UCSF Sustainability Stories

Deborah Fleischer and Ana Toepel, Green Impact, September 2019

Feeling Stressed about Climate Change? You Might Have Eco-Anxiety

Are you experiencing high levels of stress over climate change with symptoms such as anxiety, fear, obsessive or negative thinking, loss of appetite, depression, or insomnia? You might have a case of eco-anxiety, which the American Psychological Association (APA) defines as a “chronic fear of environmental doom.” According to an article in Medscape, people’s awareness of worsening climate conditions is causing them to suffer mental health consequences.

UCSF’s own Dr. Robin Cooper, a psychiatrist, was recently cited in Rolling Stone’s article on eco-anxiety, which recounts how climate change and extreme heat events can impact mental health. According to Cooper, feeling stress, grief, or anxiety over the state of the world is not a formal mental disorder—but a normal, appropriate, expected reaction to very real threats of enormous existential proportions posed by climate disruption. She stressed, “One should feel deeply concerned and worried (anxiety) in the face of real danger.” 

Eco-Anxiety is Heating Up Along with the Planet
Recent reports coming out on the state of climate change, like last year’s UN report, paint a more drastic picture than previous ones and say we may be in a state of serious crisis by 2040, within the lifetime of many people alive today. So, it’s understandable that fear is growing in our populace about what’s to come. A December 2018 survey conducted by Yale and George Mason universities found that about three in ten (29%) Americans are “very worried” about global warming – the highest level since their surveys began in 2008. Seven in ten (69%) say they are at least “somewhat worried.” The study also found that a majority of Americans are worried about harm from extreme events in their local area (extreme heat, flooding, droughts, and water shortages).

In several recent articles and reports doctors note an increase in patients sharing their concern about climate change, and UCSF’s own chaplains have noticed that patients, families, visitors, and staff are increasingly expressing concerns about the Earth’s welfare. Eco-anxiety has even made it onto mainstream TV. A recent episode of Big Little Lies, HBO’s popular series, showed a second-grader having a panic attack after a lesson on climate change, illustrating that it’s not just adults who are impacted.

The Rev. Peter Yuichi Clark, UCSF’s Director of Spiritual Care Services, shared with us that many people feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the situation, and this can exacerbate the anxiety they may be feeling about their illness (if they are patients) or meeting their workplace obligations (if they are faculty or staff). 

The American Psychological Association’s report Mental Health and Our Changing Climate explains there are worse impacts, too—major chronic mental health ones including higher rates of aggression and violence; an increased sense of helplessness, hopelessness, or fatalism; and intense feelings of loss. “When feelings reach this level of concern and people are not able to cope, clinical intervention may be appropriate,” explained Cooper.

Keeping Eco-Anxiety in Check
In light of the emotional and spiritual toll that eco-anxiety can take, Rev. Clark stated that some people may be tempted to give up trying to effect positive change (“What’s the point?”) or, at the other extreme, throw themselves into the cause at a frenetic pace (“If I don’t do everything, then I’m not doing enough”). Facing such a huge challenge, he suggests that people must find a way of realistically appraising the situation without allowing despair to dominate their perspective.
Here are six tips for coping with eco-anxiety:

#1: Grieve
Cooper stressed the inherent emotional complexity of facing the reality of the impacts of climate change. It’s important not to deny the reality we’re facing though it can blanket out the uncomfortable anxiety at times. There is a great sadness evoked by the losses associated with the destruction caused by climate change. It’s important to tolerate the “in-between” state—avoiding thoughts of “we are doomed no matter what we do,” which contributes to despair and retreat, while simultaneously not being soothed by the false idea that individual lifestyle changes and simple technological or policy solutions will resolve and eliminate this problem. What we do now does matter to reduce the inevitable depth of the impact on our world, but we will not get out of this unscathed. This requires some degree of recognition and grieving the true losses to the world as we currently know it. Meditation, prayer, yoga, and visualization can be helpful for staying grounded through this process.

#2: Fight Isolation
According to Dr. Alex Trope, a UCSF Psychiatry Resident and past CNI fellow, a key strategy for positively channeling eco-anxiety is to face the reality and then get connected with like-minded individuals who can engage practically and emotionally with climate issues. Finding like-minded folks to talk to about it will make you feel less isolated. Join a group that resonates with your style, interests, and time. This might be an established environmental advocacy group, or someplace you already have connections—on campus, at work, at your child’s school, or a religious or social group. Trope has been active in Sunrise, an advocacy group working with young people to fight climate change. Other possibilities include Citizen’s Climate Lobby and 350.org.

#3: Transform Anxiety into Action
Dr. Janet Lewis, who is on the steering committee of Climate Psychiatry Alliance with Cooper and Trope, explained in a Chicago Tribune article, “The goal is not to get rid of the anxiety. The goal is to transform it into what is bearable and useful and motivating.” A recent Live Science report on the topic cites some mental health professionals who say that a healthy amount of anxiety can spur people to take action, which is one of the best coping mechanisms for eco-anxiety. At UCSF, the Department of Psychiatry has launched a Climate Change and Mental Health Task Force. Its first roundtable will occur in Langley Porter-190 on October 16 from 3-5pm, and all UCSF faculty/staff/residents are invited to attend. See the Climate Psychiatry Alliance’s list of Organizations for Action for more ideas.

#4: Get Out into Nature
Fostering a sense of connection with one’s environment can help with eco-anxiety symptoms, and recent studies show that even two hours per week in nature is enough to reap mental health benefits. Even though the Earth is in peril, it still is a wondrous and beautiful place, and recalling that truth can help inspire your efforts. Dr. Trope has found that research on spending time in nature cites a range of benefits, including reduced stress, better sleep, and enhanced mental health. Dr. Trope stresses the importance of unplugging from our devices, as the daily news cycle and relentless exposure to ecological damage occurring throughout the globe can actually be counter-productive and demotivating and lead to burn-out. Climate trauma survival tips from Dr. Lise Van Susteren, also a Climate Psychiatry Alliance steering committee member, include: “Get out of doors as much as possible—connect with the forces that drive you and give yourself up to the beauty of nature in the present. Your energy to continue the battle will be rejuvenated.”

#5: Go Green
Your daily choices—diet choices, saving energy, reducing food waste (the single most significant activity that an individual can do to reduce emissions), recycling, using alternative transportation, etc.—do matter. Rev. Clark suggests, “Take a page from the ‘playbook’ of the world’s faiths that have some form of fasting practice and consider giving up a small pleasure (such as that extra latte, for instance)—and then commit what you would have spent to support an environmental organization. Assess how much time, energy, and financial resources you can commit to helping the natural environment, and only do what you can realistically do. Feeling guilty that you cannot do more is not beneficial to you or others. Trust that your “small” actions, along with others’, can and will contribute to the greater whole of alleviating the Earth’s suffering.”

#6: Be a Climate Voter
All policies, including policies on environment and climate, derive from the political process, so who gets elected has a lot to do with how policies are shaped. Advocate for pro-environmental politicians at the local, state, and regional levels. And after elections, make sure your legislators hear from you either individually or collectively. Sierra Club publishes a guide to help voters choose candidates in upcoming elections who are committed to addressing climate change.