How to cope with climate anxiety and despair

Sophie Handford’s climate anxiety is so bad she finds herself randomly bursting into tears and struggling with daily tasks. 

The School Strike 4 Climate national coordinator isn't alone, with researchers around the world seeing anecdotal evidence suggesting that climate-related anxiety and depression is on the rise. 

Between constant headlines spelling doom and bleak reports predicting a world plagued by droughts, wildfires and extreme weather, it is easy to see how people could feel overwhelmed and hopeless.

Handford is constantly fearful of the world she may soon be living in. This fear makes it hard for her to sleep and causes her to feel guilty whenever she takes time for herself. 

The potentially disastrous effects of climate change are always on her mind. 

"It's the anxiety that things won't be enough and that I need to spend every minute of every day working on this for it to be enough." 

The overwhelming dread makes it hard for her to do things she loves like going for a run, walking on the beach or watching TV. 

"If I sit down and watch a Netflix show or go for a run, I just feel like well maybe if I had spent that hour doing something important like climate strike organising then we might have a better chance of survival for those generations to come," she said. 

School Strike 4 Climate national coordinator Sophie Handford.
School Strike 4 Climate national coordinator Sophie Handford. Photo credit: AM Show

Take action

 

Handford isn't alone in her feelings of despair and dread. 

Co-convener of the NZ climate psychology task force Brian Dixon says anxiety is a rational response to the climate crisis.  

He said anxiety is based on feelings of uncertainty and a lack of control, which makes sense when dealing with something as big as climate change. 

When it comes to coping with climate anxiety, Dixon says the best thing to do is what Handford is already doing - take action. 

Action helps people feel in control, which can minimise feelings of anxiety and hopelessness. 

"If you feel that you have some agency… that's really helpful for dealing with those thoughts and doubts and worries."

A group of young people protesting climate change.
A group of young people protesting climate change. Photo credit: Getty Images

However, he said anxiety isn't necessarily a bad thing if it is motivating people to get involved in preventing climate change.

"Our survival and evolution has been based on people having feelings, including negative ones," he said. 

"It's important to understand that people get motivated to make changes when they become concerned enough about something."

Maintain hope

 

While climate anxiety may seem like a unique challenge for this generation, experts have compared it to the anxiety that people experienced during the Cold War. 

Dixon said while there are a lot of similarities, in many ways, climate anxiety is worse. 

"Climate change is much bigger and it has more of a global finality risk, so the stakes are probably higher."

He said during the Cold War people learned to live with that anxiety while waiting, and hoping, leaders would reach a peaceful resolution. But with climate change, it is harder to leave it to the leaders. 

"It's difficult to tell people to get on with it and leave it to the leaders because the leaders haven't actually done what they need to do."

Dixon said holding on to hope is crucial to reducing climate anxiety, even when things feel overwhelming. 

He said focusing on the positives will stop people getting bogged down by anxiety. 

Oosterman said taking part in community lead activism, like marching or joining a community garden, helps people feel in control.
Oosterman said taking part in community lead activism, like marching or joining a community garden, helps people feel in control. Photo credit: Getty Images

Sociology teaching fellow at Victoria University Jonathan Oosterman said hope is crucial, but needs to be realistic. 

He said when people feel hopeless, they can sometimes isolate themselves from the climate crisis because it feels "too big" to solve. 

Oosterman warned this can cause people to deny climate change because they feel they are being blamed for it or that there is nothing they can do about it.

These feelings can be changed when the solutions are realistic and not just a quick fix, he said.  

"All the conversations around climate focus on this idea that you just need to change your lightbulbs, but that's not meeting people in their experiences of climate anxiety, and it's also not meeting the realistic nature of the challenge."

He said while small changes like using energy efficient light bulbs are good, they won’t solve the climate crisis and people need to focus on the bigger issues. 

Oosterman said the real solutions come from international change and government policies, not individual choices. 

When it comes to anxiety, taking part in community lead activism like marching or joining a community garden helps people feel in control, he said. 

Oosterman said connecting with people who share your concerns is a good way to deal with anxiety because it allows you to share your fears with others who will understand them and not dismiss them.

Oosterman, who has a background in climate activism, also acknowledged the importance of taking breaks when needed, warning against getting caught in a cycle of anxiety and action.

He said he suffered from burnout in 2005 because he was constantly feeling anxious and sad. 

"I was trying to come to terms with the risk of billions of people dying and that was juxtaposed with the fact that we didn't have, and still don't have, anywhere near sufficient action."

He was so exhausted that he decided to take a break and focus on recharging. 

Burnout is something Sophie Handford worries about a lot. The 18-year-old struggles to make time for herself in her everyday routine. 

"I definitely feel guilty for doing anything other than trying to save the planet which sucks."

However, she is slowly coming to terms with the fact that she can't ignore her own needs. 

“It isn’t a sustainable way of living because if I am constantly putting all my energy into climate strikes, then I am not doing as well as I could be because I am not taking breaks and time for myself.”

While fear and frustration are her main drivers, Handford said hope is also a huge motivator for her. 

"A lot of what I am doing is driven out of fear, but also out of a part of me that knows that if we act now we will create a better world for the generations to come."

She said she feels like there is way too much at stake to not take action. 

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