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What is climate anxiety?
Recently, you may have heard a lot about climate change. You may also have experienced the effects of climate change directly. For example, maybe you have noticed changing weather patterns in your area, or even been impacted by extreme weather events like natural disasters.
Even if you haven’t been directly affected by climate change, this topic can cause a lot of difficult emotions. These include feelings of:
Phobias (e.g. agoraphobia)
If you’ve been struggling with difficult emotions surrounding climate change, you’re not alone. These feelings have become very common in recent years. In fact, they are so common that you may hear lots of people using a few new phrases to describe them.
Climate anxiety is the sense of fear, stress, and dread about the future of our planet and the future effects that climate change may have on us. It is important to validate that climate change is a real threat to our communities and ecosystems. Therefore, it is also normal to notice these feelings of worry when thinking about the negative impacts of climate change.
Climate grief is the felt sense of loss and sadness we may see and experience as our environment changes. According to recent research, climate grief may show up in 3 main ways:
Grieving a physical loss (e.g. the extinction of a species or loss of land).
Grieving the loss of environmental knowledge (e.g. confusion around the unpredictability of seasons, weather changes, and/or natural disasters).
Grieving experienced or future losses due to the changing environment (e.g. deforestation, the loss of rural land, and temperature disruptions).
It is important to note, and validate that climate change is a real threat to our communities and ecosystems. While many anxiety disorders involve an amount of fear or stress that is disproportionate to the situation, climate change really is a serious problem. It is not abnormal to notice these feelings of worry when thinking about the negative impacts of climate change.
Climate grief and anxiety can sometimes feel overwhelming. Luckily, it is possible to develop constructive coping skills that can help you manage these feelings of distress.
Climate Anxiety Symptoms
Thinking about how climate change might affect our planet in the future — and how it is already affecting us today — can cause feelings of anxiety and stress. When we feel anxious, this activates our body’s stress response, also known as the fight-flight-freeze response. This is a normal physical response that protects our body from danger.
This response can affect our thoughts, moods, and emotions.
You may experience climate anxiety through these sensations:
Feeling overwhelmed or helpless due to environmental concerns
Worrying a lot about the future of the environment
Physical symptoms like headaches, shortness of breath, or a racing heartbeat
Obsessively checking climate and environmental news or weather forecasts
Difficulties with concentration, feeling a lack of or excessive sleep, or nightmares
Feeling sad and/or crying often
Social isolation and loneliness
Panic and fear of leaving the house due to temperature changes or unpredictable weather
Relationship stress, or difficulty balancing your responsibilities with friends and family
Anxiety can be experienced on a spectrum. Anxiety can show up as acute (short-term), chronic (long-term) as well as fluctuate in cycles. You may experience anxiety in response to triggers (e.g. having a panic attack because of an upsetting news story about climate change). Over time, you might also notice changes in your levels of anxiety, or in how that anxiety comes out (e.g. having obsessive thoughts about the future that might be more intense during a major life change).
What’s important to remember is that anxiety can be experienced in multiple ways that are unique to you, your environment, and your life.
Short-term (acute) anxiety is caused by an activated stress response cycle. It lasts as long as the stress response is active, and can reappear in response to triggers or changes in your environment. Often, anxiety or anxiety attack symptoms go away when our body has recovered from the fight, flight, or freeze response.
Long-term (chronic) anxiety continues even after a stress response has ended. This starts to happen when our stress response has been activated too frequently over a long period of time. This would be our flight-flight-freeze response activating. This makes it so that our body cannot completely recover, and our anxiety stays activated even when nothing is triggering our stress response.
Climate Change and Indigenous Communities
Anybody can experience climate anxiety and climate grief. Research has found that these feelings of climate anxiety and grief are common in young people in particular. However, many older adults feel that they are impacted by climate anxiety and grief as well.
Many Indigenous People around the world are uniquely affected by climate change and the difficult emotions related to it. This is because of the environmental, social, and human rights threats they have historically and presently experienced. These include land takeovers, industrial colonization, and lack of access to clean drinking water, to name just a few.
