In tandem with the relentless reports of higher temperatures, extreme weather, natural disasters and depleted resources saturating your newsfeed, you may find yourself experiencing an uptick in anxiety, depression and existential dread — better known as eco-anxiety.
A 2020 poll by the American Psychiatric Association found that more than two-thirds of Americans (67%) are somewhat or extremely anxious about the effect of climate change on the planet while more than half (55%) are somewhat or extremely anxious about how climate change affects their own mental health.
Though not an official clinical diagnosis, the American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” Eco-anxiety is just as real as any other form of anxiety in that it typically involves the same physical and emotional sensations.
“It’s even more real, in a sense, because the problem triggering the anxiety symptoms is objectively real and massive in scale,” Erica Dodds, chief operating officer of the Foundation for Climate Restoration, told HuffPost. “There used to be more distance between any one person and the world, but now it feels like every problem in the world is right in our living rooms with us.”
Like other forms of anxiety, eco-anxiety can affect anyone, and to varying degrees. “Some people might be proactive in taking measures to protect the planet’s resources, while others might feel so powerless to stop the degradation of the environment they can’t handle thinking about it at all,” Dodds said.
No matter where you fall on the eco-anxiety spectrum, the steps you take to recognize your symptoms and improve them will likely be advantageous for the planet, too. Where to begin? See if any of these eco-anxiety symptoms sound familiar and use the expert-backed strategies provided as fuel for positive change.
1. You’re in a persistent state of anticipatory anxiety.
Our animalistic need to feel safe operates on the most primitive level. “When we don’t feel safe, we naturally scan our environment to detect any hint of threat,” Carla Marie Manly, a California-based clinical psychologist and author of “Joy From Fear,” told HuffPost.
When a threat like climate change is continuously felt yet isn’t readily discernible in the present moment, you may end up with chronic anticipatory anxiety. Because anticipatory anxiety is future-based, the best way to counteract it is to reconnect with the present moment, starting with a few deep breaths to calm your over-revved sympathetic (“fight or flight”) nervous system.
“Keep a rock, dried flower, twig or other natural object around that you can look at and touch when you’re feeling overwhelmed,” said Holly Schiff, a licensed clinical psychologist based in Greenwich, Connecticut. “This acts as a grounding technique.”
2. You feel guilty about not doing more to reduce your carbon footprint.
Odds are your guilt stems from all-or-nothing thinking — you consider your actions as successes or failures, and there’s no gray area. Meanwhile, the gray zone is where many of our daily actions land.
“Recognizing this maladaptive thought pattern is the first step toward alleviating guilt and shame related to your feelings of personal responsibility for your carbon footprint,” Tyson Lippe, a psychiatrist at Heading Health in Austin, Texas, told HuffPost.
Learn to acknowledge the positive decisions instead of focusing on how much more you could have done. “By ignoring everything less than 100%, it becomes easy to feel your efforts will always be in vain,” Lippe said. “One setback or shortcoming doesn’t negate the rest of your efforts toward ensuring our planet’s health.”
Because the brain is hardwired to remember negative instead of positive experiences, documenting your achievements can keep your efforts in perspective.
“Constructing a record of accomplishments provides an easy way to review them and remind yourself that you made a difference,” Lippe said. “This method provides positive reinforcement and a way to override our propensity to focus on our shortcomings.”
3. You deeply regret choices that harmed the environment.
Regret can be both constructive and destructive — and it’s important to learn the difference.
“A normal and desirable part of life is learning new information as we grow and change,” Lippe said. “But becoming aware of the unforeseen consequences of our acts and assessing past behavior in the light of new knowledge can lead to being excessively self-critical.”
The next time you find yourself in a regret spiral, pause to notice if you’re now engaged in more eco-friendly behaviors. If you are, focus on all you’re doing now to change the world for the better.
Regret about your past environmental impact might also be a signal from your psyche that you’re not currently taking care of the planet. If that’s the case, “use the regret to create new behaviors that will make a positive, if small, difference,” Manly said. Think: using reusable produce and grocery bags, trying waterless cleaning products, shopping sustainable beauty brands and more.
