By: Pamela Peters, MFTC
Climate Change Anxiety & Existential Crisis
Climate change anxiety, according to The American Psychology Association (APA), is “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future and that of next generations.”
Climate change has real physical ramifications on our Earth. Such ramifications include air pollution (now ubiquitous in most large cities), rising ocean levels, extreme weather (tornados, bomb cyclones, microbursts), rising temperatures, droughts, pandemics, floods, and forest fires. This certainly isn’t a complete list either. Knowing about and experiencing these physical environmental events can cause physical and emotional impacts to humans.
The connection between nature and our emotional health is not something new. The book, Ecopsychology: Healing with Nature in Mind was published in 1995. The premise was that working therapeutically in nature or with the idea of the natural world has a healing effect on humans’ psyches.
Humans, of course, have lived as part of the natural world for thousands of years. We then became more and more disconnected from nature as we moved into cities. It is this disconnect that I believe causes us even more climate change anxiety.
Climate Change Anxiety’s Impact on Mental Health
Young people are particularly prone to coming down with symptoms of climate change anxiety (also known as “eco-anxiety”). They frequently hear about climate change in the classroom and in the news. A 2021 study surveyed 10,000 young people in 10 countries and found that almost 60 percent claimed they feel “very worried” or “extremely worried” about climate change. These worries led them to feel various emotions such as sadness, fear, anger, and powerlessness.
When you experience anxiety related to an existential crisis, you may be questioning your very existence. What are you doing on this Earth? Why do you go to work? What is the point of all of this, anyway? Existential crisis and climate change anxiety, when internalized, can lead to emotional issues including: stress, anxiety, substance abuse, post-traumatic stress disorder, grief, loss, depression, and relationship problems.
Is There Hope?
What can we do to decrease the likelihood of some of these emotional problems related to climate change anxiety and existential crises?
Find a good therapist to whom you can talk about these issues. If anxiety is your main complaint, someone specializing in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help you work to develop new coping skills when the anxiety attacks. If your child(ren) seem(s) to be suffering, ask your pediatrician to recommend a good therapist who specializes in working with children and adolescents. When finding a new therapist, feeling comfortable is important. Don’t be afraid to “shop around” to find someone who is a definite fit—someone you and your child feel they could be comfortable being vulnerable with.
2) News Fast
Take a break from the bad news. Although it is important to understand what is going on in the world, it is also okay to have boundaries around information. The news cycle is constant so you may need to shut down the news feed, turn off phone notifications, and stop following certain people or organizations on social media. It is healthy to choose when and where you get your news. For example, maybe allow yourself to peruse a reputable source for 30 minutes sometime in the middle of the day. This will give you enough time to process the news before it’s time to wind down for bed and sleep.
Beginning a gratitude journal can give you a sense of what is good and right in your life, as opposed to the bad news that bombards us daily. This is a simple practice that involves writing down one or more things you are grateful for each day—or whatever frequency you desire.
Find something that you believe in that gives you hope. Perhaps it’s a small household garden where you can see new life bloom. Maybe it is a television series or book where you find humor and hope. Be curious about the feeling of hope by keeping it in the forefront of your mind. When you feel it, notice what has brought the feeling on. Look for more of that.
5) Save the Earth
It’s true that small gestures, when multiplied by a million, have the potential to create large change. Choose some free and small activities that give you a sense of contributing to the Earth’s welfare. In other words, you don’t have to buy a new electric car in order to make an impact.
• Bring a bag to pick up litter on your daily walks
• Commit to using re-usable bags only
• Walk, take public transport, or ride a bike to local destinations instead of using a car
• Commit to eating meat-free one or two days a week
• Use less water
• Find more ideas here.
Find like-minded people who you can see regularly. Choose an activity you love and find others who do that same activity. Whether it’s playing chess, walking, gardening, dancing, participating in a spiritual practice, riding your bike, or hiking, these activities get you active and help you find hope through connection with others.