In addition to colonization having a direct impact on Indigenous cultural identity, climate change driven by industrial colonization makes it difficult to continue traditional ways of living on the land. This begins a domino effect that spans into how future generations will engage with the land, and their connection to the past.
For example, many cultural activities have decreased or have been impacted by climate change. Animal populations and behaviours have changed, impacting hunting, fishing, and foraging, which directly affects the relationship between the community and the land. Not only is this having a current effect on those who rely on such activities for survival, it is also impacting how future generations will engage in these traditions, as well as their connection to the past and their ancestors.
Connection to nature is an important part of holistic well-being for many communities, making them more vulnerable than other groups or individuals to the impacts of climate change.
Trauma, PTSD, and climate anxiety
Climate change has contributed to extreme weather events and natural disasters. For example, floods, tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, and forest fires. These catastrophic events worldwide have caused many vulnerable folks including children, youth, individuals living in poverty, racialized individuals, and Indigenous communities and other "marginalized" communities to confront danger, death, loss of community, loss of shelter, job disruption, and more.
Experiencing a natural disaster can be catastrophic where one's threat to safety is compromised. The consequences of climate change or a natural disaster can increase the risk of mental health issues and for some folks, it may result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Tools to cope with climate change anxiety
Climate emotions can be overwhelming. It may be tempting to ignore the situation at hand, in order to avoid difficult feelings. But avoiding these emotions also stops us from taking action and managing our anxiety.
Managing climate anxiety is about finding the right balance. It is important to engage with our emotions, but so is knowing when to take a step back.
Here are some helpful tools for coping with climate anxiety:
1. Validate your feelings
Your worries about climate change are completely natural. Climate change is mother nature’s factual way of telling the world what it needs. You have every right to feel anxious about this situation.
Remind yourself that there is nothing wrong with feeling anxious. Instead of pushing away or ignoring these feelings, it may be helpful to let yourself fully feel your emotions in an effort to process them. Try writing your feelings down in a journal, sharing them with someone else that you trust, and joining a Peer Support network. These can all be helpful ways to make sense of and validate how you feel about climate change.
2. Become aware of your triggers
Bringing awareness to what triggers your anxiety about climate change is an important step to coping with stress. Triggers can be anything that leads to a strong adverse emotional or physical reaction.9 Some potential examples of climate anxiety triggers could be:
A situation (e.g. Experiencing a flood or fire or seeing them depicted in the media)
A person (e.g. Being around someone who is not taking care of the environment or further contributing to pollution by not recycling etc.)
A feeling (e.g. Feeling stressed out)
A thought (e.g. Imagining the terrible things that could happen if climate change isn’t addressed)
A physical sensation (e.g. Coughing)
A memory (e.g. Thinking about things you’ve done or places you’ve visited that you might not be able to experience anymore)
For example, your climate anxiety can be triggered when you experience a physical sensation like coughing, which could lead to worries that you can’t breathe properly due to pollution in the environment.
When our triggers go unnoticed or unmanaged, that’s when we may respond to them in unhelpful ways and feel out of control. The more aware you are of your triggers, the more mindful you can be in how you respond to your emotions.
Noticing and understanding triggers can be difficult and uncomfortable, especially at first. That is why it is important to make sure to be patient and compassionate with yourself as you begin this process.
3. Identify and challenge your unhelpful thoughts 
Like other types of anxiety, people who experience climate anxiety may think in unhelpful ways which can increase their anxiety. Catastrophizing (thinking about the worst-case scenario) is a common unhelpful thought pattern that people with climate anxiety tend to experience.
Worse-case-scenario thoughts can sound like “climate change is going to affect my life,” “society is doomed,” or “there’s no hope for the environment.” When we think only the worst things are going to happen, this leaves us feeling dread, hopelessness, and powerlessness.
You can challenge this type of thinking by focusing on the facts of the situation9 and actively acknowledging the positive changes that most governments, smaller organizations, and individuals like yourself are already making in order to fight against climate change.
For example, it might help to remember that Canada is committed to achieving net-zero emissions by the year 2050 and that the federal government has also launched many initiatives to protect Canadians from the effects of climate change. You can see the full list of climate actions and Canada’s climate targets for a healthy environment and a healthy economy. These may help you challenge your anxious thoughts and think in a more balanced way.
