It’s Time to Talk about Climate Anxiety

Don’t bottle it up—openly acknowledging your climate anxiety and grief gives you the power to heal and move forward.

An illustration of two people lying down on grass surrounded by flowers on one side and litter on the other, with one person holding a ladybug in their hands

Danny Jackson for NRDC

As the climate crisis intensifies, many of us are feeling overwhelmed by just how much is at stake. And it’s hard not to feel climate anxiety when faced with our reality: raging storms, extreme heat, water shortages, phones buzzing with air quality alerts. 

Young people are rightfully stressed about the slow pace of climate action, aware that their generation is paying the price for the degraded planet they’ve inherited. We know the consequences will only snowball if global leaders don’t make good on the promises to limit global warming set out in the Paris Agreement

And anyone who has survived a climate-fueled disaster—lost their job, home, or friends and family members—is likely struggling with serious mental health challenges.

NRDC senior environmental health advocate Juanita Constible, who focuses on climate adaptation, notes that even as we continue to fight for climate solutions and a healthier future, we also need to reframe how we think of the predicament we’re in. “Part of grappling with climate anxiety and grief is recognizing that there is no going back to some previous world. Instead, we have to re-envision how to live safely and joyfully in our current and future one.”

But first, we must bring our climate anxiety and grief into the light. Openly talking about these feelings can kick-start new and different kinds of conversations about our future. 

What is eco-anxiety?

In 2017, the American Psychological Association (APA) coauthored a seminal report that drew attention to our growing state of “eco-anxiety,” defining it as a chronic fear of environmental doom. The authors noted that eco-anxiety can affect community well-being “through the loss of social identity and cohesion, hostility, violence, and interpersonal and intergroup aggression.” 

None of those consequences should come as a surprise—after all, with eco-anxiety, we are coping with not only literal loss of life, but loss of ecosystems and wildlife, collapsed infrastructure, and fewer safe places for people to live. 

The APA didn’t give eco-anxiety or climate anxiety a clinical definition that could result in an official diagnosis but described these conditions as widespread. For example, psychiatric experts recently warned that “more people are affected psychologically than medically after any given hurricane.” 

What is climate anxiety—and what are the dangers?

Climate anxiety, triggered by our growing fears in the face of climate change, can cause conflict avoidance, fatalism, and resignation. It can also lead to grief: Witnessing the transformation of a treasured landscape or homeland—a coastline disappearing into marshy seawater, iconic animals and wild food sources, like Pacific salmon, vanishing—is undeniably distressing. 

The way climate impacts like sea level rise and drought are felt in communities—often in those that have contributed the least to climate change—is heartbreaking. Solutions can seem too small or too out of reach. These feelings of helplessness can wash over us. 

“Loss ruptures our capacity for engagement and connection,” says Ari Simon, a climate policy and public engagement specialist who facilitates well-being workshops through their consultancy, Grief at Work

Without resources to help people process and build resilience, “grief can become stored in the body as trauma,” Simon notes, which threatens our ability to adapt and thrive. That’s why the APA is calling on climate communicators, planners, policymakers, public health professionals, and other leaders to take these mental health issues seriously. 

After all, with more interventions, we can help people get back on their feet. Better access to counseling for people who have lost their jobs, homes, or friends and families in climate-fueled disasters builds resilience. So does support for mutual aid groups, nonprofits, or houses of worship that are often the first responders after a severe storm—and increasingly provide the community spaces to process the ongoing losses associated with climate change and environmental injustice. 

How to cope with climate anxiety and grief

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to coping. “Grief and loss are really personal,” says Simon. “Everyone has their own journey.” It can vary across cultures, take many different forms, and be experienced differently, even when in response to a collective experience, they point out. But for starters, know that it’s okay to take a break and to let yourself do nothing as a way to process the loss. 

Beyond having the space and time to grieve, Simon says that to cope with feelings of climate anxiety, we need acknowledgement from others, a sense of purpose, and a sense of connection to other people (as through support groups) and other living things, as well as to nature. They also emphasize the importance of laughter. “Laughter is scientifically proven to be a really helpful coping strategy for grief and loss.” 

Being forced to quickly get back on our feet can be counterproductive. “A primary purpose of grieving is to restore our ability to be in connection with ourselves and others,” Simon says. “And having strong reactions to difficult changes and losses can be a sign of aliveness, alertness, paying attention, and healthy coping.”

Like Constible, Simon focuses their environmental work on climate adaptation, which they note is, by design, a response to loss. “Its whole point is to implement physical and social infrastructure to help us acknowledge and adapt and thrive amid climate change and grieving.” 

As an example, Simon points out a case they were involved in, in which a community living in low-lying areas along the San Francisco Bay felt angered and fatigued after repeatedly coping with flooding in and around their homes. When residents came forward, local leaders heard their concerns and created a new flood district to modernize critical infrastructure and engage in public discussions. 

With Simon’s guidance, “the flood district decided to begin by working at the intersection of grief care, emergency response, and community-led data collection.” Simon led the team in conducting one-on-one listening sessions for residents to share their perspectives and recruited community leads to document their experiences with rainfall events, high tides, flooding, and other issues affecting their homes.

Ultimately, the project team began using that feedback to develop more short-term adaptation solutions while continuing to work on longer-term solutions, from public alert systems to sandbagging. Equally important, Simon helped program managers and local agencies integrate psychological safety and loss-honoring practices into their work with community groups.

How to turn climate anxiety into action 

Just talking about our fears of climate change is a big step, and it’s still relatively uncommon: Studies show us that just 36 percent of Americans discuss climate change “at least occasionally.” As Constible urges, “We need to break the climate silence that makes it easier to ignore the peril we’re in—and ultimately, to do nothing about it.”

We also need to be compassionate listeners and be open to educating those who don’t share our fears about the future. Research shows that just having conversations about climate change can increase acceptance of climate science among families and friends. With those shifts in behavior and mindset, we can more readily embrace the core solutions that will help us move forward together. 

For a case of the climate change blues, it’s also important to find ways to get outside into nature, which helps to reduce negative, repetitive thought patterns and provide comfort and inspiration. Take a walk or a hike, go birding, or hop on a bicycle or into a kayak. Dig your hands into the soil and plant something—whether that’s in a nearby community garden or your backyard. 

Most important, band together with others to speak out when you encounter climate injustice. (Maybe you’re ready to learn how to become hometown climate activist.)

A famous slogan from the labor movement tells us, “Don’t mourn—organize!” But we’ve learned that taking the time to mourn is fundamental and necessary: It moves us toward action. 

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988, or 911 immediately.

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