What is climate anxiety?
With our global climate impact reaching an all-time high in 2022, it’s never been clearer that climate change poses the most imminent threat to our environment, and that knowledge is affecting our mental health. Climate anxiety is a very real phenomenon that stems from the overwhelming awareness of human impact on the planet (think: consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, degradation of natural resources, and use of fossil fuels) as well as a concern about the governmental response to the climate crisis. It’s also known as climate change anxiety, and an affected person may experience an inexplicable sense of despair and helplessness about the future of the planet.
“Climate anxiety means a state of extreme worry about the damage being done to the planet by humans,” says Anouchka Grose, a psychoanalyst and member of The College of Psychoanalysts. Climate anxiety is particularly prevalent in young people – like millennials and Gen Z – who are more likely to shop eco-friendly brands, worry about their carbon footprint, learn the right way to recycle, and prioritise sustainable living. In fact, a 2021 Nature survey of 10,000 young people – ages 16 to 25 – found that 60 percent of respondents reported feeling “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate change.
But even if we go out of our way to lead green lives – such as conserving water and energy, upcycling our clothes, only purchasing sustainable fish, or better yet, growing our own food – climate change will continue to take a toll on our collective psyches. So, with climate anxiety negatively affecting so many of us, how can we learn to deal with it?
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Is climate anxiety a real thing?
Just as climate change is a very real thing, so is climate anxiety. “Some people prefer to call it climate grief or climate trauma, as the word anxiety might suggest a condition, pathology, or overreaction,” Grose says. However, since climate anxiety is not a condition that can be diagnosed, it can be tricky to understand or identify. Especially since the symptoms associated with it aren’t always physical. “It’s often used as an umbrella term to capture a wide range of emotions of distress about climate change, and it is absolutely a real thing,” Bechard adds.
In fact, overwhelming feelings associated with climate anxiety can trigger other mental health-related pathologies. A 2021 survey from Yale shows that 70 percent of Americans are at least “somewhat” worried about global warming and exhibit signs of anxiety and/or depression as a result.
“For many people, climate anxiety can manifest as ruminative, distressing thoughts about future climate events,” Bechard explains. “For example, headlines announcing frightening new climate reports or developments (Another melting glacier! Another unprecedented wildfire!) can be profoundly troubling. Some people experience a nagging sense of anxiety, irritability, or grief that they can’t shake; profound anger at people (especially governments or corporations) who aren’t taking action; or a sense of numbness, helplessness, or depression.” It often also manifests as an inability to stop doomscrolling.
Overwhelming concern about the future of our planet is even affecting peoples’ family planning. A 2017 study published in IOP Science finds that one of the four most effective ways to reduce your personal carbon footprint is to have one fewer child. Parents who already have kids may feel guilt or shame about their decision to start a family. Bechard explains, “For parents, climate anxiety may be centred around a sense of fear for our children’s futures and a worry around whether we’ve done the right thing by bringing children into the world.”
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How to identify if you have climate anxiety
According to Bechard, symptoms of climate anxiety may include ruminating about future climate events as well as having visceral negative reactions to news about climate change. It can also present as feelings of anxiety, irritability, and grief that are hard to let go of.
Grose provides some examples: “If you’re kept awake worrying about ecological damage, freak out at the sight of heavily packaged imported foods, or don’t believe in any kind of desirable human future, you might be considered to have climate anxiety.”
Bechard also notes that you might feel “shame or guilt about making choices that could have a negative impact on the environment – even when we live in a society in which it’s virtually impossible to make ‘perfect’ environmental choices.” She explains that could mean feeling “anxious or ashamed about driving, visiting a loved one by airplane, or having retirement savings invested in fossil fuel companies.”
The side effects of climate anxiety may be worming their way into our interpersonal relationships as well. “Relationship disruptions can be a symptom of climate anxiety,” Bechard says. “For example, if one person in a relationship is extremely worried about climate change, they might feel frustrated or even angry at their loved one for not sharing the same level of worry or the same level of commitment to climate-friendly behaviours and actions.”
It can make for an interesting dynamic in all couples, but particularly in heterosexual relationships. A 2018 study from Mintel identifies a very real phenomenon called the “eco gender gap.” The results show that 71 percent of British women prioritise living more ethically and sustainably than they did a year ago, compared with only 59 percent of men. Sustainability and environmental issues have long been considered a “women’s fight,” and the data clearly suggests that climate issues are more likely to move women to climate action.