Whether it’s a searing heat wave, prolonged drought or devastating flooding, the impact of climate change is being felt across Europe. Besides putting us in danger from natural disasters, it can also affect our physical health. Since 2000, heat waves have already caused tens of thousands of premature deaths in Europe, and numbers of heat-related deaths and illnesses are likely to increase in the future.
But climate change can also take a toll on our mental health, triggering ‘climate anxiety’ – or, more broadly, ‘eco anxiety,’ affecting people who are concerned about the state of the climate and the environment. With the 2021 Eurobarometer survey finding that 93% of Europeans think climate change is a serious problem, while 78% think it’s very serious, it looks like many of us may experience this kind of anxiety.
So, what does climate anxiety feel like?
A fear of the future
European Climate Pact Ambassador and university student Maria Serra Olivella, from Spain, first experienced climate anxiety after watching a National Geographic documentary in 2018: “I felt really overwhelmed, because I saw that no one cared about the climate crisis. At the time, it seemed like this big secret that no one dared talk about.” Since then, her feelings have spurred her on to helping to start the Fridays for Future climate protest movement in Barcelona. But she struggles: “There are days when it takes so much more energy to function, go to university, study or do my activism because I can’t find a point to it.”
And Maria has found that near-constant access to reporting on the climate crisis is a trigger for her anxiety. “Every single time climate news comes on I feel anxious again,” she says.
European Climate Pact Ambassador and psychiatrist Matteo Innocenti from Italy also experiences climate anxiety, even though he’s familiar with techniques to combat it. “When I see images from climate disasters on television, I feel deeply anxious. I start to think about the future and our children’s future, and I start to feel typical symptoms of anxiety, like my heart rate or breathing getting faster.”
For Matteo, this anxiety comes with a feeling of responsibility. “It can trigger a very deep sense of guilt whenever we use plastics or use our cars. We try to change our behaviour, but because we can’t change every single thing, we can just feel this persistent sense of guilt.”
Who does it affect?
Climate-anxiety might weigh more heavily on young people, perhaps illustrated by the fact that millions of school children have taken part in youth-led climate strikes. Maria believes it affects young people differently, as they have a longer future ahead of them and worry that it will be worse for them than for their parents. “Climate anxiety adds to an already very mentally exhausted generation who have constant doom and crises thrown at us,” she says.
The Lancet, a renowned medical journal, surveyed thousands of children and young people across 10 countries and found that most respondents are worried about climate change. And more than 45% said their feelings about climate change affected them negatively in their daily life.
What can you do about it?
Climate anxiety is certainly challenging to deal with, but Matteo emphasises that you can turn your negative emotions into something positive. We asked both Maria and Matteo what approaches they find most effective.
1) Take climate action – however small
Climate anxiety can range all the way from leaving you in ‘eco-paralysis’ – feeling so helpless that you don’t do anything – to actually motivating you to act. “A first step is to invite people to adopt simple, environmentally friendly habits like recycling household waste or cycling more, which help them feel part of the solution. It can be a virtuous cycle: using climate anxiety to stimulate eco-friendly behaviour can, in turn, lessen the anxiety that you are experiencing,” says Matteo.
Maria recommends climate action too. “The feeling of doing something about climate change really alleviates the feeling of helplessness that comes with climate anxiety,” she says. And you can start small – for example by making a Climate Pact pledge to adopt an eco-friendly behaviour. To date, over 4 million individual Pact pledges have been made, together amounting to CO2 savings of more than 15 million kilograms. That’s equivalent to 24,018 return flights between Paris and New York – proving that taking action really works.
2) Get connected – and channel the Climate Pact’s full potential
Taking climate action as part of a larger community can also help you feel both reassured that your action is being amplified, and comforted in the knowledge that you’re not acting alone. Matteo recommends reaching out to friends or colleagues and joining online groups. “If you live near a rubbish dump in a natural area or a woodland that is under threat of destruction, find other people who care, start a group and take action. By getting together, we can make more impactful change,” says Matteo.
Maria’s activism led her to join the European Climate Pact, which has enabled her to build a supportive community and share experiences with others. “There is a lot of comfort in finding professionals and friends to work closely with,” she says, adding that being an Ambassador gives her a voice, for example at conferences and other Pact events that invite people to get involved.
The Pact enables all sorts of people, from scientists to engineers to artists, to come together and share knowledge about what can be done about climate change, which can help ease climate anxiety. “We can come together to create the future,” says Matteo.
3) Reconnect with nature
Matteo advises people to “go out and feel nature – see that it is not all being destroyed and is very much alive.” One idea to help with this is to practise slow, mindful walks through a forest guided by nature’s scents, sounds and colours. Research shows that spending time among the trees can reduce depression and anxiety, and even the occurrence of chronic diseases and cancer.
Enjoying nature not only helps to lessen climate anxiety, it can have a lasting impact on the way humans see and interact with the world. “By reconnecting with nature and respecting it, we can live in a more symbiotic way – one in which we do not destroy or pollute nature, and stop accelerating climate change. We can use our scientific knowledge to work for nature, rather than for profit and industry,” says Matteo.
4) Be careful who – and what – you listen to
As you increase your contact with nature, it might be wise to reduce your exposure to news about the climate crisis, says Matteo. “The media often focus on the catastrophic impacts of climate change to grab people’s attention, and not on the causes and solutions.” Instead, he encourages people to seek out credible sources, such as scientists, on social media. “Follow people who explain things about climate change while also offering ways to address it,” he suggests.
But while it’s important to stay informed, it’s okay to take a step back to clear your head and calm your body and mind. Another tactic you can try is cutting out all the noise completely. Why not turn off your news alerts for a period of time each day? Or learn some mindfulness, meditation and breathing exercises to give yourself regular moments of calm?
From a negative to a positive
By acknowledging our climate anxiety and taking steps to address it, we can turn it into an opportunity to find out what we can do about climate change and actually do it – with the added bonus of feeling more connected to nature and other people. “Hope can spring from becoming aware that everything we do to fight climate change is important,” Matteo says.
If you’re experiencing climate anxiety, why not find a friend who is feeling the same and have a look at which of these practical steps you could take to make a difference to climate change in your everyday lives. Then do it together! And remember to encourage others to do the same by sharing your news on social media using the hashtag #EUClimatePact.
- Publication date
- 30 January 2023