Melting ice sheets. Wildfires that turn the sky red. Record-breaking heat waves.
The terrifying effects of climate change are hard to miss. They also leave many people fearful about the future of the planet and our civilization.
If that sounds familiar, you’re not alone. A recent survey, conducted in December by The Harris Poll on behalf of the American Psychological Association, found that more than two-thirds of respondents experience at least a little “eco-anxiety” and more than a quarter feel a lot of that stress. The APA defines eco-anxiety as anxiousness or concern related to climate change and its effects.
Respondents between ages 18 and 34 — who are probably contemplating what it means to inherit an earth increasingly on the brink of environmental collapse — were most likely to report worrying about climate change, and nearly half said that anxiety affected their lives everyday.
The online survey of 2,017 U.S. adults asked participants about eco-anxiety and whether they changed any habits to reduce their contribution to climate change. The survey results were weighted to be reflective of the national adult population, taking into account factors like age, sex, education, region, household income, and race and ethnicity.
Increased resilience can help you weather eco-anxiety.
Sixty percent of the respondents said they had made changes in response to climate change. The most popular, adopted by more than three-quarters of participants, included reducing waste through reusing and recycling items; upgrading their home’s insulation; limiting use of utilities like water, heat, and electricity; and consuming less in general.
Respondents, however, were less likely to change their daily transportation or dietary habits; only roughly two-thirds said they have or would do things like carpool, walk, bike, eat less red meat, or become a vegetarian or vegan. People who experienced eco-anxiety were much more likely to feel motivated to change their behavior compared to those who didn’t.
While climate change anxiety may feel too demoralizing to address, Arthur C Evans, Jr., CEO of the APA, says there are practical ways to manage that stress. It’s particularly important to gain a sense of control; research shows that when people lack a feeling of agency, it can increase their psychological distress. And there are few things that make humans feel completely out of control than the possibility that the world is ending.
Instead of letting that doomsday scenario overwhelm you, Evans recommends getting a handle on your eco-anxiety with the following approaches:
1. Get educated about climate change.
There’s still time to prevent — with drastic action — the catastrophic effects of climate change, but people may hear only the most pessimistic reports and then hopelessly tune out.
Evans says one way to deal with stress related to the unknown aspects of climate change is to learn as much as possible about it. That includes understanding what’s at stake and how average people can make a positive difference. Otherwise, it can be easy to make false assumptions about the consensus on the worst-case scenarios while missing positive stories about activists pushing politicians and corporations to step up. Educating yourself will help you see both climate change and courses of action more clearly and that can reduce anxiety, says Evans.
2. Find concrete ways to make a difference.
The APA survey found that half of adults didn’t know where to start in order to combat climate change. While it’s true that governments and the private sector have the power to make the most radical changes, the average person can alter their habits in important ways.
Half of adults didn’t know where to start in order to combat climate change.
Eating less red meat, for example, can reduce carbon emissions. Participating in strikes and protests, like those held by Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future, draws attention to the issue and helps inspires others to act. Calling your elected official, whether at the local, state, or Congressional level, and pressing them to do more on climate change makes it harder for them to ignore the outcry.
“People can do things in their own community,” says Evans. Letter writing campaigns, volunteerism, and political and public advocacy are all ways to get involved in climate change activism.
3. Reframe negative thoughts.
In general, research shows that re-framing negative thoughts can help alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression.
“[I]t really is rethinking an issue that may seem big and amorphous and putting that into proper context,” says Evans.
If thoughts of the apocalypse keep creeping into your mind, or even prevent you from making future plans, it may be helpful to focus your attention on the present moment while finding something positive about those circumstances. People who develop this skill tend to cope better than those who find it difficult to regulate their thinking, actions, and emotions.
4. Address all the stressors in your life, not just climate change.
Eco-anxiety may feel unique compared to other sources of anxiety, but it’s important to think of climate change-related stress as part of your overall mental health. You may also be experiencing financial, relationship, professional, or physical stress, which can exacerbate your feelings about climate change, and vice versa. It’s critical to address other stressors and to seek professional help if necessary.
“The more stressors you experience, the more likely you’ll feel greater psychological stress,” says Evans.
5. Build your resilience.
Increased resilience can help you weather eco-anxiety. Evans recommends boosting resilience by continuing to develop a social network of friends and family. Strong social and emotional support has been linked to well-being, material aid during times of adversity, and lower rates of psychological distress following a disaster.
“We know…that social support is probably one of the strongest predictors of how people are doing psychologically,” says Evans.
These strategies can be helpful no matter the type of anxiety you might be feeling, but can be particularly useful when trying to combat eco-anxiety by restoring or gaining a sense of control.
“It’s important to do and act and to feel like you have some agency around this issue,” says Evans.