Climate anxiety: ‘It’s reasonable to be feeling scared, anxious, even depressed’

Younger generations are struggling to cope with climate threats of unprecedented scale

The extent of climate and eco-anxiety among young people, as revealed by the first global survey ever carried out, is widespread, deeply felt and intruding on their daily lives.

Conducted by an international team led by psychotherapist and climate-psychologist Caroline Hickman, it reflects profound concern about the climate crisis, biodiversity collapse and the imminent threat to Earth. But it also identified great hurt, stemming from the older generation's poor response and wholly inadequate action.

When published in September, Hickman told BBC News: “This shows eco-anxiety is not just for environmental destruction alone . . . The young feel abandoned and betrayed by governments.” What prompted the research was the implications the climate crisis has for the health and futures of young people, when “they have little power to limit its harm, making them vulnerable to increased climate anxiety”.

The research is also the first large-scale investigation of climate anxiety in young people – with 10,000 respondents aged between 16 and 25 on every continent.

READ MORE

The findings are "pretty awful", Hickman acknowledges. Addressing a recent Walk in My Shoes webinar on climate change and mental health hosted by St Patrick's Mental Health Services in Maynooth University, she accepts the threats are of unprecedented scale – "beyond world wars" – so it's reasonable to be feeling scared, anxious, even depressed. Such experiences have to be faced up to first to navigate ways forward, she adds – notably through adopting "radical hope"; understanding each other's feelings and responding collectively.

Most devastating for Hickman was 56 per cent of young people surveyed think “humanity is doomed”, though she says an open intergenerational conversation can counter this viewpoint. There are stark indications of distress: four in 10 young people are hesitant to have children, over half think things they most value will be destroyed. Nearly half reported feeling distressed or anxious about the climate in a way that was affecting their daily functioning - eating; concentrating, going to work, sleeping, spending time in nature, relationships, playing and having fun.

“Yes, it’s catastrophic. Yes this is worrying. Yes, this causes anxiety. But there are also transformational possibilities for humanity,” says Hickman, who is based at the University of Bath.

Climate researcher, activist and mother Sadhbh O’Neill has been busy in this space for years, but acknowledges this can insulate her from “the raw pain, rage and grief that many younger climate activists feel. But I feel it too, it’s just that I’ve learned to manage it better over time. I don’t work weekends much anymore, I have learned to enjoy my family and friendships, and there is a lot of music, love and laughter – and when I can, dancing – in my life. These are antidotes to despair.”

But they don’t fix the problem. Anger can be a source of energy, motivating us to demand action and change but is ineffective and leads to burnout or interpersonal problems, she believes. “So we need to find ways to balance anger and energy – we need to manage our individual and collective energies with a long-term plan and political strategy. Firing off on all cylinders 24/7 is not sustainable.”

She remains fearful: “I’ve read enough climate science to know that we are facing catastrophe within decades if we don’t take urgent, decisive steps.” As the parent of daughters aged 14, 17 and 21, O’Neill thinks one of the things young people find hardest to cope with and understand, is disconnect between all the “blah blah blah” from adults/political leaders and the urgent and drastic actions required.

Their anxiety is building, she says, because they don’t see adults acting appropriately. “Our job is to protect them, to guide them into the world and to leave it in a state that allows them to build fulfilling lives. But we are failing them. Other generations might have been excusably ignorant but that is not true of my generation at least.”

Often at third level students only learn about the severity of the climate crisis for the first time when they study climate implications and can become overwhelmed, O’Neill notes. “I want to reassure them and say we have it all under control but we don’t.”

Students in her experience are willing to give up many things (meat, flying, even having children) but can’t understand why no clear message is coming from national experts and authorities telling people what needs to be done and why – unlike with Covid.

Many solutions are already out there, while ecological thinking is a deep resource with ideas and visions going back decades, “but these ideas are just not part of popular culture which is dominated with consumerism, power games and general silliness”, says O’Neill.

Ecological ideas need to be considered essential life skills or policy approaches – “ecological literacy” should be the norm, she suggests. “I think people are anxious when they feel powerless, when the situation is out of control, when the polluters are getting away with it and no effective opposition is put to the destruction of nature.”

It is also so dispiriting seeing neighbours chopping down 50 year old trees or driving in SUVs when you know how important these choices are at the community level, she says. “That is why activism is so important. When we put our bodies, our voices and our votes literally on the line; we force the powers that be to listen and to act.”

Without mobilisation, she believes we become mere spectators of an unfolding disaster; “nothing could be more distressing or disempowering”.

There are promises of €1 million a day for cycling and walking, “but very little in the way of the transformative, town/citywide mobility planning needed. We demanded system change, but we’re getting trinkets instead.”

Way forward

Hickman believes addressing eco-anxiety must begin with “facing difficult truths” about multiple threats before going on a journey towards eco-compassion and eco-empathy. That involves charting a way between the extremes of naive optimism – “technology/governments will save us” – and the apocalyptic viewpoint of “we are going to die; we are doomed”. That is where the radical hope comes in; “negotiating the tensions of these opposites”, which is built on by validating people’s feelings and acting together.

