What is climate anxiety?
If you find yourself asking, “What should I do about the climate crisis?”— then you may have already entered the domain of climate anxiety. In stronger forms, climate anxiety can manifest as various anxiety symptoms such as sleep disturbance, distress, and strong fear.
Anxiety in the climate crisis
People have felt various kinds of climate anxiety ever since the knowledge of climate change first became available to us. First, only those specialists, such as climate scientists who knew about the matter, felt climate anxiety. Gradually, more and more people have become aware of the severity of the crisis, and since 2018 the number of people self-reporting climate anxiety has grown rapidly.
In contrast, some people react to climate crisis by trying to escape from anxiety, via denial. A common form of denial is disavowal, a state in which we’re aware of the climate crisis, but find ways to minimize the problem and its implications.
Anxiety is a broad term. Many people associate the term with strong anxiety, but that is not the whole picture. As an emotion, anxiety arises when we encounter some kind of problematic uncertainty. It often leads to searching for more information and making changes in one’s behaviour. This is the adaptive dimension of anxiety. Fundamentally, climate anxiety is a rational and adaptive response, but strong anxiety can be a big problem.
Anxiety is closely connected with other emotions, especially threat-related emotions like fear and worry. It is important to note that people may use the term climate anxiety to mean different things: some refer to only anxiety, while others use it as an umbrella term for various difficult emotions related to the climate crisis.
Feelings of powerlessness and helplessness are very common in climate anxiety. Climate anxiety often includes low moods, which connect it with climate depression. Sometimes climate anxiety is made stronger because other climate emotions, such as grief, are suppressed or repressed. There are also profound links with climate guilt and shame. Climate anxieties can appear contradictory given peoples’ different, even conflicting, aims and motives: people may be anxious about losses and change if carbon emissions are reduced, but also anxious (for different reasons) if emissions continue to rise.
People have various sensitivities and vulnerabilities in relation to climate anxiety. Children and young people report a lot of climate anxiety, which is understandable, because they have their lives ahead of them.
Other factors affecting climate anxiety include:
- A person’s profession, such as being is a climate researcher
- A person’s life situation, for example if someone is thinking of having kids or of receiving grandchildren
- The attitudes of a person’s peers and community members
- Climate action or inaction by leaders
- Media literacy and media narratives
- Psychological and social vulnerabilities
- The strength of climate impacts on one’s surroundings
- A person’s values and political orientations
- Someone’s degree of environmental identity (how important the natural world is to a person’s life)
Climate anxiety is closely connected to justice issues. The amount of resources that a person or a group has (both material and social) greatly affects their possibilities and capabilities to react to climate anxiety. Furthermore, for people from various cultures and contexts, different words might be needed to describe climate anxiety: anxiety terminology may sound overly Western for some people. Further work is needed to explore terminology and discourses which capture the lived experiences of people from poorer countries such as those in the Global South, indigenous peoples, and (for example) people living in poverty in higher-income Global North countries.
Consequences if we don’t reduce carbon emissions drastically
Anxiety is lessened if the problems or risks causing it are diminished. If carbon emissions are not reduced drastically, stronger forms of climate anxiety will inevitably intensify. Climate depression, which means depressive moods that are significantly affected by climate crisis, will also become more common.
Research on climate anxiety and related topics, such as climate distress and worry, has been growing rapidly since 2017. Some key findings include:
- In a 2021 study including 10 countries around the world, 62% of 10,000 children and young people aged 16 to 25 reported having felt some anxiety in relation to climate change. 67% reported sadness, 67% fear.
- In a nationally representative study in Finland in 2019, 25% of the respondents reported climate anxiety and less than 10% reported stronger psychosomatic symptoms because of climate change.
- Many empirical studies about experiences of climate anxiety have already been conducted and a review of them is available.
- Climate worry, anxiety and grief are interconnected emotions, and there are studies about them in various parts of the world.
- Scholars have tried to develop ways to measure climate anxiety, but this work is ongoing.
What more might we need to know?
More information is needed about different forms of climate anxiety and the factors that affect experiences of climate anxiety in different contexts. So far, much research has been conducted among rather wealthy populations. We also need longitudinal studies to understand the dynamics of climate anxiety over time.
Addressing climate anxiety
Climate anxiety is both a resource and a potential problem: it can stir us into action, but it can also overwhelm us. The task is to search for a golden zone of climate anxiety: not too little, not too much. Without any climate anxiety, nothing gets done. If climate anxiety gets too intense, it can decrease functionality and well-being.
The following have been found helpful in relation to addressing an individual’s climate anxiety:
- Receiving validation and recognition for climate anxiety from others
- Having the possibility to discuss climate anxiety with trusted people
- Learning methods to regulate and channel climate emotions
- Having at least some means to contribute to climate action: efficacy helps with anxiety
- Being able to experience meaning in life
Health professionals can better support clients by:
- Learning more about various forms of climate anxiety
- Exploring one’s own climate emotions, so that supporting others becomes easier
- Building and joining professional networks around the topic
- Helping people to live with ambivalence and uncertainty
- Being careful when making estimations of what kind of clinical support may be needed
There are many therapies that can be used to address climate anxiety, but it is important to remember that the cause of climate anxiety is the very real climate crisis. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) may be used to avoid catastrophizing, but other therapies or techniques are needed to help people live with continuous threats. Because of the existential nature of the climate crisis, many advocate for meaning-oriented therapeutic approaches.
