Written by Communications Associate, Jarea Fang
It has been more than half a century since we first celebrated Earth Day on April 22nd, 1970. Since then, our society has grown steadily more aware of the climate crisis, with many taking action in increasingly diverse ways. From joining international collaboration efforts to amplifying local activism like intersectional environmentalists, Leah Thomas and Isra Hirsi, the younger generations are stepping up.
Here at WashU, we are committed to being a national leader in sustainability. This priority has begun to run through all aspects of our community, our operations, and our work as a leading teaching and research institution. Our students have always been the impetus for pushing this effort forward, and we are proud to collaborate with our many student organizations that love and care for our earth. From addressing food insecurity in our community to exploring the beautiful nature of Missouri and Illinois, our students run the gamut. It goes without saying that we are extremely proud.
Being aware of the climate crisis is not without its downsides, however. In our digital age, it’s difficult not to feel discouraged by fast approaching news of extreme weather events and humanitarian crises around us, especially when the language surrounding climate change is often quite grim. While some of us have gone on social media detoxes or learned to otherwise mindfully consume the news, others may feel the urge to “doom scroll.” After all, global warming is urgent and indiscriminate… how do we know that we are not its next victims?
Dear reader, if this sentiment hits too close to home, you might be interested in this thing called climate anxiety.
What is Climate Anxiety?
Climate anxiety, sometimes called eco-anxiety or solastalgia, means what it sounds like: emotional distress relating to the effects of climate change. While it is not a disorder listed in the DSM-5, the diagnostic tool for mental disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, it’s a term that describes an increasingly common sentiment going around mental health circles: that our fear of global warming has become a factor in making all kinds of decisions, from the food we eat and professions we pursue to whether it’s ethical to bring a child into a world fraught with the effects of climate change.
Some may experience anxiety about the future impacts of climate change, while others may experience distress from personally experiencing climate-related natural disasters. Both of these experiences fall under the umbrella term of climate anxiety, of which the exact definition is ever-evolving. It might sound strange to associate the anxiety of watching the news during hurricane season with the grief experienced by those who personally experienced Hurricane Katrina, but both of those feelings are normal and valid reactions to an abnormal situation. Regardless of your personal experiences, the evidence for anthropomorphic climate change is all around us, unspoken but persistent in the increased emergency room visits due to heat stroke in the St. Louis Children’s Hospital as well as repeated global supply chain disruptions due to extreme weather events.
Born into a world that already celebrates Earth Day, today’s young adults, teens, and children don’t know a world before global warming. They learn from a young age to advocate for the environment and as a result, feelings of doom associated with the climate crisis feel chronic. Greta Thunberg, a young activist from Sweden internationally recognized for her passionate anger over political inaction against climate change, started a movement in 2018 by skipping school to protest in front of the Swedish Parliament. School Strikes for Climate are now a staple among youth climate activists across the globe, with many calling for the older generation–politicians, CEOs, and other leaders of powerful institutions–to enact policies that will protect the environment. What is the point of going to school, they say, if we don’t have a future to study for?
May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and as we continue to raise awareness about all kinds of different mental health topics, we want to bring climate anxiety into the conversation. The climate crisis is a huge weight to carry for anyone, no matter their age, their experience with extreme weather events, or the kind of activism they pursue. When faced with the very rational and real threat of climate change, how can we not feel anxious? When encountering those who doubt the validity of climate change or feel less passionate about the subject, how can we not fear? Humans are wired to be scared of unpredictable things, and climate change is anything but predictable. So, where do we go from here?
Suggestions on how to Address your Climate Anxiety
First, recognize that what you are experiencing is normal. You are not alone if you feel paralyzed by climate anxiety. Step into the world and find others like you; it’s ok to grieve together for your collective loss of normalcy, whether it is in the future, present, or even the past. What is not helpful is avoiding talking about your fear at all. Through building community, we can stay strong and support each other, both as humans and as stewards of the earth.
Next, turn your anxiety into action. Bring your newfound community with you to protests, conferences, and camping trips. Find something you’re really good at and put that skill to use. There are so many ways to help the environment, from researching renewable energy to creating plant-based recipes and sharing them on social media. Stay strong against the doomsday narrative surrounding climate change, and discover for yourself the right balance between fear and optimism. By changing the culture and language around climate action, we can bring more people into the fold.
Third, be mindful of activism fatigue, the burnout that can happen if you sacrifice your needs working towards a goal that requires constant emotional, mental, and physical attention. While it is important to change your lifestyle to align more with your values or invest in the local climate activism scene, it is also important to take care of your mind and body. When you feel small or weak, let the others carry on the fight while you go for a walk in the park and reacquaint yourself with the world that you’re fighting for. Dip your toes in the sand and watch the river flow by. Just as you take care of the world, it takes care of you too.
Fourth, listen to and amplify marginalized voices. While everyone experiences climate anxiety to some degree, the effects of global warming disproportionately affect marginalized communities. Listen to their voices, needs, and expertise; identify the most effective ways that you can help. Dismantle present systems of inequality by learning from local BIPOC activists who have advocated for their community for generations. Always remember that true climate justice means ensuring a sustainable future for all people, present and future.
Lastly, take care of the next generation. Be gentle as you guide the younger ones through their first experiences with climate anxiety, the way you needed someone to be there for you. As you fight for your future, keep theirs in mind. One day, when you retire, it is they who will dip their toes in the sand and watch the river flow by. They will be the ones carrying on your mantle and continuing to fight for the world you love, because you were the one that brought them theirs.
Climate anxiety can be debilitating, but you’re not going through this alone. Not only can you find kindred spirits among the variety of sustainability-oriented student groups on campus, the professionals of the Mental Health Services (MHS) at WashU would be glad to guide you through this journey. To speak to a fellow WashU peer about mental health in confidence, please reach out to Uncle Joe’s. During emergencies or situations of crisis, please reach out to Provident Behavior Health St. Louis’ 24/7 crisis hotline.
To find more information about climate anxiety, check out the following resources:
- Climate anxiety an important driver for climate action – University of Bath
- Eco-anxiety: how to cope at a time of climate crisis – National History Museum
- Climate anxiety is a normal response to an abnormal situation. Here’s what to do about it – LA Times
- Coping with eco-anxiety: An interdisciplinary perspective for collective learning and strategic communication – Science Direct
- Your Crushing Anxiety About the Climate Crisis Is Normal – Smithsonian
- Climate communication: Do apocalyptic messages work? – Yale University
- Activism Fatigue: The Mind is a Powerful Source of Change – UC Irvine
- Here are 10 Climate Activists to Watch in 2023 – Fair Planet
- Green Spaces Promote Community Health – Office of Sustainability (OOS)
We would like to thank Chris Weatherly for sharing resources to assist in writing this article. At the time of this publication, Chris was working on his dissertation as a doctoral student in social work at the Brown School.