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Climate anxiety: What is it and how can you cope?

Two-thirds of people in the UK are experiencing eco-anxiety.

Most of us are aware that there is a climate crisis raging across the world. 

Having seen and experienced floods, storms, heat waves, and wildfires, while experts continually tell us it might be “too late” for the planet to survive, it’s hard to ignore the feeling of dread and fear that climate change can evoke.

This is normal. Climate anxiety, also known as eco-anxiety, has become increasingly common in recent years, especially among young generations. 

People of all ages and from different backgrounds or countries are experiencing climate anxiety, feeling helpless at whether they can do anything to prevent the climate catastrophe experts are promising and rage at those in power who may not be doing as much as they can to help.

It can be difficult to walk around constantly thinking about the future of our planet, and whether that future will materialise if drastic measures are not taken by politicians, scientists, and regular people to combat climate change

But, all is not lost. There are plenty of things people can do to battle against the climate crisis, and to mitigate those anxious feelings. Here’s what you need to know.

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What is climate anxiety?

In a nutshell, climate anxiety refers to people who have heightened feelings of worry and tension due to climate change.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defined the eco-anxiety as the “chronic fear of environmental doom” in 2017, while other experts have used terms such as “ecological grief” or climate anxiety to define feelings of sadness and despair as a result of seeing parts of the planet burn or flood due to extreme weather events. 

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Is climate anxiety a real thing?

Mark Vahrmeyer, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), told the Big Issue: “It’s something that is very real. All of us have anxiety, to varying degrees, and we as human beings tend to attach those feelings to specific events that amplify our anxiousness, such as the climate.”

Vahrmeyer says there is a challenge in distinguishing people who are predisposed to anxious feelings, which are being amplified by climate change, and those who have worries about climate change that are common to most of us. 

But neither is any more ‘real’ than the other and both should be approached with care.

Who is most affected by eco-anxiety?

Eco-anxiety is affecting people of all ages and from all walks of life.

Vahrmeyer says he has seen a rise in patients with climate anxiety, while a study published in The Lancet in 2021 found that it is affecting 75 percent of 16-25 year olds globally.

A more recent study commissioned by climate campaigners Friends of the Earth and conducted by YouGov revealed over two-thirds of people of all ages in the UK were experiencing eco-anxiety, especially after 2022’s record-breaking temperatures and warnings of further climate chaos in the near future.

Vahrmeyer says people who are predisposed to anxiety or have pre-existing diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder may be affected by climate anxiety even more than others, but this is not always the case.

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How do you deal with eco-anxiety?

“In therapy, we can’t save the planet. But, what we can do is help somebody give voice to their anxieties and go deeper into what they are feeling within that anxiety,” Vahrmeyer says.

He explains how people struggling with climate anxiety may in fact be feeling grief, “real feelings of sadness and sorrow”, a sense of rage and indignation at governments or oil companies, and helplessness. 

“They might be asking, ‘Well, what can I as one person do to affect change?’ and feeling like the answer is nothing,” he adds.

As such, climate anxiety is in fact a “broad umbrella term” for many other feelings that need to be worked through and processed individually – the primary way is to talk through it.

Human beings are “relational”, Vahrmeyer says, meaning we need relationships with other people and to talk through things. Whether that discussion happens with parents, friends, siblings, partners, or qualified therapists, it will help you to share the burden with others and discuss what you’re feeling on a regular basis.

Another key way of dealing with eco-anxiety, in addition to talking about it, is to take a step back from climate change. This may sound counterintuitive, but Vahrmeyer says reducing the amount of climate news you consume may help “if somebody’s feeling particularly overwhelmed by climate anxiety”.

Woman sitting on the floor clutching her chest.
Taking a bit of a breather from climate-related news can be very helpful in coping with climate anxiety. (Image: Joice Keller/Unsplash)

“This isn’t the same as denying climate change, and it isn’t the same as denying that emotional experience but rather creating a little bit of space and taking a breath from the negative stories that we are often bombarded with so we can look at those feelings and thoughts in more depth,” he says.

Vahrmeyer says: “There can be a sense of empowerment from actually experiencing and processing these feelings, coming to terms with the fact that these major changes on the planet may not be reversible but can be mitigated in certain ways.”

Instead of hearing we’re all doomed, it may be a case of rewiring your brain to think about how to do something about it. 

They can then move on from feeling anxious and maybe look at affecting small but significant change, whether personally with their own climate choices or by engaging with environmental groups, petitioning politicians, or learning more about the science behind climate change and educating others.

That’s the third and final point that Vahrmeyer encourages for people dealing with climate anxiety: engaging in things that are both meaningful and impactful in terms of feeling less helpless.

This will create a necessary balance that will ensure you have a positive mental attitude towards climate change.

Is eco-anxiety a mental illness?

It is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and is therefore not considered a diagnosable mental illness by professionals. 

Feeling concerned about the climate is quite a normal and natural response, according to Vahrmeyer and it is not necessary to classify these kinds of feelings as a “disorder”.

Vahrmeyer, who also feels anxious about the climate on occasion, says, “Anybody who is, I’d say, in touch with reality is going to be in touch with the realities of climate change. Somebody who might come to me to say they’ve noticed the floods and wildfires and heatwaves and feel anxious about that, I would say that is a very ordinary response.”

The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.

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