Worsening heat waves, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, and flooding have caused immense human suffering — and countless deaths — in recent years. And because there’s been little progress or collective action to meaningfully change the way we live, more people are going to experience the effects of climate change and die.
It’s a depressing future to think about. In fact, experts say more and more people — especially young people — are now suffering from eco-distress or climate anxiety, a kind of fear related to worries about the environment and climate change’s lasting impacts on the world.
According to the American Psychological Association, just being aware of the problem can cause people to feel powerless, exhausted, scared, and angry — regardless of whether they’ve experienced the direct impacts of climate change so far. A survey conducted by the association in December 2019 found that a little over two-thirds of adults said they have at least a little “eco-anxiety.” And a 2021 study of 10,000 young people ages 16 to 25 found that 84% were at least moderately worried, and nearly 60% were extremely worried about climate change.
“I’d say for probably half of my younger patients now, who are under 25, it’s a significant issue,” Robert Feder, a psychiatrist, told BuzzFeed News.
It’s normal to feel depressed about living in an increasingly unsustainable world and being helpless to do anything about it, Feder added, but there are ways to manage eco-anxiety and reduce negative emotions around the climate emergency. He and other experts shared these tips.
Get involved in climate activism
One way to cope with anxiety about the climate crisis is by getting involved in activism. “Finding purposeful action around climate change is really the best solution of all to this,” said Feder, a member of the steering committee for the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health.
Engaging in environmental activism or advocacy efforts can help dampen feelings of helplessness, said Wendy Greenspun, a clinical psychologist and expert in climate psychology. Activism “can give a sense of purpose and meaning so you’re not just stuck feeling like there’s nothing [you] can do,” Greenspun said.
In a recent study of undergraduate and graduate students, researchers at Yale and Suffolk University found that participating in collective activism can help ease depressive feelings about climate change. The survey found that individual action was also associated with lower levels of anxiety but to a lesser extent, “suggesting the unique role of collective action in the face of overwhelming circumstances.”
“Engaging in collective action may combat feelings of despair and helplessness and foster feelings of hope,” the study said. “Collective action also brings with it community connection and social support, which supports health and well-being.”
Experts recommended getting involved via organizations such as the Sierra Club, Earth Justice, the Climate Justice Alliance, and 350.org, where you can sign up to receive information about local and national actions to join, along with other ways that you can make an impact.
“It’s important for people to get involved in these kinds of groups, both in terms of helping them feel internally like they’re doing something and also, hopefully, being a part of the solution that’s going to solve the problem that’s causing it all in the first place,” Feder said.
Join a support group
People experiencing any kind of mental distress, including eco-anxiety, need robust support systems. Interacting with like-minded people in a support group can help reduce feelings of loneliness or isolation and provide both relief and connection, Greenspun said.
One such group is the Good Grief Network. Founded in 2016, the nonprofit runs a 10-step program where people come together for two hours each week for 10 weeks to build community, process feelings about the state of the world, and identify meaningful actions they can take to mitigate climate change and ease anxiety around the issue.
“The focus is to have people get real about the severity of the moment that we’re in, find a place to talk about it, and start actually acknowledging our feelings and learning to process them,” the group’s founding director LaUra Schmidt told BuzzFeed News.
During the program, which runs 10 to 15 times a year, participants learn how the climate crisis is also a social justice issue and narrow in on the environments and habitats that still exist and what needs protecting through a lens of “gratitude, connection, and beauty,” Schmidt said.
Andrea Brunelle, a professor of geography at the University of Utah who teaches classes on climate change, said even she didn’t know how to help herself or her students grapple with the depressing material she deals with every day. But after completing the program earlier this year, Brunelle said her anxiety feels “more manageable.”
“I frequently use some of the breathing exercises they taught us,” she said, “and also remind myself to stay present and acknowledge feelings as they come up.”
The website Climate & Mind also includes information about how to start climate anxiety support and discussion groups and maintains a list of organizations doing work around eco-distress.
See a climate-aware therapist
If the climate crisis is impacting your mental health, it could be beneficial to seek out a professional with experience treating eco-anxiety.
The Climate Psychology Alliance’s website has several resources for individuals looking for support and an online directory of climate-aware therapists. Greenspun, who trains other mental health professionals on climate-informed practices, said climate-aware therapists understand and have experience helping people work through the mental impacts of climate change and transform those emotions “into something more useful and sustainable.”
“We are trained in being able to evaluate any risk factors and being able to work on more adaptive responses, ways to work with the emotions, ways to calm the nervous system, coping strategies, and having a kind of safe, containing holding place for those difficult emotions,” she said.
Feder said climate-aware therapists use relaxation exercises, deep breathing, meditation, and other techniques to help patients reduce anxiety.
Try to spend more time in nature and less time doomscrolling
Even with very real threats to the natural world, try to get outside — and off your phone. Whether it’s taking a walk, spending time with other people, or meditating, simple self-care practices are useful tactics for managing stress, according to Greenspun.
“There’s so much evidence of the psychological benefits of being out in nature,” she said.
If you don’t have access to nature, Greenspun said research shows that just looking at pictures of green spaces or listening to nature sounds, like crashing waves and chirping birds, can “have an impact in a positive way on our nervous systems.”
Researchers have also found that spending time in nature and walking outside can also help with depression, whereas doomscrolling or spending mass amounts of time looking at bad news about climate change can leave people feeling helpless, experts said.
Balancing your news consumption with information about climate solutions also helps. “A dose of positive news to counter negative news … can be really helpful,” Greenspun said.
Compost, reduce your plastic use, and walk when you don’t have to drive
Sometimes, the simplest and easiest option to combat anxiety is to focus on what you can control. Making changes to reduce your carbon footprint in your daily life and live more sustainably on an individual level can help reduce climate stress, Greenspun said.
“Such actions can honor a person's environmental values and … protect against feeling passive and powerless,” she said.
Composting, reducing your plastic waste, and biking or walking when a car trip isn’t necessary can make a difference, even if it’s a small one.
“It’s important to start where we feel a sense of empowerment and build momentum from there,” Schmidt of Good Grief Network said. “Any generative action that contributes to the connection, growth, or healing of ourselves, our communities, or our planet are meaningful endeavors.”
Bringing reusable bags to shops and markets, ditching plastic produce bags, and shopping at zero-waste or refill stores are also great ways to be a more sustainable consumer. At refill shops, customers fill up their own reusable containers with bulk food, household products, and personal care items like shampoo, soap, and face cleanser. Payment is typically calculated by weight.
“Choosing to refill your containers instead of buying new plastic bottles (or shipping items to your home) is an immediate, easy way to reduce your footprint,” Kayli Kunkel of Earth & Me, a zero-waste store in Queens, New York, told BuzzFeed News via email.
Not only does reusing containers directly reduce the plastic waste that would otherwise likely end up in a landfill, but it can also “impact our reliance on Big oil and help clear a path to clean energies,” Kunkel said.
It might be hard to see the impact of one single decision, but as someone who sees the impact of thousands of people making these decisions every day, Kunkel said, “I can promise you, it makes a difference!” ●