contagions – they rub off on the people around you and cause ripple effects. That’s why installing solar panels has a snowball effect within neighborhoods.
You don’t have to go full vegan or move off the grid to take action. (Although, you could!) There are countless valuable ways to play your part:
- Reduce Your Individual Impact: Take steps to make your household more sustainable, green your personal finances, and download Commons to build your personal climate action practice.
- Offset Your Carbon Footprint: Become a Commons' Climate Neutral Subscription to automatically offset your monthly emissions through a portfolio of high-quality carbon removal projects.
2. Build Your Inner Resilience
Action is often touted as the antidote to climate anxiety – and it helps! But psychologists warn that without inner work, action can lead to burnout and, alarmingly, more despair.
We need to keep imagining and working towards a brighter future. But we also need to build our emotional and psychological resilience. Climate psychologist Caroline Hickman calls this “internal activism.”
The climate crisis is painful, and no matter how much work you put in, you’ll go through cycles of mental hardship (because you care!). Rather than trying to power through to the next high, seek out resources and methodologies to process the complicated, darker emotions that climate change stirs up.
Get started with these great resources:
- Gen Dread: An exceptional newsletter on “staying sane in the climate crisis.” We recommend starting with this primer on “Emotional Methodologies” for tough climate feelings.
- Meaning-Focused Coping: Another Gen Dread creation, this newsletter focuses on building resilience by finding purpose in times of adversity.
- Good Grief Network: This climate grief support group teaches ten steps for growing through climate grief over ten weeks of virtual circles.
3. Develop a Stress Relief Routine
There’s no way around it: these are difficult times. Eco-anxiety, like any other kind of anxiety, can pervade your everyday experience. Work stress reduction into your daily routine to find relief and feel better.
- Get Outside: Our brains are deeply connected to nature, and being outdoors does wonders for our wellbeing. Take more walks and hikes and look for peaceful places to indulge in “forest bathing.”
- Get Moving: Exercise produces feel-good endorphins that can ease eco-anxiety. You don’t need hit the gym to benefit – anything that raises your heartbeat will do the trick.
- Get Grateful: Things are heating up, but it’s not all bad. Practicing gratitude disrupts negative thoughts and reduces stress. So write down small gains and big blessings every day.
- Get Creative: Find relief through painting, drawing, or other creative activities. And have fun! You don’t need to be an “artist” to explore your imaginative side.
4. See a Climate-Aware Psychologist
It’s normal to struggle through difficult times. Therapists help their patients navigate things like family death, job loss, and other painful crises. And with greater frequency, they’re answering the call to treat eco-anxiety.
If you’re thinking of seeking counseling, look for a climate-aware psychologist. Most climate psychologists argue eco-anxiety isn’t a clinical condition; it’s an inevitable, even healthy, response to the threat at hand. And that’s an important distinction for a mental health professional to make.
5. Find Power in Community
Strong social ties increase our collective agency. But it’s not just about activism. Community can be a place to grieve, heal, and grow through the challenge of our lifetimes.
Process your experience with like-minded folks. Climate Cafes are virtual get-togethers where people meet to express their fears and anxieties about the climate crisis. To connect in-person, attend a local climate circle or environmental Meetup event. If there isn’t a group where you live, organize your own!
Climate change and eco-anxiety don’t exist in a vacuum. They intersect with a spectrum of environmental, social, and mental health justice issues. Seek to build new alliances to enhance our collective understanding of the complexities of the climate crisis.
It’s important to talk about the climate crisis, but it can be an uncomfortable topic. Try these 5 tips for climate conversations to build confidence and break the spiral of silence. Spoiler alert: listening and empathizing is key.
6. Create Space for Joy
While we need to play our part to reverse the crisis, we can’t do it at the cost of meaningful lives. Make time for the things that light you up, whether that's a night out dancing with friends, finger-painting with the kids, or sharing a warm home-cooked meal.
These moments of joy connect us to the truth behind eco-anxiety: life on Earth is beautiful, and we need to fight for it.
Climate Action That Matters
We’re more powerful than climate change when we act together. Download Commons today to build pro-planet habits, support the offset projects that matter most, and join a community tackling the biggest crisis of our generation.