Climate Anxiety

Tragic news about the environment seems to come at us daily. Whether that news is local, like Maine’s sea level rise, or international, such as disappearing small island nations in the Pacific, the deluge of somber reporting on the environment feels endless. As the climate crisis worsens, some experts are turning their concerns to another consequence of climate change: the strain it is having on people’s mental well-being.

To research this article, I had the pleasure of sitting down with psychologist Laura Kastner Ph.D., prolific author and clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington, who noted an increase in families struggling with “climate anxiety” in her practice. Climate or “Eco” anxiety is defined by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” However, as Kastner explains, “Climate anxiety exists on a continuum, with feelings of stress and sadness about climate change at one end, to depression, hopelessness and helplessness at the other.” Climate anxiety will surge as climate crises become more frequent and severe. Kastner explains that for widespread motivation and collective climate action to occur, it is necessary for people to experience direct catastrophe, as the human brain has not evolved to effectively take in ambiguity, leaving the slow onset effects of climate change naturally less pressing to those of us not (yet) directly affected. We know, however, that vulnerable communities, the Global South, and Indigenous people bear the brunt of climate change, and this knowledge of who is affected first by climate change brings about guilt, a common symptom of climate anxiety.

Climate-related guilt is commonly found in two forms, the first being guilt surrounding consumption. Many of us who are conscious of climate change are also aware of what we could be doing as the “ideal climate activist” – reducing our driving time, avoiding air travel, eating a vegan diet – the list goes on and can feel overwhelming and unachievable. Kastner suggests that, “just like all habit change, the best policy is to choose something small enough that you will succeed at but large enough to challenge you.” Set a limit on how many miles you are comfortable flying in a year. Limit your meat consumption to a number of meals per week. Make these actions quantifiable and clear. What takes the least amount of effort and will make the most impact? Is it spending hours biking to work or using that time to call your representatives to push for more progressive climate action? It is important to decide what feels meaningful to you, and to then commit to it.

The second form of guilt associated within climate anxiety is white guilt, the feelings of shame and remorse experienced when white people recognize the legacy of racism and racial injustice and perceive the ways in which they have benefited from it. While at first glance white guilt may feel separate from climate anxiety, the two are tightly connected. White people suffering from climate anxiety are aware of the communities and demographics that are bearing the brunt of climate change impacts due to environmental racism: vulnerable communities, the Global South, and Indigenous people. Fortunately, while the fight to combat climate change is a fight for social justice, the struggle against climate anxiety and white guilt is also a fight for social justice and progressive change. As Kastner explains, “Guilt in moderation can motivate.” Working daily to be anti-racist, to decolonize your language and to educate yourself on the history and current reality of BIPOC is an active way to address guilt associated with climate anxiety. Question the frameworks that want us to believe that working toward justice is tiring, and bad for our mental health. Yes, the work to be a better ally and climate activist can be tiring, but consider flipping this perception: the unsustainable and unjust structures that perpetuate racism and environmental degradation are what are harmful to our mental health.

Along with guilt, a common feeling associated with climate anxiety is anger: anger toward climate deniers, politicians and others who prioritize short-term profit from our extractive economy over environmental conservation and systemic changes. Ask yourself, while your anger is justified, how is it helping? As Kastner explains, “Negative emotions that aren’t channeled productively can contribute to depression, immune dysfunction and physical illness.” Anger, especially political anger, is only productive when it results in action. Changing personal habits is a start, while taking political action (such as communicating with your representatives, and voting), or donating to environmental action groups has a wider impact. It is easy to liken these actions to “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic;” however cynicism will not elect pro-environmental candidates to office, or assuage our feelings of climate anxiety. However trivial it may seem in comparison to the size of the climate crisis, small actions can and often do ignite larger change.

Along with guilt and anger, it is normal to feel helpless and hopeless, the two pillars of depression, Kastner explains, which “naturally relate to our grieving process about the loss of nature as we know it.” When we believe there is nothing we can do to change an outcome, we develop helplessness, which can lead to ceasing our efforts at active problem solving and coping. Kastner suggests that we honor our struggle between acceptance and change, accepting the science that feels very grim, yet deciding to proceed with hopeful action. Even simple statements can help: “I’m limited in my personal ability to combat the global crisis of climate change, but I will act anyway. I can grieve losses and hope for good in the future. I can feel useless and useful at the same time.”

Our climate anxiety is accurate and justified. Kastner explains, similar to a family member facing a terminal cancer diagnosis, where a tragic outcome is inevitable, we need to choose an effective attitude, positive coping mechanisms, and effective actions. Treat climate anxiety like other anxieties. Moving your body, spending time outdoors, practicing mindfulness and surrounding yourself with friends – are all actions that encourage positive emotions.

If feelings of climate anxiety, anger, guilt, and hopelessness resonate with you, you are certainly not alone. As the climate crisis continues, more and more people are waking up to the connections between climate change and racial injustice. As you recruit your support system and develop your approach to managing climate anxiety, anyone who has been involved in the civil rights movement, the gay rights struggle, or the anti-war movement will tell you that lows are common, and you will feel disheartened along the way. As Kastner explains however, “‘helpers high’ is a real phenomenon. When you are helping others, or working in solidarity with others towards a common good, your body releases oxytocin, the ‘tend and befriend’ neurochemical.” The climate movement, and other deeply intertwined political movements that are ultimately rooted in justice and empathy, can carry a spiritual lift that compensates for the setbacks and struggles. Climate anxiety at its core is a feeling that’s rooted in empathy, as we worry for the future of our planet. While we move forward and take action, we must recognize our grief, and appreciate our empathy that is fueling both our climate anxiety and our ability to act. As we strive to better care for our planet and demand justice for its most vulnerable communities, our mental well-being deserves care as well.

Climate Anxiety Resources


Good Grief Network – ““builds personal resilience while strengthening community ties to help combat despair, inaction, eco-anxiety, and other heavy emotions in the face of daunting systemic predicaments.”

See their list of resources: Good Grief Resources

Climate & Mind – Information and resources on the relationship between climate change, psychology, and mental health. Hosts a great resource list.

The Climate Dreams Project Gathers “our collective dreams about climate breakdown.” You can submit your own.

Climate Psychology Alliance-North America

EcoAnxious Stories – holds ‘space for eco-anxious stories in the hopes of normalizing our experiences and supporting each other in taking meaningful action.”


List of Book Resources

Academic Papers

List of Academic Paper Resources


List of Audio Resources

Resource Source: Climate and Mind