You may have experienced a sinking feeling, a tightening at your chest, or even panic after scrolling through your news feed to a seemingly endless string of climate-related disasters: a record-shattering heatwave in Texas, another massive wildfire in California, a rapidly-intensifying hurricane in Florida. And now you’re feeling a little less motivated. Or like a cloud of dread has surrounded you. Maybe you just feel hopeless about the world.
These are all common signs of eco grief.
The emotions can be even more intense for those who’ve survived a climate disaster first-hand. Anxiety, anger, and chronic depression are also associated with a connection to our world and the intensifying damage from climate change.
Eco grief isn’t the only name for these feelings. Some call it climate anxiety, environmental dread, or some combination of those words. Generally, these terms can be defined as the grief or anxiety a person experiences as the planet warms, “a chronic fear of environmental doom,” according to the American Psychological Association.
This feeling isn’t uncommon. Increasing research shows that the vast majority of Gen Z feel some level of climate anxiety. One of the largest global surveys of young people across six continents, published in The Lancet in 2021, surveyed 10,000 people aged 16 to 25 and found that 75% feel “the future is frightening” while 56% fear “humanity is doomed.”
A smaller study of 1,300 youth across the country, Blue Cross Blue Shield of California’s 2022 NextGen Climate Survey, found that 75% of Americans between the ages of 14 and 24 feel overwhelmed, anxious, and/or stressed because of climate change.
“These are serious strains to the emotional well-being of a young person,” says Britt Wray, researcher at Stanford University and author of Generation Dread. She’s also co-author of the Lancet research around Gen Z’s reactions to climate change. “These feelings, in our study, we found are tightly correlated by a sense of being betrayed by governments and lied to by leaders.”
While many experts agree that it’s not a disorder in the traditional sense, there’s no doubt climate change profoundly impacts public health. “It’s a sign that we are awake and that we are connected and that we care — that we feel this form of distress,” explains Wray. “Eco anxiety as a term might make some people think, ‘Oh, diagnosis! Oh, a clinical condition.’ It’s not. It’s not in the DSM. It’s not a mental health disorder.”
What is climate change anxiety?
Some of the names are also the signs: anxiety, grief, or dread. It can also manifest as anger, a lack of motivation, feeling overwhelmed, or a general disinterest in the future. For some, climate anxiety develops into extended or severe depression. While the feelings can be similar, distinguishing between climate anxiety or a more general anxiety about current events requires a personal assessment.
“It is a depressing thought looking ahead into the future,” says recent high school graduate Joel Castro. “It’s just frustrating not being able to do anything about [climate change] when it’s going to affect our generation more than the people who are currently in power, but we can’t [vote or hold political office] yet.”
Some researchers compare eco grief to the feelings we might experience after the death of a loved one. The overwhelming emotions and responses to climate change have also been linked to suicides. Anyone experiencing thoughts of suicide can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling or texting 988 or chatting with the organization online.
Once you know the signs of eco grief or climate anxiety, there are several ways people choose to cope with those feelings. However, these approaches should not be taken as medical advice. You should always consult your doctor or mental health professional when it comes to your personal health.
How to deal with climate anxiety
Mindfulness practices like meditation can be deeply healing, even for those not experiencing eco grief. “Developing a mindfulness practice can cultivate compassion for our planet and for ourselves,” explains Manoj Dias, meditation teacher at Open, a mindfulness studio which offers on-demand and in-person classes.
“The hope is through meditation and breathwork, we’re able to better navigate this beautiful and challenging world with an open heart and present mind,” adds Dias, who worked with a team to develop a series of meditations for those experiencing climate anxiety. You can access the sessions for free.
If you’ve tried to meditate but struggle with it, breathwork is another effective tool. It’s essentially a meditation where the focus is on your breath, directing your mind’s attention.
“What this practice does is connect us back to ourselves,” says Ally Maz. She facilitates breathwork sessions with her colleague Manoj at Open. “The way I see it is our bodies are inherently nature. We’re a part of this, the way we take care of our bodies has a direct reflection on how we take care and honor our planet. So really, this practice teaches us about the interconnectedness of all things.”
Breathwork sessions can last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. The patterns and cadence of breathing vary between instructors and intentions. However, the general idea is to move attention from your thoughts to your body. That shift in focus helps you connect with the present moment, bringing separation from future-based thoughts which often trigger anxiety or dread.
Maz also enjoys practicing breathwork outdoors because of the added benefits. “To do this in nature allows us to really feel like we’re a part of something,” she adds. “I think that’s the biggest illusion we live in is that we’re separate from ourselves, separate from each other, and separate from nature.”
3. Mindful Walking or Hiking
Curbing difficult emotions connected to climate change can also be as easy as taking a walk or going for a hike. If a beach, forest, or trail is accessible to you, you can experiment with an “awe walk,” which is essentially searching for what inspires awe around you. Maybe a beautiful sunrise catches your gaze, or your attention shifts to the sound of birds chirping in a tree or waves on the beach. The goal is to focus on the present instead of antagonizing thoughts.
Once you’re off the pavement, you can do one more thing to amplify nature’s healing power. “There’s something about even taking your shoes off and putting your feet in the Earth. We call it earthing or grounding,” explains Ally. “But it’s essentially just getting the skin on your feet to touch the sand or touch the grass. It has a really powerful effect on our nervous system. It can really calm us down.”
4. Volunteering, Protesting, or Activism
Solidarity can be important medicine for those feeling alone or powerless in the face of climate change. That’s why many young people choose to join climate protests or become advocates for a cause. Through groups and organizations, people experiencing eco grief find others facing similar emotions as well as an outlet for those feelings.
Opportunities and events vary by location so it’s worth searching your area to find a community organization that works for you. Some of the large, national climate-oriented groups include The Sierra Club, The Sunrise Movement, 350.org, Extinction Rebellion, The Nature Conservancy, and Fridays for Future, which was founded by global climate activist Greta Thunberg.
Another young climate activist, Leah Thomas, channeled her eco grief into activism and then writing, publishing a book about climate action called Intersectional Environmentalist.
“It was bad,” Leah remembers, first recognizing her climate anxiety. “I remember learning about the climate crisis, and it was all I could talk about. I was panicking… My grades were horrible, because I really couldn't focus.” Since then, she’s found relief through volunteer work and protests targeted toward climate action.
5. Climate-Aware Therapy
You might seek a more guided approach to deal with the intense emotions that can arise from climate change. Eco grief experts suggest seeking out a “climate-aware” therapist or support group. Wray recommends the Good Grief Network after personally enrolling in their program.
It’s also important for parents or loved ones to be receptive to conversations with those experiencing climate anxiety. “Young people want to be seen and they want to be heard,” explains David Bond, the director of behavioral health at Blue Shield of California.
“So that concept of, ‘I get you, and I’m going to go through this with you,’ is really important. Parents have this tendency to hear what their kid is going through, and then say, ‘You should just do this,’” he explains. Instead, Bond recommends parents listen to their kids and “reflect on their experience. That’s contributing to [better] mental health.”