Three years ago, I was on the brink of giving up on our planet.
I was frustrated and disenchanted with my environmental sciences degree, which educated me about the problems but did little to equip me with the tools to pursue solutions; I was learning about the experience of communities on the front lines bearing the brunt of the climate crisis on a daily basis, while decision-makers who were appointed to be custodians of our futures exercised fluency in denial. I didn’t think my mental health would hold up much longer in a field that exposed me to the depth and breadth of the pain we inflict on the natural world and, by proxy, on ourselves.
A friend recommended that I read an article in The Guardian about a phenomenon called “eco-anxiety,” or the overwhelming feeling of dread, senselessness, and paralysis that so many of us are now experiencing in the face of climate change. This feeling, the article read, is particularly on the rise amongst young people who are aware of the enormity of the problem, but feel powerless to do anything about it.
I was struck by the whole idea; I had always learned that, in order to make a meaningful impact in a tough world, in order to even scratch the surface of time-sensitive crises like environmentalism, medicine, health, development, you had to backburner your feelings and vaccinate yourself against emotional attachment. Instead, the Guardian article argued that in order to find any sort of authentic agency, you had to tune into your own discomfort and anxiety, and cultivate resilience before being capable of stepping into sustainable action.
That same year I joined Force of Nature, a youth nonprofit working at the intersection of climate action and mental health. Research conducted by our team shows that over 70% of young people feel hopeless about the climate crisis, and only 26% feel they know how to contribute to solving it. Most current insights into the prevalence of eco-anxiety focus on the younger generation, because of our stakeholdership in the consequences of climate change and our role as ardent advocates for environmental action. But we are also seeing a similar rise in feelings of fear, grief, and anxiety across the generational spectrum. One study found that 70% of Americans are “worried” about climate change, while 59% feel “helpless.”
As a society working with a rapidly shrinking timeframe, the threat even greater than the climate crisis is how powerless we feel in the face of it. Yet this fear, grief, and anxiety is in fact our greatest tool for mobilizing mindsets to tackle climate change. Below, I offer five tips for coping with the effect of the climate crisis on our mental health, and for channeling our eco-anxiety into action.
Tip 1: Don’t bury your feelings.
It is easy to fall into the trap of wanting to “fix” the difficult and often contradictory emotions that come with recognizing the climate crisis; but these should be acknowledged without judgment. Instead of trying to force your feelings about climate change into submission, invite in the range of challenging emotions.
Activity: Sit down and write out all of the thoughts that bubble to the surface in relation to the climate crisis, then identify the emotion(s) behind each one.
Note: These emotions are not always negative! They can be hopeful, empowering, courageous, and loving. Use the list below as inspiration.
Interested, helpless, afraid, outraged, angry, hopeful, ashamed, guilty, courageous, frustrated, disappointed, concerned, anxious, sad, disconnected, engaged, lonely, betrayed, exhausted, cynical.
Tip 2: Speak up.
It is natural to want to shield yourself and others from the reality of the situation, especially when it feels like you might be at a tipping point toward apathy or hopelessness. I often worry that if I bring up my eco-anxiety around my peers, I will be the “downer;” but sharing your fears, concerns, and hopes is a powerful way to break down the shame and stigma around emotional engagement in environmentalism.
Activity: Share what you are worried about, but focus more on why you are worried about it. Anchor your anxiety or fear in the love or appreciation you feel for something the planet holds.
Example: “I’m worried about the level of the sea rising, because the livelihoods of the people in the small coastal town where I grew up will be compromised. I care about that place deeply, so it hurts to see them at risk.”
Tip 3: Language is important.
How we express ourselves is almost as important as what we say. When talking about large, systemic issues like the climate crisis, it is easy to get bogged down in “doomsday” science and blunt, shocking data points. It can often feel like we’re being told to “play audience” to narratives about the climate and our role within it, with little recognition of our own lived experiences.
It is essential to identify the stories that serve us versus the stories that hinder us. This doesn’t mean relying on naïve optimism or ignoring difficult information; rather, it is about carefully choosing the words we use when facing the problem.
Activity: Practice avoiding self-limiting beliefs and stories in the language you use in your own mind and with others.
“There is nothing we can do.” → “We haven’t yet figured out how to solve this problem.”
“The system is too broken to create change.” → “We are the system, and we demand better.”
“I’m too small to make a difference.” → “I want to find other like-minded people to build a difference-making community.”
Tip 4: Find your superpower.
There is no one way to be an activist; each of us is a unique agent of change. The environmental movement must include all sorts of people, especially those who have been historically excluded from the conversation. Everyone must be encouraged to use their distinctive forms of intelligence, skills, and areas of influence to foster nourishing engagement. Climate activism doesn’t have one particular look; find the issue that lights a fire in your belly and put your mind to tackling it.
When facing an enormous challenge like climate change, it’s difficult to know where to start — but figuring out what your personal contribution looks like can help break it down into manageable, bite-size pieces, and make us realize we don’t have to do everything all at once.
Activity: Ask yourself the following questions as a prompt to think about where your unique skills and capabilities lie:
What gives me energy? What comes easily to me? What am I doing when I feel most capable?
Note: Try Force of Nature’s changemaker quiz to help you hone in on your answers to these questions.
Tip 5: Choose DO.
The most significant thing we can do to break the cycle of climate anxiety is to take action. Every time we act, we make both external and internal changes that disrupt the self-fulfilling prophecy of powerlessness. If we believe we are powerless, why would we act? But if we believe we have power, why wouldn’t we act?
Agency is like a muscle: it must be exercised, each day. When you feel helpless, focus on what is within your control, then take small steps in the right direction. Often, motivation follows action, rather than the other way around; the more you do, the more you see that you can do.
Activity 1: For many frontline communities, climate action is not a choice — it is a matter of survival. Seek out and share stories of resilience from activists and innovators tackling the climate crisis (like Vanessa Nakate), especially in the global south, which is a leader in climate resilience. There are solutions being implemented every day that are not represented in the mainstream media.
Activity 2: Try filling out a list with one small action, one medium-sized action, and one large-scale action you’d like to engage in. This demonstrates how your actions, rather than being tokenistic or superficial, are an important starting point for building agency and confidence.
Small action → Sign an online petition
Medium-sized action → Raise the subject of climate action with my friends and family
Large-scale action → Choose a career with an environmental or ocean justice organization
The most important thing to remember is we mustn’t do this alone.
It is no secret that we have been duped into fighting systemic issues like climate change as individuals; seats of power benefit from us all assuming personal responsibility (and the accompanying shame and guilt) for participating in systems that were designed to trap us. This is why it is essential to take part in collective action, rooting what we do in love, duty, and care for our communities. Next time you decide to take action, speak about it with a friend, sign up to a local or online group, bring it up at the dinner table and invite others to join in.
We are part of a global community, and our eco-anxiety must be reflected in our solidarity with those experiencing the climate crisis firsthand, for whom eco-anxiety is a lived reality. Let’s find strength from empathy and connectedness, and fight for a world where we take care of ourselves, one another, and our shared home.
Learn more about Sacha and the team at Force of Nature on their website.
Become a member of Only One today to take direct action for the climate — planting your own ocean forests and coral reefs, and removing plastic and carbon pollution.