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March 15, 2022

How to Cope with Climate Anxiety

Ivan Alsina Jurnet
February 17, 2022
How to Cope with Climate Anxiety

Climate change has started to be widely recognized as one of the greatest threats faced by humanity in the 21st century. Human-induced environmental changes include global warming due to changes in the composition of the atmosphere, species extinction, land surface transformation, deforestation, rising sea levels, erosion of the ozone layer, as well as acidification of lakes, streams, rivers, and oceans (Lewis & Maslin, 2015; Ruddiman, 2013). It is easy to observe an increasing frequency and intensity of climate change-induced natural disasters, which can result in severe mental health consequences for the population.

Several authors (Berry et al., 2010; Palinkas & Wong, 2020) have identified three main types of climate change events that can have a negative impact on mental health:

Table 1. Types of climate change events
  1. Extreme Weather Events (EWE) and natural disasters lasting for some days (for ex.: hurricanes, wildfires, floods or short-duration heat waves)
  2. Subacute weather events that can last for some months or years (for ex.: droughts, long-duration heat waves, etc.)
  3. Long-term environmental changes lasting to the end of this century and beyond (for ex.: higher temperatures, rising sea levels, uninhabitable physical environments, etc.)

Each type of climate change can be associated with specific economic losses, reduced economic productivity, population displacement, social conflict and violence, threats to health and well-being associated with potential injuries, deaths or spread of illnesses, among other consequences (Palinkas & Wong, 2020). Those factors can have both direct and indirect impacts on the population's psychological well-being (Thompson, 2021).  Given this context, the American Psychological Association (Swim et. al, 2009) report about climate change identified six main areas for psychology:

  1. Risk perception
  2. Psychological and behavioural causes of climate change
  3. Psychosocial impacts of climate change
  4. Adaptation and coping strategies
  5. Psychosocial barriers to action
  6. The role of psychologists

Climate anxiety from direct exposure

The available literature exploring how climate change affects the psychological wellbeing of the population is steadily increasing. The Handbook of Climate Psychology (2020) defines the term climate anxiety as a “heightened emotional, mental or somatic distress in response to dangerous changes in the climate system”, while Albrecht (2011) coined the term eco-anxiety to describe the chronic fear of environmental doom, ranging from mild stress to clinical disorders related to anxiety, stress, and mood disorders. 

Current research has shown that climate anxiety and eco-anxiety are associated with a variety of mood and anxiety-related clinical disorders (Alderman et al., 2012; Berry 2009; Berry et al., 2008, 2010; Boscarino et al., 2014; Bourque & Wilox, 2014; Bryant et al., 2014; Carroll et. al, 2009; Clayton et al., 2014; Doherty & Clayton, 2011; Fritze et al., 2008; Simpson et al., 2011; Wilox et al., 2012, 2013, 2015):

Table 2. Acute and chronic mental health effects of climate change
  • Trauma and shock
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
  • Compounded stress
  • Strains on social relationships
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Suicide
  • Substance abuse
  • Aggression and violence
  • Feelings of helplessness, fear, and fatalism

For example, some studies have demonstrated that mental-health related hospital admissions and emergency department visits for psychological conditions such as affective disorders, anxiety, depression or schizophrenia increased with high temperatures (Basu et al., 2017; Zhang et al., 2020), while heat waves have also been associated with an increased risk of suicide and self-harm (Liu et al., 2021; Thompson et al., 2018). In a similar way, persons living in areas affected by hurricanes have high levels of suicide and suicidal ideation, are affected by mood disorders, and can experience symptoms of PTSD (Bryant et al., 2014; Kessler et al., 2008; Lowe et al., 2013). Empirical investigations have also identified that exposure to floods is usually associated with symptoms of acute depression, anxiety, and amplifies the risk of suicide (Obradovich et al., 2018).

In general, the negative impact on the levels of stress and anxiety evoked by experiencing events associated with climate change such as storms, land loss or droughts and other extreme climate events is well-documented (Clayton et al., 2017; Manning & Clayton, 2018; Obradovich et al, 2018).

Climate anxiety from general awareness of climate change

A growing number of studies describe the negative emotional consequences associated with the individuals’ perception of climate change, without being directly exposed to specific events (Berry & Peel, 2015; Helm et al., 2018; Reser et al., 2012). A recent survey by the American Psychological Association (2018) documented that 51% of the respondents considered climate change as “a somewhat or significant source of stress”. In a similar way, a survey conducted by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication (Leiserowitz et al., 2018) revealed that 69% of  Americans are at least somewhat worried about global warming, while 29% are very worried about it. According to data Google provided to nonprofit climate newsroom Grist, searches for “climate anxiety” rose 565% between October 2020 and October 2021, showing society' growing awareness of this topic.

Observing the irrevocable impact of climate change can lead us to ruminate about the future of ourselves, our children, and later generations.  The gradual, constant, and irrevocable changes in climate change are associated with feelings of fear, anger and exhaustion (Moser, 2007). Some persons can also experience a feeling of guilt and responsibility about climate change, as they contemplate the consequences of their own behavior on future generations. Moser (2013) found that people are affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change.

As natural disasters and abnormal climate events increase in frequency and are attributed to global climate change, the worry about such events has started to have a negative impact on individuals’ psychological well-being. Thus, the mental health of persons not directly affected by it are also impacted by the patterns of climate change.

How to reduce climate anxiety

According to mental health professionals, one of the main recommendations for confronting climate anxiety is to take action. The main goal is to take an active role and to answer the question “What can I do?”. Doing things that have personal relevance, be they small or large, can produce a positive impact on both the individual and the society.

A feeling of collective efficacy can also enhance resilience and encourage the adoption of a more active role. For example, informal support groups have been formed to connect people that are worried about climate change, such as the Good Grief Network or the ISeeChange community climate and weather platform. Kate Shapira also started a project on “Climate Anxiety Counseling”, where users can share their personal stories and fears.

Beyond those initiatives, some psychotherapists started to adopt specific therapeutic approaches such as enhanced self-efficacy, finding sources of meaning, or simply, reconnecting with nature (Andrews, 2017; Clayton et al., 2017; Doherty, 2015; Pols, 2018). Specifically, Virtual Reality (VR) technologies can offer a unique possibility to help users reconnect with natural landscapes, by allowing them to explore beautiful scenes that otherwise can be difficult to visit or that might disappear in the near future due to climate change. The possibility to visit, engage with, and to explore virtual natural environments can raise users’ interest and concern about climate change, facilitating the adoption of an active role in tackling climate change.

In November 2021, Relax VR decided to join Stripe Climate and began giving 0.5% of its total revenue to help counteract climate change.

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