Ecoanxiety: Climate Crisis and Mental Meltdown
Have you ever learned something about the state of the environment that made you want to give up on life? Maybe it was the latest statistics on biodiversity loss, the realization of how much plastic is and will be in landfills for thousands of years, or maybe it was the latest and bleakest climate reports forecasting a future of environmental hardship even if we adopted radical reform in the next few years.
Whatever it was, how did it make you feel? Did you feel overwhelmed, hopeless, helpless? Maybe angry, sad, or even guilty?
What you may be feeling is a condition that is gaining recognition in many circles of psychologists, environmental scientists, activists, and mainstream outlets: ecoanxiety. Aptly, this set of emotions is alternatively referred to as “environmental anxiety,” “climate anxiety,” and “eco-grief.” In a 70-page report on mental health and climate change released in 2017, the American Psychological Association recognized this prevalent problem. “Watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations” can contribute to “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”1
In the past year, ecoanxiety has been featured more prominently in the news, as schools are seeing more students struggling with the condition, which ties into how the climate crisis has inflamed intergenerational conflict.2
This is best exemplified by Greta Thunberg, now 17-year old climate activist, whose words often emphasize how unfair it is that the overconsumption of previous generations have brought consequences that will be felt largely by the younger generations, not the guilty party. “You have stolen my dreams, my childhood, with your empty words,” she said, visibly distressed, at a United Nations organized gathering of world leaders in September, 2019.3
I, myself, experienced ecoanxiety earlier this year, when a class introduced to me many criticisms of the environmental policies that had previously given me hope. I was overwhelmed with emotion and as everything around me reminded me of how unsustainable our situation is, I couldn’t escape these feelings. I felt hopeless, guilty, and frustrated. Plus, as an environmental studies major, I panicked about what a career in environmental issues means for the future of my mental health. What if I work my entire life to stop the worst from happening and it happens anyways? Maybe I should spare myself the pain and just do nothing.
Eventually, the intensity of the anxiety abated, but I wondered: who else may be feeling this way, too? And how can we deal with these feelings and use them to create meaningful change in our world?
In searching for answers, I interviewed Jeffrey Kiehl, an adjunct professor for the UCSC Earth & Planetary Sciences department who, after being a climate scientist for over 30 years, returned to school to study psychology—more specifically, our emotional responses to the climate crisis.4
When studying these emotional responses and how to deal with them, it can help to look for similar patterns in emotions and behavior in other situations. For instance, some have compared global consumption of fossil fuels to an addiction. But Kiehl sees more than that. “When I asked people in my talks…‘How are you feeling right now about what I’ve just told you in terms of what we’re doing to the planet?’ the responses that I got were…all strong emotional responses: ‘I feel hopeless.’ ‘I feel helpless.’ ‘I’m angry.’ ‘I’m depressed.’ ‘I spaced out—I dissociated’…All of those responses are symptoms of a trauma.”4
Kiehl isn’t the only one to see climate anxiety as a form of trauma. Other psychologists have dubbed it a type of “pre-traumatic stress disorder,” emotions that come from the anticipation of traumatic events such as natural disasters, extinction events, and planetary turmoil.5
The problem with trauma, however, is that it causes dissociation, paralysis, and hopelessness, none of which motivate us to take action. In order to cope, we may just put it out of our minds.4 Even Andrew Szasz, who taught environmental sociology at UCSC for 33 years before his recent retirement, experiences this: “I repress it…you can’t live feeling so bad all the time, right? And you have to get up in the morning and take care of your everyday needs. So there is an upwelling of these very intense negative feelings and then I kind of move beyond it and act like it isn’t happening.”6
So how do we deal with our ecoanxiety and keep it from paralyzing us?
Feel Your Feelings!
