Climate anxious? Here’s how you can turn apprehension into action

Worrying about the future can be debilitating. Experts say these three things can help

In recent years, the term “climate anxiety” has gone from obscure to familiar, underscoring a growing awareness of how witnessing escalating climate disasters affects our mental health.

“Climate anxiety”, and the more acute “climate trauma” and “climate grief” are phrases that, as Dr Sarah Lowe, a psychologist researching climate and mental health at Yale University, explains, encapsulate our varied emotional and cognitive reactions to a rapidly changing environment. A striking 2021 study from the University of Bath underscored the depth of this concern: half of the youth respondents admitted feelings of fear, sadness, powerlessness and guilt regarding our planet’s ecological trajectory, with a staggering 75% finding the future “frightening”.

Amid this overwhelming anxiety, the question is: how can we transform our apprehensions into actionable solutions?

Enter collective action. Lowe’s own studies indicate that working with others towards productive ecological goals channels our concerns constructively and is also therapeutic. “What we found was that climate change anxiety was associated with higher depression symptoms only for those students who were not engaged in collective action. For those who were engaged in collective action, climate change anxiety was actually not associated with depression,” Lowe says.

So how can we take collective action and channel our anxiety for good? Here’s what the experts say.

Build social cohesion, to help your community weather adversity

Engaging more deeply with our own communities is an accessible, invaluable way to begin the process of building social cohesion and resilience to stressors like natural disasters, says Dr Britt Wray, who studies climate and mental health at Stanford University School of Medicine, and is the author of Gen Dread, a newsletter about taking action while experiencing climate grief. Communities with robust social ties – “where people learn how to follow and lead each other and achieve shared goals”, she says – weather adversity much better than places where bonds are weaker. Just think of how much easier it is to talk to neighbors you’re already friendly with, versus total strangers from down the block.

Dr Amruta Nori-Sarma, who researches the intersection of environmental exposure and mental health at Boston University School of Public Health, says her studies consistently show that strong community bonds amplify resilience during severe weather events, such as extreme heat. In apartments and neighborhoods with strong communities, individuals proactively check on one another, ensuring resources are accessible to all and safeguarding each other’s wellbeing.

A growing body of research is exploring the relationship between social capital and individuals’ ability to promote and coordinate collective action in communities. To harness this power, Wray says we need to invest in building relationships: for example by getting to know our neighbors, getting off of our devices and going into shared physical space where we can relate to people, such as working together at community centers, public gardens and local markets. This not only buffers us in times of adversity, but provides the co-benefit of reducing loneliness. “It’s really about doing what humans do best,” says Wray. “We are social creatures.”

Dispel the silence about climate crisis with open discussion

Because the climate crisis is a serious and often politicized topic, talking about it can carry a certain taboo. Those experiencing climate anxiety may worry they will commit a social faux pas by discussing it or be dismissed as overly pessimistic.

Yet dispelling the silence around the climate crisis is an excellent way to step into collaboration and action with those around us, especially because more people on both sides of the political spectrum support pro-climate legislation than most of us assume; research shows Americans underestimate the national population’s concern for the state of the climate and support for major climate mitigation policies by a striking 80-90%.

While 65% of Americans surveyed by Yale University researchers say the issue of global heating is personally important to them, 66% of Americans say they “rarely” or “never” discuss global warming with family and friends. “How can we really organize and step into shared collective goals around something that we are not articulating, verbalizing and externalizing?” asks Wray. In order to take action, we must first share our interest in doing that work together. In the words of the atmospheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe, “the most important thing you can do to fight climate change is to talk about it.”

Stay abreast of international issues and apply what you learn locally

In many developed nations, eco-anxiety discussions are often localized, overlooking the immediate threats faced by other parts of the world in favor of what’s looming in our own backyards.

Namra Khalid, a Pakistani cartographer, lives at the forefront of the climate crisis. Her data visualization work crowdsourcing and compiling detailed maps of Karachi is helping the city prepare for and prevent future flooding disasters. “In 2015 we had a heatwave in which over 2,000 people died in the city. Last year, we had the worst possible floods in Pakistan. Thirty-three million people almost became homeless,” Khalid says.

For Khalid, addressing the climate crisis isn’t just a concern; it’s an existential imperative. “I don’t think it’s an option to either channel [climate distress] productively or not. It’s a matter of survival. Nobody else is going to stand up for us unless we do,” she says.

Khalid’s call to action is twofold: raising awareness and learning resilience. She urges those in the global north to be cognizant of climate disasters in developing nations and advocate for aid and investment into regions confronting disaster, and also to glean lessons from their experiences.

“It’s a good point to start learning from what is happening here, because today it’s [in Pakistan] and tomorrow it’s also going to be a global problem,” she says. By widening our lens and learning from global experiences, we can better channel our anxieties into informed action. From advocating for global climate initiatives we can shift to preparing for our own local climate challenges. “We live on the same planet,” says Khalid.


Illustration: Guardian Design/Getty Images