Climate Anxiety | What it is and How to Manage It

Written by
Jacquelyn Buffo @ 8fit
Written by
Jacquelyn Buffo @ 8fit
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We’ve all heard about anxiety, and most of us have a pretty clear understanding of what that is and feels like. Anxiety is a clinical mental health diagnosis that references feelings of fear, worry, and nervousness. 

We all experience anxiety in our lives, and there are many things that can trigger symptoms. Small spaces, spiders, and finances are some common triggers of anxiety. Another anxiety trigger that’s gaining more attention these days is from climate change, popularizing the term “climate anxiety.”

Anxiety in a Nutshell

Anxiety is an omnipresent facet of our existence. It helps us focus when we need to accomplish an important task, like taking a test or remembering lines in a play. It can also serve as a signal to us that what we are approaching is harmful or unhealthy. All of us experience anxiety throughout our lives; it’s unavoidable. However, anxiety can become problematic.

When our anxiety symptoms become so severe that we avoid doing important things like studying for our big exam out of excessive worry or fear, our anxiety is problematic. If you feel like your behaviors and thoughts are controlled by worry, fear, and helplessness, your anxiety may no longer be within a healthy range.

There are many different types of anxiety. Some of the most common and clinical types of anxiety include generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). The symptoms for each type of anxiety can overlap. Anxiety can cause problems in your work, social interactions, and relationships with family members. Anxiety can also affect you physically (racing heart, sweating, shaking) as well as behaviorally (fidgety, pacing, withdrawing).

Common symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Becoming easily tired

  • Chronic thoughts and feelings of worry

  • Irritability and mood swings

  • Sore muscles

  • Restlessness and feeling on edge

  • Difficulty falling and staying asleep or waking up too early

  • A sense of dread

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What Is Climate Anxiety

Climate anxiety is when you worry excessively about the consequences of our changing environmental landscape. It’s no surprise that climate change is one of the hottest (and most controversial) topics in society today. Regularly we hear politicians and celebrities passionately discuss and debate global warming and environmental crises, which can leave us feeling terrified, hopeless, and helpless. In fact, 41% of Americans report discussing global warming with loved ones regularly, and 56% of people report hearing about global warming at least once a month in the media.

Current factors that can contribute to the experience of climate anxiety include:

  • An estimated 1 million species are at risk of becoming extinct due to human activities.

  • There are well over 250,000 human deaths a year due to natural disasters.

  • The current CO2 levels are the highest they have been in over 3 million years.

When we experience significant stress, fear, and worry about the environment and the climate, we are experiencing climate anxiety. Solastalgia is a term that references the distress caused by environmental changes. 

Although the term “climate anxiety” is not a clinical definition and has yet to make its way into the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM), it is very real. In fact, the American Psychological Association has created a 69-page guide to climate change to help clinicians work effectively with individuals who are experiencing climate anxiety.

People who have experienced a natural disaster as a result of climate change are not the only ones who experience climate anxiety. People are experiencing mental and emotional distress due to our ecological status. (You can find helpful strategies to manage emotional distress at 8fit.) Additionally, a study conducted by Yale and George Mason Universities found that:

  • 51% of Americans are certain that global warming is occurring.

  • The belief among Americans that global warming is occurring has increased by 10% since 2015.

  • 69% of Americans are concerned on some level about the effects of global warming.

  • 46% of Americans feel that they have been directly impacted by the effects of global warming.

  • The majority of Americans are concerned about the effects of global warming on their local environments including floods, droughts, and extreme heat.

Risk Factors for Anxiety

Scientists believe that both biological and environmental factors play a role in the acquisition of anxiety disorders. Biological factors can include your innate temperament, emotional sensitivity level, and genetic propensity for anxiety. Environmental factors include the experience of trauma and abuse, exposure to intense and stressful environments, and physical factors, such as thyroid problems and the consumption of caffeine and other stimulants.

All these factors combine to increase or decrease your risk of developing climate anxiety. Those at the highest end of the risk spectrum may live in an environment where the impact of climate change is especially evident (draughts, frequent natural disasters, intense heat, water limitations), are highly or moderately sensitive to their emotions, and have a family history of diagnosed anxiety disorders.

How to Manage Climate Anxiety

Whether it’s climate anxiety or any other type of anxiety disorder, the biological urge associated with anxiety is avoidance. When we experience anxiety, we unconsciously have a strong urge to avoid the thing that is causing the anxiety. 

If the current state of our ecosystem and climate is causing you anxiety, you may have the urge to avoid discussing it or taking action. The problem with this avoidance urge is that it only leaves us feeling more anxious and helpless, and it can increase the frequency and intensity of our worried thoughts. So, do we have any options? And if so, what are they?

Acting against your urge to avoid can help reduce feelings of worry and helplessness and increase feelings of hope and empowerment. Common examples of acting against avoidance urges include recycling, riding your bike instead of taking your car, carpooling, and donating to an eco-friendly cause. Larger acts include joining a conservation organization and changing lifestyle habits, such as ridding your home of plastic baggies. Try to remind yourself that you can’t change the world and that change takes time. Be patient and remember that small steps today can lead to significant changes tomorrow. 

As with any other form of anxiety, medication and talk therapy are options. Joining a support group and speaking to people who are experiencing the same struggles you are can be a helpful tool; you’ll feel less alone in your struggles. 

Worried about cost? Here's what to do if you can't afford therapy.

If your anxiety has become so severe that it has affected your social, financial, interpersonal, family, or occupational functioning, talk to a trusted loved one or medical professional.

Feature photo by Li-An Lim on Unsplash

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