Climate change can be overwhelming. Here’s how to process those feelings of helplessness and move past paralysis.
If reading about global warming—or experiencing firsthand the effects of climate change—has been raising your stress levels lately, know that this is a completely normal human response, says Britt Wray, a postdoctoral researcher on the intersection of climate change and mental health.
“To be anxious about what’s going on with the climate and wider ecological crisis shows you’re paying attention,” says Wray, the author of Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis, which came out last spring.
This type of anxiousness, called eco-anxiety, was first defined in 2017 by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” Eco-anxiety has been hitting millennials and Gen Z the hardest, but 91 percent of Canadians surveyed reported they consider climate change a serious issue. And environmental experts are especially struggling.
“Climatologists are freaking out right now,” says Inês Lopes, a psychologist in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, who also specializes in the intersection of the climate crisis and mental health. Lopes explains that eco-anxiety can have psychological, emotional and physiological impacts that can manifest in life-altering ways, including feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, difficulty breathing and sleeping, panic attacks and depression.
Whether you’re a climate expert or an ordinary Canadian, these are completely reasonable reactions to some harsh realities. “The creeping effects of climate change, like drought, will affect people’s ability to work, to live and perhaps cause forced migration,” says Wray.
Another prevailing response to all this doom and gloom is avoidance. But Wray argues that trying to ward off the daunting news about our planet’s future and resisting these emotions only makes them stronger. Instead, we need to push for solutions, using both external activism and “internal forms of activism,” she says. “Internal activism is the processing of the anxiety, fear, anger, dread, despair, hopelessness, so the emotions can be accepted and folded into our lives without keeping us immobilized,” she explains.
Here’s how to make that shift and transform eco-anxiety into action.
Relieve yourself from guilt
Changing our personal habits—like using paper straws over plastic ones—is definitely worthwhile, but it’s a tremendously small fraction of the solution: The fossil fuel industry is responsible for at least 89 percent of global CO2 emissions. In fact, in the 1970s, after fossil fuel companies became aware their products would make up an outsized proportion of global emissions, they spread misinformation about the impacts of the greenhouse effect and created a PR campaign to pin global warming on individual consumers.
Wray urges her readers to resist this blame game and remember that the climate crisis will not be solved by our consumer choices alone—we need wider-reaching, sweeping policy changes. “I’m not going to get trapped in their narratives about individual guilt,” she says. We should all do what we can to align our values with our actions, but “these are systemic issues. We need systemic responses and people coming together to change our systems through policy.”
Don’t judge others
It can be frustrating to feel like we’re making responsible choices—eating less meat, busting out reusable grocery bags—while some people just can’t be bothered. But it’s important to understand the social inequities that may prevent many people from making these lifestyle changes. Buying only locally grown, whole foods or avoiding fast fashion can be expensive and time-consuming—many people do not have the wiggle room in their budget, or the time in a stressful work week, to devote the money and extra effort required to change these ingrained, and often structural, habits.
“We’re tied to systems of colonialism, capitalism and neoliberalism that puts people in complex, compromised positions of unlivable wages that minimize their capacity to make other changes,” says Meghan Wise, an environmental activist and coordinator at the UBC Climate Hub.
Make individual adjustments when you can, but have empathy for those who are unable to do so. “If we can support each other and make powerful climate actions available to everybody,” says Wise, “we can move together, faster, in the direction we need to.”
An example? Make public transit more accessible, says Wise. Urge policymakers to create and support safe and affordable public transportation options, from more subway routes to more e-bikes in our cities. “Studies indicate that if given the option and appropriate infrastructure, many people would take up e-bikes or public transit alternatives, which can have wonderful co-benefits to reduce community air pollution and increase collective mental health,” says Wise.
Find—and lean on—your community
We experience the climate crisis in different ways, depending on factors like where we live, our financial status and how educated we are about what’s happening around the world. Wealthier Canadians can afford to escape soaring summer temps by fleeing to the cottage; Canadians living outside BC may not understand the very real fears of wildfires, drought and flooding; and not everyone is learning about the climate-change-related catastrophes that can feel far away, like this summer’s floods in Pakistan.
When it seems like you’re the only person you know paying attention, it can easily lead to feeling alone with your eco-anxiety. Finding a community can help alleviate the isolation, Wray says. Balance the hopelessness and fear with more positive emotions, like courageousness and connection, by fostering resilient communities that push for solutions.
Wise suggests becoming an advocate in your community in a role that reflects your values—and that doesn’t mean it has to be directly linked to the climate crisis fight. “Working on food justice in your community is climate action; working on housing injustice is climate action,” she says. “Community cohesion is a critical aspect of community resilience.” Recognizing how you’re already contributing to a community can help ease that eco-anxiety.
Don’t discount the seemingly small—but significant—ways you can support climate-friendly organizations in your community and feel like you’re making a difference. Join a tool library instead of driving to Home Depot (cities like Toronto and Vancouver already have them), or start a sharing hub. “In my neighborhood, we share lawn equipment, garden tools, a ladder, power tools—things like that,” says Wise. Starting or joining your local Buy Nothing group (through an app, or via a Facebook group) instead of Amazoning everything you need to your house is another easy way to reduce your ecological impact and save money, while creating community bonds.
Employ healthy coping mechanisms
This is heavy stuff. Drowning your eco-anxiety with a bowl of ice cream or a glass of wine while scrolling TikTok can definitely provide temporary relief from the news cycle, but these forms of head-in-the-sand coping mechanisms may not be good for you in the long run. “Suppression can take a real toll on our body, immune system and general wellbeing,” says Wray.
Lopes says the most effective coping mechanisms are taking realistic action—doing what is within your means—and practising acceptance. You can take action against eco-anxiety by using emotion-focused coping and meaning-focused coping, which Wray outlines in her book. Emotion-focused coping helps manage negative emotions around a stressor that’s out of your control through mind-soothing practices like meditation, journaling and engaging in other pleasurable activities. Meaning-focused therapy encourages finding purpose to transform feelings into actions. “It’s about being alive at this time, throwing one’s talents at the problems and connecting with the community who can mirror these concerns and help support you,” says Wray.
As for the other coping mechanism, acceptance, Lopes says you need to come to terms with the reality of the situation. “There’s only so much you can do, and you can’t do it all alone,” she says. Knowing what’s in your control and what’s not can help prevent negative self-talk and those paralyzing, ruminating thoughts.
Demand policy changes—and vote
Look for campaigns pushing corporations to reassess the impacts of how they operate, and connect with your local political representative. “We can actually create a policy that says, for example, no more fossil fuel infrastructure,” says Wise. “Recognize who in your community has the power to mobilize policy changes, and what encourages them to make those changes.” Find out which candidates are fighting for the issues that matter most to you, write to your representatives, show up at meetings and make sure you vote.
We also need to build resilience and devise adaptations to a climate-changed world, says Wray. “We have to turn the ship around and reinvest in non-carbon intensive energy—and help each other adapt to the warming we’re already experiencing.”
For a starting point, search out organizations like Indigenous Climate Action, Be the Change Earth Alliance and Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE), suggests Wise.
While managing eco-anxiety is important for our mental health, Wray wants more of us to be outraged, and more passionate, about the climate crisis. “I expect to see the mass mobilization on climate really ramp up in the years to come,” she says. “That will affect and infiltrate all aspects of how we work, how we live, how we do business, what we’re inventing and our solutions.” The more people get outraged and passionate about the climate crisis, the better off our trajectory will be.
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