Climate Crisis and Consciousness: Re-imagining Our World and Ourselves by Sally Gillespie, published in 2020 by Routledge
A Guide to Eco-Anxiety: How to Protect the Planet and Your Mental Health by Anouchka Grose, published in 2020 by Watkins (Penguin)
Turn the Tide on Climate Anxiety: Sustainable Action for Your Mental Health and the Planet by Megan Kennedy-Woodard and Patrick Kennedy-Williams, published in 2022 by Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in with Unexpected Resilience and Creative Power by Joanna Macy & Chris Johnstone, published in 2012 (new revised edition in 2022) by New World Library
The Love of Nature and the End of the World: The Unspoken Dimensions of Environmental Concern by Shierry Weber Nicholsen, published in 2002 by MIT Press
A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety: How to Keep Your Cool on a Warming Planet by Sarah Jaquette Ray, published in 2020 by University of California Press
Climate Cure: Heal Yourself to Heal the Planet by Jack Adam Weber, published in 2020 by Llewellyn Publications
Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis: Neoliberal Exceptionalism and the Culture of Uncare by Sally Weintrobe, published in 2021 by Bloomsbury
“The difficult problem of anxiety in thinking about climate change” by Sally Weintrobe (editor) in Engaging with Climate Change, published in 2012 by Routledge
Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis by Britt Wray, published in 2022 by Alfred A. Knopf
Articles and Online Sources
Climate Change Enters the Therapy Room, published in The New York Times on Feb 6, 2022, by Ellen Barry
Four in 10 young people fear having children due to climate crisis, published in The Guardian on Sept 14, 2021, by Fiona Harvey
Therapists Are Reckoning with Eco-anxiety, published in Scientific American on April 19, 2021, by Isobel Whitcomb
What Is Eco-Anxiety?, published on the Rei Co-opwebsite on Dec 12, 2019, by Jenni Gritters
Who feels climate anxiety?, published in The Cairo Review of International Affairs, Fall 2021, by Sarah Jaquette Ray
Jennifer Uchendu on founding The Eco-Anxiety in Africa Project, published in Geographical on June 21, 2022, by Bryony Cottam
Using Art to Process Eco-Anxiety, on the Avocado Green Mattress Magazine
Making Art While the World is Burning, on Eco Anxious Stories
Using Art to Process Climate Anxiety, on the Generation Dread newsletter
In the Room With Climate Anxiety, published in Psychiatric Times on November 27, 2018, by Janet Lewis, MD
Doherty, T. J., & Cunsolo, A. (2021). Speaking of Psychology: How to cope with climate anxiety, with Thomas Doherty, PsyD, and Ashlee Cunsolo, PhD. Speaking of Psychology (American Psychological Association). https://www.apa.org/research/action/speaking-of-psychology/eco-anxiety
Selected Research/Scientific Papers
Baudon, P., & Jachens, L. (2021). A Scoping Review of Interventions for the Treatment of Eco-Anxiety. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18, article number 9636. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18189636
Clayton, S. (2020). Climate anxiety: Psychological responses to climate change. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 74, 102263. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2020.102263
Coffey, Y., Bhullar, N., Durkin, J., Islam, M. S., & Usher, K. (2021). Understanding Eco-anxiety: A Systematic Scoping Review of Current Literature and Identified Knowledge Gaps. The Journal of Climate Change and Health, 3, 100047. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joclim.2021.100047
Hickman, C. (2020). We need to (find a way to) talk about … Eco-anxiety. Journal of Social Work Practice, 34(4), 411–424. https://doi.org/10.1080/02650533.2020.1844166
Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, R. E., Mayall, E. E., Wray, B., Mellor, C., & Susteren, L. van. (2021). Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: A global survey. The Lancet Planetary Health, 5(12), e863–e873. https://doi.org/10.1016/S2542-5196(21)00278-3
Kurth, C., & Pihkala, P. (2022). Eco-anxiety: What it is and why it matters. Frontiers in Psychology, 13. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2022.981814
Moser, S. C. (2020). The work after “It’s too late” (to prevent dangerous climate change). Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change, e606. https://doi.org/10.1002/wcc.606
Ojala, M. (2016). Facing anxiety in climate change education: From therapeutic practice to hopeful transgressive learning. Canadian Journal of Environmental Education, 21, 41–56. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/317647870_Facing_Anxiety_in_Climate_Change_Education_From_Therapeutic_Practice_to_Hopeful_Transgressive_Learning
Pihkala, P. (2020). Anxiety and the Ecological Crisis: An Analysis of Eco-Anxiety and Climate Anxiety. Sustainability, 12(19), 7836. https://doi.org/10.3390/su12197836
Pihkala, P. (2022). Commentary: Three tasks for eco‐anxiety research – a commentary on Thompson et al. (2021). Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 27(1), 92–93. https://doi.org/10.1111/camh.12529
Weintrobe, S. (2013). The difficult problem of anxiety in thinking about climate change. In S. Weintrobe (Ed.), Engaging with climate change: Psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives (pp. 33–47). Routledge.
Wullenkord, M., Tröger, J., Hamann, K., Loy, L., & Reese, G. (2021). Anxiety and Climate Change: A Validation of the Climate Anxiety Scale in a German-Speaking Quota Sample and an Investigation of Psychological Correlates. Climatic Change, 168(20). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-021-03234-6
October 6, 2022
Author: Panu Pihkala, PhD
Editor: Rei Takver and Colleen Rollins