Climate change is causing 'eco-anxiety' ― here's what we can do

The emotional toll of climate change is real, but there are ways to cope and be part of the solution.
Illustration of person sitting on a flooding home while they let go of an earth-shaped balloon.
According to a recent survey , we’re more anxious than ever when it comes to climate, with a record number of Americans now convinced that human-caused global warming is occurring.Marinel Sheu / for NBC News
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By Kim Fitzsimons

As the reality of climate change becomes clearer than ever, some experts believe that as bad as the wildfires, droughts or record-breaking storms are, it’ll be the anxiety over climate change that will affect Americans even more.

Piles of reports document the gravity of this, and of what we potentially face. Climate activists, like 16-year-old Greta Thunberg, who recently addressed the U.N.'s Climate Action Summit in New York, further emphasize the message. “The world is waking up,” she said. “And change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

As a result, according to a recent survey by Yale and George Mason universities, we’re more anxious than ever when it comes to climate, with a record number of Americans now convinced that human-caused global warming is occurring.

“As the impacts grow in frequency and severity — and the long term trajectory is very clear they’re going to — this personal experience with climate change is going to drive more and more Americans to say this is happening, it is human caused, and it is a serious problem,” Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale University, the survey’s lead researcher, said.

Ease anxiety by taking action

None of this comes as a surprise to psychiatrist and climate activist Lise Van Susteren, though. “The populace right now is really emotionally charged,” she said. “With the extreme weather events that we’re experiencing, people have finally gotten it through their heads that this is real. Before it was an abstraction, with tree huggers talking about stuff. Now, Mother Nature is making her point.”

Van Susteren, who is also the co-founder of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, further believes that as bad as the storms outside are, it’ll be the storms inside, and the anxiety, that will affect us even more. “The most anxiety provoking of all is that young people are growing up in an atmosphere where they realize that an older generation, not all of us, but an older generation, is unconcerned, or not concerned enough, about their futures.”

Many times people don’t recognize that the choices we make can very powerfully influence the people around us … what we do individually is a very powerful way to establish a new kind of normal.

Lise Van Susteren

Not only is it felt that they’re not doing enough, she said, they also see that protections previously put in place have been rolled back, or are about to be.

However, Van Susteren cautions against giving in to despair and doing nothing. For one thing, she said, it’ll make us feel worse. “For example, when you tell a patient that he or she has a serious illness, you don’t sugarcoat it, and the patient does feel deeply anxious. But you know that if you quickly pivot to, ‘But here’s what we can do about it,’ that the anxiety is reduced.”

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Activism like Thunberg’s is but one example of how this works, says Van Susteren, although she notes that she hasn’t spoken with Greta personally. “I can’t say specifically what’s right for her, but I can say that generally, a child who is climate aware and deeply, legitimately anxious, who is turning that into empowering action, is certainly doing a lot that’s right.”

Become an advocate

So what can we do when it comes to climate change? Lots of things, as most of us know. We can eat less beef, because cows generate methane; fly less often, because flying generates carbon; and walk instead of drive, to name but a few. But these alone ― while helpful ― aren’t enough, maintains Massachusetts Institute of Technology research scientist Andrew McAfee, who has just published a book on how to solve our ecological (and other) problems. The book, “More from Less: The Surprising Story of How We Learned to Prosper Using Fewer Resources ― and What Happens Next,” maintains that climate change is best addressed by looking at what’s already working and doing more of it.

One of the most important things we can do as individuals, McAfee said, is to advocate for smart policies and vote. “Our leverage as voters is fantastic. The frustration that I have is that we’re not following the playbook that we know really well for reducing air pollution. We need to be electing people, we need to be making our voices heard that we want that playbook followed.”

Connect with others

Meanwhile, though, we can also ease our angst by connecting with like-minded others, which not only helps get things done, but also provides a sense of support.

“There are all kinds of groups and ways to get involved with other people, where you can talk about it and work on things from whatever angle you’re interested in,” psychiatrist Janet Lewis, also a founding member of the Climate Psychiatry Alliance, said. These include groups from many faith traditions, from evangelical Christians to Buddhists, as well as those with different political orientations.

Getting involved with a group has other benefits, too, Lewis notes. Although Americans are culturally more inclined toward individual action, this can be an issue when it comes to things like climate change. Because it’s so overwhelming, she said, “one naturally feels like ‘it’s just a drop in the bucket, whatever I do.’” This then leads to a sense of helplessness.

However, she added, “There’s also the very real power of collective agency, of collective action. And it’s been shown that when people get involved in doing things with other people, with groups, it actually helps them to feel more effective individually too.”

Still, individuals can make a difference, Van Susteren says. “Many times, people don’t recognize that the choices we make can very powerfully influence the people around us … what we do individually is a very powerful way to establish a new kind of normal.”

Stay positive and focus on progress

To further help us weather this storm, we can also keep in mind that progress is possible.

In fact, McAfee notes in his book, progress is being made. For example, we’re now using less of most resources in America than we once did, polluting the air and water less, and emitting fewer greenhouse gases, he said. And although we still “urgently need to take action” to deal with human-caused global warming, he believes there’s reason for hope.

“We should have a lot of hope because greenhouse gases are a form of air pollution and we know how to reduce air pollution,” he said. “We’ve done it very very successfully in the past. So, global warming is bad, but it’s not mysterious. If we are serious about wanting to reduce pollution, we know how to do it.”

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