If you love summer and hate everything else, you know it's the season of balmy nights, mild breezes, and thunderstorms you don't mind getting caught in. But this idyllic vision of warmer weather has been complicated in recent years by the growing threat of climate change.
Just last week, a devastating wildfire tore through Maui, Hawaii — the deadliest in the US in more than a century — and landslides and flooding from intense rainfall in Norway forced an estimated 4,000+ people to evacuate their homes. July was the hottest month ever recorded on Earth — with global average temperatures reaching a record high of nearly 63 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperatures topped out at 128 degrees in Death Valley, just two degrees shy of breaking the local record, while surface ocean temperatures soared to hot tub levels in Florida. In June, more than a third of the US population was exposed to poor air quality from wildfires in Canada that have burned more acreage than any other Canadian wildfire season.
These unprecedented natural events are shoving the realities of climate change in your face. And for some people, extreme weather patterns are fueling a rise in climate anxiety that's not expected to slow down any time soon.
What is climate anxiety, exactly?
Climate anxiety is not a clinical diagnosis, so there's no set definition or list of symptoms. However, it generally describes when you feel distress or worry in response to the threats posed by the rapidly changing environment. It can be related to a phenomenon called eco-grief, or "grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses."
Climate anxiety can range from general concern to intense worries that interfere with daily life, says Susan Clayton, PhD, a professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster. Research suggests most Americans are at least "somewhat worried" about global warming, according to a 2022 survey. For about one in ten, those worries are more extreme, with respondents reporting "feeling nervous, anxious, or on edge" about global warming for several days in a two-week period.
Anthony Leiserowitz, PhD, a lecturer, senior research scientist, and the director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, estimates that about 3% of Americans have diagnosable climate anxiety. "Climate anxiety is emerging among a small but sizable set of Americans," he says. "It's not hard to predict that number is going to increase because the sources of that distress are coming from multiple places."
Clayton says people who have directly lived through extreme weather events are more likely to develop climate anxiety. "That doesn't mean that everybody who's lost their home in a flood is experiencing climate anxiety," says Leiserowitz. But for those who "are seeing that climate change played a crucial role in their own loss…I think that is a pathway into these feelings of intense climate distress," he adds.
For many others, simply learning about climate change and seeing its effects play out on TV or social media is enough to trigger feelings of anxiety. "Anyone who is paying attention to the devastation that is happening around the globe due to our warming atmosphere … will likely feel climate anxiety or some other form of emotional distress," says Leslie Davenport, a climate psychology educator and the author of "Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change: A Clinician's Guide."
How to manage climate anxiety
Addressing climate anxiety requires a balance of validating your fears while also managing them. You want to "cultivate the emotional resiliency to remain present, open-minded, and empathetic as we witness and experience growing levels of distress — not deny [or] minimize it, and not go to doomism," says Davenport. Here are some helpful tools:
Don't ignore feelings. "Suppressing your anxieties doesn't make them go away," says Clayton. Plus, if you believe that you can't do anything about climate change, then you won't — it's a self-fulfilling prophecy, adds Leiserowitz.
Take action. "Action is the best antidote for anxiety," says Leiserowitz. This can help change your perspective from a victim of climate change to actively combating it, adds Clayton. If you're feeling helpless or unsure where to start, know that you have more power in this global crisis than you may realize. If you want to reduce your carbon footprint, this exhaustive list can help get you started. And you don't have to go at this alone. One survey found that young people who participated in activities such as advocacy groups or educational initiatives were less likely to report climate change-related depressive symptoms.
Stay informed. Anxiety often stems from uncertainty, and climate anxiety is no different. Clayton says learning more about environmental science may help you feel more in control. Start with this "really simple guide" to climate change.
But limit your news. Take breaks from doom-scrolling climate change headlines, says Clayton. One way to balance the negativity of the news cycle is to incorporate more optimistic content into your reading habit. Try the newsletter from Harvard University's Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment.
Get support. If your distress is becoming difficult to manage, "don't try to do it all by yourself," says Leiserowitz. The Climate Psychology Alliance North America has a directory of climate-aware therapists. Peer support groups may also be helpful, such as those run by the Good Grief Network, a nonprofit aimed at helping people manage climate-related distress together.
It's natural to feel distressed by the consequences of climate change that you see in the news and fearful about the future of the planet and incoming generations. But if your mental health is suffering as a result, know that there are steps you can take to protect your well-being even in the face of so much unknown.
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