It may seem counterintuitive, but Kiehl’s first recommendation, as a clinical psychologist, is to just feel the ecoanxiety, not try to conquer it or distract yourself.4 Perhaps Aysha Peterson, a 3rd year PhD student in the environmental studies (ENVS) department, said it best: “I actually think what we need to do is really feel the weight of all of the problems that are around us and … be guided by our feelings more.”7
An even better coping strategy, Kiehl says, is to work through your emotions with others. “[When you] physically sit together and everybody talks about how they’re feeling about climate change, just that alone helps you process that anxiety. It helps you work with that anxiety and to admit that you’re actually feeling anxious.”4
I spoke to Valeria Mena and Lourdes De La Torre, leaders at UCSC’s Student Environmental Center (SEC), about conversations on ecoanxiety they’ve been having among environmental organizations on campus. “We try to have these conversations so that our members are not entirely by themselves when it comes to this. We just try to bring each other hope in regards to [continuing] organizing and encouraging others that they could take action,” says Mena. “It doesn’t just affect a few people. It’s affecting the whole world. And so it would be really sad if people didn’t talk about it,” De La Torre adds.8,9
Peterson stresses more broadly the importance of maintaining and deepening relationships with the people around us as a way of changing how we think about environmental issues. “I think my education on political issues has really helped me have less anxiety around reducing climate change and have more anxiety around ‘I’ve got to learn how to love the people around me,’ because that’s more urgent,” says Peterson.7 This is an important point; if we fail to prevent the effects of climate change, solidarity then becomes of paramount importance.
Not only do interpersonal connections help people find solace, but so does fostering a better relationship with the natural world. When I asked how she often copes with her ecoanxiety, Mena said, “taking a walk, even here in Santa Cruz, it’s just a really beautiful environment. So it’s very easy to just kind of calm down when you’re in [it]. It’s important to have time to reflect and also meditate in this environment and—it’s a gift at the same time, so might as well acknowledge it.”8 Kiehl cites research that supports the stress-reduction effects of nature, but also touts its potential to imbue people with a more environmentally-friendly attitude. “If you don’t have [a connection to nature], you’re going to look at nature as just some usable resource: it’s there to serve our needs, we can exploit it, we can destroy it…That can’t happen or it’s less likely to happen if you have acute connection to the natural world.”4
For Peterson, her relationship with nature takes on a spirituality. Immersing herself in nature, she says, helps her get “to a place where I actually remember that the land and ocean are here supporting me and hopefully vice versa—hopefully I can be supporting them too…letting it be about something really personal rather than it being about responsibility or guilt—letting it be about connection.”7
However, it doesn’t have to be something deep and spiritual, Kiehl argues, nor does it matter whether you live in a forest or a city, “just develop some behavior, daily behavior, which puts you in touch with some other than human form of life. That alone can make a difference.”4
Feeling and processing your emotions is a very important first step in addressing ecoanxiety internally, but it doesn’t really change what’s happening around you externally. Of course, one of the common effects of ecoanxiety is feelings of hopelessness and paralysis, but if you can break free from that paralysis just a little bit and take action, you might discover a world of hope.
Be What You Want to See
Taking action as an individual sometimes seems like the easier thing to do. After all, only you have control over your own actions, so if you live your life as sustainably you wish everyone would live, maybe you’ll have an environmental impact (no matter how small) or inspire others to take similar action—lead by example.
For example, Brook Constantz, a first-year ENVS grad student, tries his best to reduce his impact on the environment, such as trying to live close enough to bike or walk to work. “I purposefully bought a house close to my work when I was living in Sacramento so I didn’t have to pollute,” he explains.10
You may also have done things individually to try to reduce your effect on the planet such as using reusable water bottles, saving up to buy a hybrid car, buying local produce, or composting. These are important and potentially necessary steps to societal improvement, but even after doing everything he’s done to reduce his impact, Constantz still seems a bit demoralized. He states matter-of-factly, “I’m not doing enough. Maybe you’re doing enough. I’m not doing enough.”10 And that’s the thing about individual action: while it can make us feel better sometimes, other times it just doesn’t feel like enough.
When I spoke to Peterson, she advocated against narratives of individual responsibility. “I think the fact that so many of us as individuals feel this kind of responsibility is a product of corporate efforts to do that: to push the responsibility onto us. And…resisting that anxiety and that individualized mindset, that’s a really important step in holding corporations responsible for this.”7 Peterson has a point here: isn’t individual responsibility part of how we became this anxious in the first place—from feeling guilty and overwhelmed?
So while acting on our own can perhaps relieve ourselves of a little shame and is sometimes part of a trend towards spreading greener lifestyles, how may it be feeding into a more insidious narrative? By just getting down on ourselves for not doing enough, we excuse the biggest culprits of environmental degradation: institutions larger than ourselves such as our government and big business.
