Climate change is transforming the earth and environment at an alarming rate. From floods to droughts to wildfires, communities are experiencing extreme events around the globe. Gen Y, Gen Z, and marginalized groups, among others, are experiencing a new phenomenon called climate anxiety — fearful of what the future holds due to climate change.
Current and future threats of environmental change are causing detrimental impacts on mental health. The American Psychological Association indicates that over three quarters of Americans are concerned about climate change, and those who are most alarmed nearly doubled from 2017 to 2021. This can cause fear, hopelessness, anger, exhaustion, and sadness. Additionally, people who experience traumatic natural disasters often lose their positive relationship to the natural areas surrounding them.
The stress of climate change can take a deeper toll on marginalized groups such as people of color, people of lower socio-economic status, Indigenous people, and people with disabilities. This is due to their already increased likelihood of physical and mental health complications and lack of ability to treat these complications. Social, political, and economic disparities put these groups at the most risk of being impacted by a changing climate.
Anxiety itself is not necessarily pathological, but when it becomes strong enough to alter one’s ability to deal with the problem, it can affect mental health. Perceived ecological stress, defined as personal stress associated with environmental problems, is a predictor of depression-related symptoms.
This combination of anxiety and depression can emerge more strongly in people who have experienced or anticipate experiencing direct effects of climate change. People who live on islands are more likely to experience extreme flooding or extreme weather events. Tuvalu (an island country in the Pacific), for example, is a country that is at significant risk of climate change and ninety-five percent of people there reported distress from climate change.
Mental health is positively impacted by people’s access to green spaces and nature. However, climate change can also destroy these spaces. For instance, wildfires, floods, and droughts are destroying natural environments and are displacing people from their homes. This loss of place and connections to the community result in increased stress and negative mental health impacts. Here are actions that may help with climate anxiety:
- Live more in alignment with your values. Changing your lifestyle in small ways such as eating less meat and dairy and driving less can make you feel like you are in more control of the world around you.
- Protect and nurture local green spaces. Green spaces reduce carbon dioxide and flooding and are also found to reduce stress and anxiety.
- Talk to other people who are also feeling this anxiety. This will allow you to express your feelings on climate change and feel less alone.
- Recognize that saving the climate isn’t your job. The outcome of the climate does not rest on your shoulders. Advocate for change locally.
- Write a letter to local politicians regarding climate policy, go to local protests, and talk to your workplace about changes they can make to be more environmentally friendly.
By: Anna Wachsmuth, PSS Intern