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How to Soothe Climate Anxiety With Hope and Action

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Key Takeaways

  • Climate anxiety and climate change-related disasters are increasing in tandem.
  • Climate anxiety is likely caused by an interplay of many factors, including news exposure, lived experience, and institutional inertia.
  • Understanding climate change in the contexts of climate injustice, racism, and oppression can help to mobilize and change individual and systemic thinking.

Over the past couple of weeks, it seems like climate disasters are happening everywhere we look. In the U.S. alone, a heat dome blazed in the Northwest, fires cropped up in California, New York City flooded, and even an ocean fire broke out in the Gulf of Mexico.

It's no wonder why "climate anxiety" is becoming a household name. Everyone from academics to Instagrammers is publishing papers and sharing posts on the topic. There's even a call to measure and standardize it.

But one study found that climate-related anxieties are "correlated with emotional but not behavioral responses to climate change." This anxiety can be paralyzing, leading to inaction.

What Is Climate Anxiety?

Also referred to as eco-anxiety, climate distress, and climate change anxiety. It describes anxiety "related to the global climate crisis and the threat of environmental disaster." Associated symptoms include panic attacks, insomnia, and obsessive thinking. Studies also find that climate anxiety is more prevalent in young people.

Yet that lack of behavioral response, Sarah J. Ray, PhD, professor of environmental studies at Humboldt State University, tells Verywell is part of the problem.

"Intense emotional responses to environmental problems are not new among people who are mostly insulated from environmental disasters," she says. But those intense emotions, such as anxiety, panic, and fear—without a clear call to action and social change, could do both the individual and society more harm than good.

"Environmental disgust or fear is one way to respond, and I'm calling on people experiencing climate anxiety to harness that anxiety for social justice, not harm," she adds.

But what would that social justice look like? Ray says it starts with recognizing how racism and oppression are intertwined with climate change.

"Climate change compounds existing structures of injustice, and those structures exacerbate climate change," Ray writes in a piece for Scientific American. "What is unique [about climate anxiety now] is that people who had been insulated from oppression are now waking up to the prospect of their own unlivable future."

Why Anxiety, Not Action?

Even if you haven't heard the term "climate anxiety" yet, surveys and polls show it's being felt around the country:

  • In October 2020, the American Psychiatric Association found that 55% of respondents were concerned about the effects of climate change on their own mental health
  • Yale and George Mason universities found that about 40% of Americans feel “disgusted” or “helpless” about climate change
  • A March survey of Gen-Z Americans (aged 14-24) found that more than eight out of 10, 83%, are concerned about the health of the planet

But why all this anxiety, disgust, and helplessness in lieu of action? Experts say that "driving factors" of climate anxiety could include expanding news coverage of climate disasters, regret for one's own impact, and living through climate disaster firsthand. Others say that losing one's own connection with nature is in itself distressing.

In the end, the implications of it all can seem insurmountable, even hopeless. The tendency for institutions such as government and industry to resist change doesn't help, either.

Lack of Trust

The well-founded lack of public trust in our institutions, Ray adds, can make change seem even more impossible.

Examples of environmental injustice abound. Just look to the thousands of lung disease-related deaths per year for coal miners; "Cancer Alley" in Louisiana, where pollutants from petrochemical plants have been linked to cancer and respiratory diseases in a majority Black neighborhood; or the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

"I wish we had more trust in these institutions, and that they were, in fact, more trustworthy and accountable to the public, and not corrupted by capitalism," she says.

But pessimism can actually hurt efforts for change.

"I would like people to stop talking about the apocalypse as inevitable, and to stop framing it all as negative," Ray says. "The way climate change is talked about, even at a very young age, is so damaging. It itself is part of the problem."

The Dangers of Ignoring Climate Anxiety

When psychologists talk about anxiety, they might say that it can be both adaptive and maladaptive. But to avoid harming each other and the environment, even more, Ray says, we're going to have to cope with climate anxiety in an adaptive way.

The Difference Between Adaptive and Maladaptive Anxiety

Some degree of stress or anxiety is good, or adaptive; it can keep us excited and motivated while encouraging us to reach our goals. But when anxiety becomes maladaptive, it can get in the way of these very things.

"My main point isn't to shame the climate-anxious, but to enlist them for climate justice, and to bring our attention to the range of harms that environmental feelings can cause," Ray says.

She's seen how climate anxiety results in regressive, authoritarian, or isolationist responses that can do harm. "Many people are using the climate as another excuse for closing borders," she says. "Or climate is amplifying racism and xenophobia as climate refugees and conflict over resources spills into American life."

Take the gunman of the 2019 El Paso shooting, for instance, who claimed to have been motivated by a hatred of immigrants and "despair about the ecological fate of the planet." Some called the shooting an act of "ecofascism," in which people equate protecting nature and the Earth with racial exclusion. 

Indeed, Ray says, if climate anxiety isn't used for environmental, social, and racial justice, then the danger is represented by what happened in El Paso.

"We can’t fight climate change with more racism," she writes. "Climate anxiety must be directed toward addressing the ways that racism manifests as environmental trauma and vice versa—how environmentalism manifests as racialized violence. We need to channel grief toward collective liberation."

What This Means For You

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations. Tips on how to support it daily include:

  • Self-educating on the links between structural racism and the disproportionate environmental hazards found in underprivileged communities.
  • Elevating the voices of people in those communities through donating, demonstrating, and volunteering.
  • Holding your representatives accountable by staying informed, joining or forming local organizations, writing to your representatives, and boycotting corporations that use damaging practices. One example of a boycott list can be found here.

Inspiring Action

This collective liberation, Ray adds, will involve privileged members of society not fretting over climate anxiety, but rather answering tough questions.

"Climate anxiety can operate like white fragility, sucking up all the oxygen in the room and devoting resources toward appeasing the dominant group," she writes. "Will the climate-anxious recognize their role in displacing people from around the globe? ... How can we make sure that climate anxiety is harnessed for climate justice?"

At the end of the day, Ray says, everyone's going to have to do their own homework about how they can work towards creating an environmental justice-minded country and world. There are groups to support, sustainability habits to practice, and conversations to have.

But perhaps the stepping stone to reducing climate anxiety, she writes, is to start asking different questions.

"Instead of asking 'What can I do to stop feeling so anxious?', 'What can I do to save the planet?' and 'What hope is there?', people with privilege can be asking 'Who am I?' and 'How am I connected to all of this?'" she writes.

The answers, she says. will show us how we are all interconnected on this planet. "We do the right things to honor our 'interbeing,' or interconnection, with other life, and to walk through the world doing as least harm as possible," Ray says.

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Article Sources
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