Join the Movement
Environmental anxiety is political. It’s a natural emotional response to conditions around us that are consequences of systems of power that move and shake our world and make us feel helpless and small. By that logic, what better cure for environmental anxiety is there than something that makes us feel powerful—like a part of something larger? For many people I talked to, collective action is one of their brightest beacons of hope.
Although environmental policy hasn’t always been enough, many pieces of legislation from the local to national level have made a difference in addressing environmental concerns. Fifty years after the first Earth Day drew millions of Americans to the streets in 1970, it’s worth noting that meaningful change resulted from that, such as the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the creation of the EPA.11 Today, we still see progress in alternative energy technology as well as certain state and local legislation, but on many fronts, we’re lagging frighteningly behind, hence a recent revival of the environmental movement, particularly among the younger generations.6
While environmental anxiety can turn into a vicious cycle of guilt and inaction, Kiehl has observed that many young people are not so susceptible to this paralysis. In his research studying emotional responses to climate change information, he observed, “If you get into the older generations, then you get guilt….But you get into the 20-30 age range—even in the teens—and the response is more anger, but…even more than anger is motivation: ‘I want to do something. I’m gonna do something about this.’”4 De La Torre is one of these young people. “My environmental anxiety pushed me to reach out to environmental orgs and feel like I’m doing something more than just like my own personal [actions].”9
Many young people are driven to these movements out of feelings of environmental anxiety, but despite having to face the harsh realities of our current situation, they find activism a powerful antidote to hopelessness.
As an environmental sociologist who lived through the environmental and anti-war movements of the 70s, Szasz can speak for the therapeutic effect of collective action. “That whole experience of uniting with others—you’re not alone—That kind of almost animal energy that you get from demonstrating with others, being in a place where everyone’s feeling the same feeling and being equally enraged and enthusiastic, really does change your subjective feelings about you know, “Hey, we can change things. We have some power to make things happen.’”6
Similarly, De La Torre and Mena both related experiences of feeling more motivated due to their involvement in the SEC and connections with other passionate people. “I’m glad that I have close relations with people that are also feeling this way and are wanting to make change [even at a small scale],” says Mena. “I see what … other environmental orgs are doing, how they’re trying to do things for everyone and not just themselves, how people are being super compassionate and generous with what’s going on … I focus on that to sort of make myself feel a little better,” De La Torre explains.8,9
This builds off of Kiehl’s advice of talking in groups about environmental anxiety. Collective action brings you in contact with people who will listen to and share your feelings, but not only that, it then motivates you to act together for a greater cause.
When I spoke to Szasz, he pointed to youth climate action, like The Sunrise Movement and Greta Thunberg as sources of hope.6 Fifty years after protests passed a flurry of environmental bills, perhaps the younger generation will bring the climate action we need.
The expectation that the younger generation can heroically fix the global problems that have been created for us is a source of anxiety and anger for many young people. It is not fair that we have been placed in this situation where we must fight for our right to a future—be our own hope. Yet I cannot begrudge Szasz for believing in us. We are powerful, especially if we believe in that power. We will fight for climate reform because we must. It can be a crushing burden, but we do not serve ourselves by hiding from it. So reach out, be with nature and other people, and go ahead and worry. We must feel the weight and then lift. Together.
*Featured Art by Gabrielle Cox
- Clayton, S., Manning, C. M., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017). Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica.
- Plautz, J. (2020, February 3). The Environmental Burden of Generation Z. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/2020/02/03/eco-anxiety-is-overwhelming-kids-wheres-line-between-education-alarmism/?arc404=true
- CBC News. (2019, September 23). Greta Thunberg blasts world leaders: ‘We will never forgive you’ [Video]. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3SmqCcNbU8
- Kiehl, J. (2020, March 13). [Personal Interview].
- Kelly, A. (2017). Eco-anxiety at university: Student experiences and academic perspectives on cultivating healthy emotional responses to the climate crisis. Independent Study Project (ISP) Collection. 2642.
- Szasz, A. (2020, March 6). [Personal Interview].
- Peterson, A. (2020, March 5). [Personal Interview].
- Mena, V. (2020, March 12). [Personal Interview].
- De La Torre, L. (2020, March 12). [Personal Interview].
- Constantz, B. (2020, March 10). [Personal Interview].
- Rosenbaum, W. A. (2020). Environmental Politics and Policy (11th ed.). CQ Press.