4. Seek support and connection from your community
It is important to remember that you are not alone in your struggles. Personal support from trusted friends, family members, or support groups can be helpful. Many people report feeling relieved after expressing their feelings to others. Try it out and see how you feel.
You might find it helpful to connect with other like-minded people who share the same values about the environment and climate change that you do. Consider joining Peer Support groups (online or in person) or volunteering to work on climate change initiatives in your community. Professional support like psychotherapy can also be a helpful resource for coping with the effects of climate anxiety. There are therapists that exist who specialize in climate anxiety and eco-therapy specifically. There are also therapists who have general expertise in helping with anxiety and can be supportive as well.
5. Focus on value-based living 
When it comes to climate change, there are many factors at play that are outside of our individual control. Shifting focus away from what you can’t control and instead focusing your energy on what you can do to help is a useful way to cope with climate anxiety.
You can do this by identifying what your personal values are, and then taking concrete actions that feel meaningful for you.
For example, if you value taking care of the environment, some specific actions you might take include recycling and composting more (if these services are available in your area). You could also try things like volunteering with climate action groups, buying used instead of new, riding your bike, taking transit or carpooling, attending city council meetings, and educating yourself and others on how to best care for the environment.
6. Practise mindfulness 
Mindfulness is the practice of intentionally bringing awareness to one’s present moment. Plenty of research has shown that regular mindfulness practice reduces anxiety and supports overall well-being. The next time you find yourself not being able to stop worrying about climate change, or using unhelpful distractions as a coping mechanism, try a quick mindfulness exercise called dropping anchor.
Dropping anchor involves taking three simple steps, which you can remember by the acronym ACE:
A: Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings. Without judgement, notice what is happening in and around you during the present moment.
C: After acknowledging your thoughts and feelings, come back and connect with your body. You can do this by slowly breathing, pushing your feet into the ground beneath you, stretching your arms and neck, or doing anything else that makes you feel grounded.
E: Engage in what you’re doing. This would be through refocusing your attention on your surroundings by noticing what you see, feel, hear, touch, taste, and smell.
If you’ve been impacted by a natural disaster
Climate change can contribute to natural disasters such as floods, forest fires, and hurricanes. In Canada, the federal and provincial governments are here to provide support to those who have been affected by natural disasters.
On the pages below, you can find information about recent natural disasters in Canada, including how you can apply for assistance.
Resources on Wellness Together Canada
Learn more and access general resources about how to manage your worries.
Learn more about what to expect during the grieving process, how to cope with feelings of grief and loss, and explore ways to cope.
What is mindfulness? What are its benefits? How can I practise it? Here, Kids Help Phone shares information about mindfulness and tips on how you can practise it in your daily life.
Wellness Together Canada offers counselling support for youth and adults. You don’t have to be going through a specific problem to call these lines. The counsellors are there to support you 24/7, completely free of cost.
You do not have to go through your emotions, worries, or grief alone. Many people have gone through similar life events or experiences and are ready to talk about it. Connect with a Peer Supporter who has lived experience with climate anxiety, as well as other mental health or substance use challenges. You can also join a support group.
Identifying your feelings is an important part of managing them. There are many tools you can use to track and reflect on these emotions. For example, when you create a Wellness Together Canada account, you will be able to take a 5-minute self-assessment when you first sign in. This assessment can help you check in with how you’re doing and see how your feelings change over time.
You can also try using the Mood Meter on PocketWell, Wellness Together Canada’s official companion app. The Mood Meter lets you keep a daily record of how you’re feeling and track changes over time.
Article (Kids Help Phone): Climate change: 5 tips to get support and take action
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This resource was written in collaboration with Bloom Psychology. Bloom Psychology is a Black-owned boutique therapy centre and consulting firm helping people and organizations achieve mental health and wellness through connection, therapeutic education, and collaborative learning. A collective of licensed BIPOC therapists, Bloom is committed to building communities guided by a culture of inclusivity, openness, and sustainable wellness.
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