Eco-Anxiety – a Real, Often Frightening Thing

Climate change. Image credit: Pixaby

by Debra Atlas

#EcoAnxiety; #ClimateChange; #GoodGriefNetwork

The idea of climate change affecting people’s well-being may seem like science fiction.  Yet the evidence of climate change has barreled full force into our lives – more frequent, more destructive hurricanes; rising temperatures; melting glaciers and disintegrating ice shelves; severe droughts. This has given rise to what’s termed eco-anxiety. And psychologists are paying attention.

A 2017 report by the American Psychological Association linked the impact of climate change to mental health and referenced ‘eco-anxiety’ as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” The Climate Psychology Alliance –  founded by Portland psychologist Thomas Dogherty who specializes in climate – sees this as “an inevitable, even healthy response to the ecological threats we are facing, such as food / water shortages, extreme weather events, species extinction, increased health issues (and pandemics), social unrest and potentially the demise of human life on Earth.”

According to a NY Times article, many leaders in mental health maintain that anxiety over climate change is no different, clinically, from anxiety caused by other societal threats, like terrorism or school shootings. And climate-related anxiety seems to be more common in young people.

The “People’s Climate Vote” – an innovative poll by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)  and the University of Oxford released in early 2021 – surveyed 1.2 million people, over 500,000 under the age of 18. In that poll, young people (under 18) were more likely to say climate change is an emergency than older people. But 65 percent of 18 to 35-year-olds agreed.

Another climate anxiety survey of 10,000 young people (aged 16-25) across ten countries revealed:

  • over 45 percent said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily lives.
  • three-quarters believe “the future is frightening.”
  • 56 percent said “humanity is doomed.”

A 2018 United States survey found almost 70 percent were worried about climate change, while around 51 percent felt “helpless.”

In 2019, Graham Lawton – a staff writer and columnist at New Scientist, and the author of The Origin of (Almost) Everything – said that “what we are witnessing isn’t a tsunami of mental illness, but a long-overdue outbreak of sanity.

This outpouring of climate-related distress runs the gamut of emotions – fear, anxiety (which can escalate to panic), anger, helplessness, sadness, grief, depression, numbness, restlessness, and sleeplessness.

Dr. Panu Pihkala, the co-author of the young people’s climate anxiety study, says many young people know the links between government inaction and the crisis and feel betrayed by their governments. Climate anxiety exists, he said, because the damage to ecosystems and humans is so vast, and there is too much inaction, especially from decision-makers. Young people aren’t looking for sympathy or a mental health framing. They want their voices to be heard and for fairness and justice in climate politics.

Eco-anxiety has triggered the evolution of a field of psychology called ecopsychology. It studies the relationship between human beings and the natural environment through ecological and psychological principles. It’s the focus is on well-being.

Alan Silverblatt, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who’s been in practice almost 30 years, says massive things are going on in society that people don’t have control over. “We feel overwhelmed.”

“During the (Walter) Cronkite days,” he said, “We listened to a half-hour of news per day and we were informed.” Now it comes at us constantly from all directions.

Many therapists are saying to restrict the amount of news we take in daily. “Humans are informed by our auditory (sense),” Silverblatt says. It’s how we process things.

Silverblatt made some commonsense suggestions to help deal with this kind of anxiety and overwhelm.

“We can do our part to be good global citizens,” he said. First and foremost, identify those things you do have control over – your carbon footprint, what you drive, what your personal actions are.

Then, he said, it comes down to the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

We need, said Silverblatt, to focus 100 percent of our energy on what we can change and zero percent on the things we wish we could change but can’t.

COVID, climate change, pollution, education – these are important issues. But when we focus on our actions and not our worry, that frees us up.

There are networks and organizations available to help people living with eco-anxiety. Among them are Good Grief Network – a nonprofit organization that brings people together to assimilate and process collective grief, eco-anxiety, and other deep emotions that arise in response to alarming planetary crises. It utilizes a 10-Step approach inspired by the Alcoholics Anonymous model, which runs peer-to-peer support groups to help people recognize, feel, and process their emotions, so that these feelings may be transformed into meaningful action.

Silverblatt says a simple 3-part process can help you begin to manage climate-related anxiety and overwhelm:

  1. Identify what is, not what if
  2. Just the facts (get out of the emotion)
  3. Focus on one and only one next step

Erica Dodds, PhD, CEO of the Foundation for Climate Restoration and sustainability, climate change and eco-anxiety expert says “The reality is that high-level, systemic change will have the largest impact, so your voice as a citizen calling for that change will ultimately have a greater impact than your vegan diet or electric car.”

Sarah Fielding, author of the article “The Current State of Climate Anxiety”, said it best. “You don’t need to be the savior of the universe. Every little thing you do to help makes a difference.”

Debra Atlas is an environmental journalist and the author of the book You Aren’t Depression’s Victim.

She can be reached at or through her website