by Mason Smith

The phrase “climate change” brings up a lot of strong feelings: discomfort, worry, and confusion among them. In thinking about climate change, there is a great deal of concern for the well-being of the planet. We’ve also begun to realize that climate change has adverse effects on our physical health. But it’s not just our physical health, climate change is taking a toll on our mental health, too.

There are many environmental factors that can contribute to poor mental health. Some of the more apparent ones include major hurricanes, mass power outages from snowstorms, and destructive tsunamis. More persistent daily conditions can also weigh on one’s mental health, such as living somewhere that’s so dense with pollution that you can’t see the sun. These are some of the more extreme examples of the adverse effects of climate change, but you don’t have to be personally impacted by a natural disaster or another major climate event to feel climate change’s toll on your mental health. Even the gradual effects of climate change, such as increasing temperatures, have the power to induce irritability and stress.

What is climate anxiety?

In conversations about the climate crisis, you may have heard phrases such as “climate anxiety” and “climate grief.” These are normal feelings of dread as we perceive the effects of climate change on the world, our communities, our families, and ourselves. How might you experience this in your own body? Climate anxiety may show up through feelings as simple as a sense of hopelessness about the future of our planet and the life that it sustains. You may feel guilt or shame related to your own carbon footprint, as well as worries about climate change that feel like they won’t go away. You might find yourself engaging in fatalistic thinking, in which disaster feels inevitable.

You’re not alone

Struggling with your mental health can sometimes feel like an isolating experience, making it difficult to be vulnerable about how you are feeling. However, as we consider the toll that climate change is taking on our planet and on our physical health, as well as the uncertainty of the planet’s future, it is normal to feel the effects on our mental health. Feeling stressed or anxious isn’t a bad thing. While these emotions might not feel good, they are not an unusual response to the current state of our planet. They can also be used as a tool to motivate us towards positive change. 

If you are feeling these things, take the time to have a conversation with someone who is close to you and might be struggling with the same sorts of feelings. There are plenty of online chat forums if you are uncomfortable initiating these conversations in person. Even if talking doesn’t seem like it will solve the issue, it will allow your body to release hormones that mitigate the negative feelings of stress. Also, talking to someone else about climate grief may help you realize that you are not alone in these feelings. Others close to you are likely feeling the exact same way!

Justice & Equity Implications

While we may all experience impacts of the climate crisis that weigh on our mental health, we must also recognize that climate change is a social justice issue and people of color are often impacted first and worst by the most devastating impacts, including natural disasters and pollution. The ticking clock of climate change can lead to a tremendous sense of urgency and the feelings of stress and anxiety can cloud sound decision-making and stop us from fully assessing justice and equity implications in pursuit of the quickest fix possible.

As we address climate anxiety and grief within ourselves and our spaces, we must ask ourselves key questions to assess any privilege we may be holding. Author Sarah Jaquette Ray, author of A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety suggests, “instead of just asking ‘What can I do to stop feeling so anxious?’, ‘What can I do to save the planet?’ and ‘What hope is there?’, people with privilege can be asking ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How am I connected to all of this?’ The answers reveal that we are deeply interconnected with the well-being of others on this planet, and that there are traditions of environmental stewardship that can be guides for where we need to go from here.” You can read more on this topic here.

What can we do?

First and foremost, make sure that your basic needs are met; sometimes when we are feeling overwhelmed, we can overlook our basic needs such as eating well and maintaining a healthy sleep schedule. Something as simple as going for a quick walk is a great way to clear your head. Thinking too much about the future of the planet can start an anxious downward spiral that may become difficult to pull yourself out of. Practicing different techniques such as mindfulness allows you to ground yourself in the present and pay attention to where you are now. 

Practicing mindfulness

Scheduling 15-30 minutes every day to practice mindfulness can have great long-term benefits to your mental health. But whatever amount of time you are able to take will have positive outcomes regardless.

The first step to practicing mindfulness is to find a quiet, and comfortable place. Get yourself into a comfortable position and close your eyes. 

Relax your legs, then your arms, then your shoulders, then your head. 

Next, focus on your breathing. Feel the air as it moves into your nose, into your lungs and stomach, and fills your whole body. 

Sit comfortably in this state for about 15-30 minutes, until you feel reconnected with the present. 

During this process, it is normal for your mind to wander. Gently turn your attention back to your breathing and the sensations of your breaths throughout your body.

Practicing grounding

Unlike mindfulness, which requires both dedicated space and time, grounding consists of several mental exercises that can be used discreetly at nearly any time or place. There are many different grounding techniques you can try to see which ones work best for you! For example:

Name 5 things you can see, 4 that you can touch, 3 that you can hear, 2 that you can smell, and 1 that you can taste.

Pick an object near you and describe it in detail: its color, shape, size, texture, and anything else you may notice.

Name all of your family members, their ages, and one of their favorite things

Taking action

While climate grief may, at times, seem to completely overwhelm our lives, it is important to be able to take a step back and practice self-care. By doing so, we can continue to channel our most positive efforts into the fight for climate justice. As we practice different techniques to cope with climate anxiety, it doesn’t mean that we should get rid of the thoughts altogether. Allowing ourselves to fully acknowledge our feelings, whether positive or negative, encourages us to stay motivated in our work as climate activists. If we ignore our feelings altogether, or try to convince ourselves that our fears are unrealistic, we will no longer be motivated to advocate for positive change. Once we have made use of mindfulness and grounding techniques to draw ourselves back to the present, we can focus on the things that we are able to do right now to help fight the climate crisis. When we redirect our energy towards working for a better future – and work from a place of compassion and forgiveness – we have the power to make a difference.