In recent years, the term climate anxiety has gone from obscurity to familiarity, highlighting the growing awareness of how witnessing escalating climate disasters affects our mental health.
Climate anxiety, more acute climate trauma, and climate grief are phrases that, as Dr. Sarah Lowe, a psychologist who researches climate and mental health at Yale University, describes our various emotional and cognitive responses to a rapidly changing environment. A striking 2021 study by the University of Bath highlighted the depth of this concern: half of young respondents admitted to feeling fear, sadness, powerlessness and guilt about our planet’s ecological trajectory, with a staggering 75% finding the future terrifying.
In the midst of this overwhelming anxiety, the question arises: How can we transform our anxieties into actionable solutions?
Get into collective action. Lowes’ own studies show that working with others toward productive environmental goals constructively channels our concerns and is also therapeutic. What we found was that anxiety about climate change was associated with greater depressive symptoms only for those students who were not engaged in collective action. For those who engaged in collective action, climate change anxiety was actually unrelated to depression, Lowe says.
So how can we take collective action and channel our anxiety for good? Here’s what the experts say.
Deeper engagement with our communities is an affordable, invaluable way to begin the process of building social cohesion and resilience to stressors like natural disasters, says Dr. Britt Ray, who studies climate and mental health at Stanford University School of Medicine and author of Gen Dread, a newsletter about entrepreneurship. action while experiencing climate sadness. Communities with strong social ties where people learn how to follow and lead each other and achieve common goals, she says, weather adversity much better than places where ties are weaker. Just think how much easier it is to talk to neighbors you’re already friendly with, compared to complete strangers down the block.
Dr. Amruta Nori-Sarma, who researches the intersection of environmental exposures and mental health at Boston University’s School of Public Health, says her studies consistently show that strong community ties boost resilience during severe weather, such as extreme heat. In apartments and neighborhoods with strong communities, individuals proactively check in on each other, ensuring resources are available to all and safeguarding each other’s well-being.
A growing body of research examines the relationship between social capital and the ability of individuals to promote and coordinate collective action in communities. To harness this power, Ray says we need to invest in building relationships: for example by getting to know our neighbors, getting off our devices and going to a shared physical space where we can connect with people, such as co-working in community centres, public gardens and local markets. This not only protects us in times of trouble, but also provides the mutual benefit of reducing loneliness. It’s really about what people do best, says Ray. We are social creatures.
Break the silence on the climate crisis with open discussion
Since the climate crisis is a serious and often politicized topic, talking about it can carry a certain taboo. Those experiencing climate anxiety may worry about committing a social faux pas by talking about it or being dismissed as overly pessimistic.
Still, breaking the silence around the climate crisis is a great way to step into collaboration and action with those around us, especially since more people on both sides of the political spectrum support pro-climate legislation than most of us realize; research shows that Americans underestimate the nation’s concern about the state of the climate and support for major climate change mitigation policies by a striking 80-90%.
While 65% of Americans surveyed by Yale University researchers say the issue of global warming is personally important to them, 66% of Americans say they rarely or never discuss global warming with family and friends. How can we really organize and step into common collective goals around something that we do not articulate, verbalize and externalize? Ray asks. In order to take action, we must first share our interest in doing the work together. According to atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, the most important thing you can do to fight climate change is to talk about it.
Stay abreast of international issues and apply what you learn locally
In many developed countries, discussions of environmental anxiety are often localized, ignoring the immediate threats facing other parts of the world in favor of what looms in our own backyards.
Namra Khalid, a Pakistani cartographer, lives at the forefront of the climate crisis. Her work on data visualization, data collection and detailed mapping of Karachi is helping the city prepare for and prevent future floods. In 2015, we had a heat wave in which over 2,000 people died in the city. Last year we had the worst possible floods in Pakistan. Thirty-three million people have almost become homeless, Khalid says.
For Khalid, addressing the climate crisis is not just a concern; it is an existential imperative. I don’t think it’s an option for any channel [climate distress] productive or not. It is a matter of survival. No one else will stand up for us unless we do, she says.
Khalid’s call to action is two-fold: raising awareness and resilience to learning. She calls on those in the Global North to be aware of climate disasters in developing countries and advocate for aid and investment in disaster-stricken regions, as well as learn from their experiences.
It’s a good point to start learning from what’s happening here, because that’s how it is today [in Pakistan] and tomorrow it will also be a global problem, she says. By broadening our lens and learning from global experiences, we can better channel our anxiety into informed action. We can move from advocating for global climate initiatives to preparing for our own local climate challenges. We live on the same planet, says Khalid.
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