Hickman is getting “I was alone – no longer” emails from young people thanking her for highlighting what they feel. Their eco-anxiety is an emotionally healthy response to a scary external reality, she insists. She is not saying “it’s not worrying”, but they should feel proud they have the capacity to care.

Environmental psychologist Tadhg MacIntyre of Maynooth University says getting a handle on the climate crisis should be seen in the context of how we cope with other interlinked issues – all of which can benefit from nature-based solutions. The best example, he suggests, is rollout of nature in cities to promote to mental health. So it can be the solution to the biodiversity crisis, obesity, sedentary behaviour and eco-anxiety.

He believes eco-anxiety should be seen in the context of previous existential threats such as 9/11, where young people experienced overwhelming anxiety yet displayed a reservoir of courage. It was “an acute stressor” but research shows people in New York had a high degree of resilience in finding new pathways in their lives and in shifting their thinking – few suffered post-traumatic stress disorder.

Language matters, however, so with the climate issue "are we talking about catastrophe, crisis or challenge"? With overwhelming negative emotions "we're parked", he says, without the capacity to adapt rapidly. So with the recent Nature Moves campaign led by Sports Ireland during Covid, encouraging everyone to get out and be active in nature during the pandemic, it was essential "to use language that is motivating, that draws people in, that empowers them". McIntyre describes this as "learned optimism", the opposite to learned helplessness.

Coillte forests were used more during the Covid-19 pandemic as people replaced gyms and sports with going there, not just for exercise but for solace and decompression from lockdown. It was "a self-righting mechanism", MacIntyre adds. Based on these trends, he asks if we should be a little more optimistic about dealing with eco-anxiety. Everything hinges our capacity to be resilient, he underlines, while "a common enemy is bonding".

Hickman believes older people feel the same as younger people. “But as adults, we have developed adult defences against despair, distress and painful truths.” We have had more experiences and, hopefully, the ability to build some resilience. Such defences can, however, get in the way when it comes to understanding and empathising with the perspective of youth.

“The difference is in the way in which we project into the future. For older people, we have lived a significant part of our lives. So we have to deal with grief and disillusionment, when we may have grown up thinking it would be alright, before we can become resilient.”

With children, eco-anxiety is already their norm. Older people seem to be more inclined to believe greenwashing “and young people see through it because they are feeling rather let down”.

In her psychotherapy practice, Hickman applies “a climate crisis lens” to understand people’s experience and helping them to navigate a way through their feelings in much the same way “a trauma lens” is deployed. “That way their feelings make perfect sense.”

She stresses, however, feelings of eco-anxiety do necessarily require going to a psychotherapist. The support might come in a “climate cafe” where people go and realise they are not alone, “while appreciating humanity’s need to understand each other”. Ultimately, Hickman suggests, this can provide the mechanism to embrace a process of healing for humanity.

Future impacts

Eco-anxiety levels will probably get worse because the crisis looks set to intensify in the short term. A recent study concluded if the planet continues to warm at its current pace, the average six-year-old will live through roughly three times as many climate disasters as their grandparents. It was an attempt to quantify the “intergenerational injustice” of climate disruption. In the context of eco-anxiety, worsening impacts are likely to exacerbate worries about the fate of the planet.

Dr Katja Frieler at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, a member of the study team, points to how the unfairness – and, by implication, the distress can be addressed. "The good news is we can take much of the climate burden from our children's shoulders if we limit warming to 1.5 degrees by phasing out fossil fuel use. This is a huge opportunity," she says.

The COP26 summit in Glasgow next month is the only global mechanism that can make this happen.

Protecting Earth and mental health: Anouchka Grose’s approach

  1. Understand that your anxiety is a brilliant adaptation. Your body is genius: it's telling you to try to save our excellent planet. Join up with other worried people and not only will you feel relieved, but you will be helping to create a superpower. We're winning.
  2. Don't get lost in the future. Stay here, because here is where we can get stuff done.
  3. Look after yourself, others and the planet. All three, equally. You won't be able to do the last two if you don't do the first one. It's not selfish, it's kind
  4. Become the best conversationalist you can. Talk to people. Listen to them. Be considerate and honest, not to mention subtly persuasive when necessary. Good communication isn't about showing off or impressing people; it's about being there with others in ways you can all enjoy and learn from.
  5. Stay open to the world and all its possibilities. Know that you will do the right thing by other people in an emergency.
  6. Let children say whatever they need to about the climate crisis. You can be reassuring without being dishonest. And have a baby if you want. Who knows what's going to happen? It would be so annoying to realise that it would actually have been okay.
  7. Appreciate the amazing things this planet has to offer; and don't worry if some of these are ecologically suboptimal. It's not your fault if you've been brought up to like the odd polluting activity. It might take time to adjust to a different set of ideals.
  8. Combine environmentally responsible personal choices with activism and social engagement. It not one or the other, it's both.
  9. Proceed as though it's possible to make a difference. Celebrate and share your eco-wins, however small.
  10. When terrestrial life gets too much for you, let your mind drift up to the stars. It's so easy to forget they're there.
  • Source: A Guide to Eco-Anxiety by Anounchka Grose published by Watkins 2020.