We are all concerned about the future of our planet. But when does that concern turn into anxiety? And can that anxiety be classed as a formal mental health condition?
What is Climate Anxiety?
As first reported by The Conversation, back in March the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is comprised of the world’s most esteemed climate experts, delivered its sixth report and “final warning” about the climate crisis.
The report outlined several mental health challenges associated with increasing temperatures, trauma from extreme events, and loss of livelihoods and culture. The report followed news from Australia that the jail sentence for a climate protester who blocked the Sydney Harbour Bridge had been quashed by a judge, who noted she’d been diagnosed with climate anxiety.
But what is climate anxiety? Is it a normal emotional response to a real and imminent threat? Or is it a diagnosable mental health condition that could require clinical treatment?
More than a just a sense of worry
As people become increasingly affected by climate-related events, many may feel anxious, angry, and even sad about the state of the planet.
The term ‘climate anxiety’ describes a sense of panic, worry, and fear towards the consequences and uncertainty brought by climate change. The term ‘climate anxiety’ is sometimes used interchangeably with ‘eco-anxiety,’ which some health professionals and researchers call anxiety felt about broader ecological issues.
Researchers have suggested our environments can shape climate anxiety. For example, the type of media we see about climate change, how the people around us feel, or how our communities and governments are responding.
Research also shows climate anxiety is felt worldwide, especially among young people.
However, climate anxiety is not officially recognized as a condition or a mental health disorder in the diagnostic manuals of psychologists, psychiatrists, and other health professionals. Many researchers and health professionals warn against medicalizing this understandable and expected response.
We have a natural response to danger
We know anxiety is an in-built natural reaction when we feel in danger. Such feelings prompt us to prepare for and reduce threats to our wellbeing and safety. For example, anxiety might help us when we encounter an animal in the wild, but it can also help us prepare for a complicated exam.
The findings of the latest climate report indicate humans have a lot to prepare for and act on if we are to reduce the threats of climate change. To some extent, humans need to experience some levels of climate anxiety to prompt the changes we need for a sustainable future.
But anxiety can become overwhelming and appropriately diagnosed as a clinical anxiety disorder. In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders (DSM-5), anxiety disorders are marked by anxiety that is persistent, excessive, and usually out of proportion to the threat.
Research shows climate anxiety can affect people’s ability to go to work or study, concentrate, sleep, or even enjoy time with their friends and family.
The challenge for health professionals is whether climate anxiety can be deemed persistent or excessive, given the nature of climate change. Whether or not climate anxiety is currently seen as a clinical diagnosis, there is a clear need to support the people that experience it.
Can climate anxiety become a positive force?
While climate anxiety can have a negative impact on mental wellbeing, research findings from 32 countries have shown that some people may be channeling their climate anxiety in ways to help the environment, such as through pro-environmental behaviors and environmental activism, such as climate protests.
Australian data shows experiencing “eco-anger” – which refers to anger or frustration about ecological issues – leads to better mental health outcomes and is a critical adaptive emotional driver of engagement with the climate crisis.
But more intense experiences of frustration and anger about climate change are associated with more significant attempts to take personal actions to address the issue. This suggests getting angry may help prompt some people to do something about climate change.
Managing climate anxiety
In the absence of formal diagnoses or recognized treatments, collective action against climate change may be an effective solution to climate anxiety. But there are other things people can do to manage climate anxiety.
- spending time in nature
- learning ways to ground yourself during distressing emotions
- seeking support
- taking breaks to prevent burnout
- taking small everyday actions for self-care.
Small actions to help the planet might also help foster feelings of agency and wellbeing. When climate anxiety veers into either overwhelming or unhelpful territory, seeking support from a climate-aware health professional can be an essential step to take.
What are your thoughts on climate anxiety? Do you recognize the phenomenon as something you recognize in yourself? Tell us more in the comments.