4. Your doomscrolling is getting out of hand.
Compulsive actions emanating from eco-anxiety — like doomscrolling for the latest climate change tragedies and grim predictions — often occur in conjunction with hyper-focused, obsessive thoughts, which stem from a lack of internal safety and control.
“Such behaviors are the mind’s way of coping with the stress and anxiety of feeling powerless,” Manly said. “Seeking relief, the mind becomes stuck in ruminative patterns.”
Consider setting limitations on the daily or weekly time spent examining eco-associated information if you find yourself worrying excessively. “Being situationally aware is good; being overwhelmed is not,” Lippe said.
Another option would be to balance the scales: For every doom-filled piece of information you consume about the environment, find another on the latest successes and innovations, or hope-filled intel you can translate into action.
“It’s far more helpful and uplifting to channel the time researching climate change to doing something about it,” Manly said. “You’ll feel far more empowered and better about yourself if you switch gears to take action.”
5. You feel extremely resentful when other people do things that damage the planet.
One of the key messages around climate change is that a collective effort is essential to rectify what’s happening to the environment.
“This means everyone’s individual and moral responsibility is engaged, and our response to climate change is based on cooperation,” Lippe said. “Resentment occurs as a result of perceived violation of this moral contract.”
Although it’s a subconscious emotional response, it can be draining and contribute to negative thought patterns. “A helpful way to combat resentment is to first recognize it, then consciously deflect resentment in favor of acceptance,” Lippe said.
You can’t control how eco-friendly other people’s habits are — only your own. Lead by example and educate where possible.
“Resenting others for not doing their part isn’t helpful,” Manly said. “However, modeling eco-friendly actions has the potential to inspire change in others, one person and situation at a time.”
6. You’re paralyzed by being overwhelmed as you build eco-friendly habits.
Because of the urgent reasons behind your desire to build eco-friendly habits, you might find yourself taking on too much too fast. “This makes maintaining those changes exhausting, and you burn yourself out,” Lippe said.
Intermittent and small tweaks are more tolerable than sudden, large ones and can lead to compounding changes, much like rolling a snowball down a hill.
“If feelings of overwhelm make you feel stuck, create a can-do calendar as a guide to monthly macro-changes supported by micro-changes,” Manly said.
In the first month, for example, your main goal might be to focus on shopping for fresh, local groceries that require less packaging — which might involve micro-goals like biking to the farmer’s market, sharing a box of fresh veggies with neighbors or planting a winter garden.
During the second month, your main goal might be to use less energy, and your micro-goals may be setting the heater no higher than 68 degrees, turning off lights when leaving the room and taking shorter showers.
“Making small, sustainable micro-changes can strengthen your resolve and your relationship with the environment,” Manly said.
7. You’re phobic about extreme weather.
A phobia is a fear that’s out of proportion with the danger it represents. “However, recent events, including wildfires and floods, have surpassed the scale of what we’ve experienced before and is blurring the boundaries between fear and phobia,” Lippe said.
Fears — and fear’s close relatives, anxiety and phobias — can leave us paralyzed, but being stuck in fear only does more harm.
“Constructive fear (the side of fear that guides us to make healthy change) simply asks that we look at what we can do as individuals to shift the situation for the better,” Manly said.
If you’re feeling bogged down by destructive fear (the fear that keeps us feeling stuck and paralyzed), assess the situation and do one small thing that makes a difference, such as making a donation to a charity that helps people affected by wildfire.
“When you practice this behavior pattern, you’ll notice your fears subside because you’re taking action to create healthy change,” Manly said. “Sometimes that’s the best and only thing we have the power to do.
If your fear is a result of personally experiencing a natural disaster, it might be part of a post-traumatic stress disorder: “Seeking out professional support for diagnosis and treatment is advisable,” Lippe said.
8. You have a serious case of existential dread.
You might feel like no matter how hard you try to help the planet, it’s never enough, so you avoid taking proactive steps because they seem to make so little difference. This, paradoxically, forces you to confront the incredible scale of the problem.
“There are many approaches to decrease one’s own carbon footprint ― choosing to bike rather than drive, eating less meat, having fewer children ― but ultimately the problem is beyond the scale of individual actions,” Dodds said.
With collective action, however, individuals can work together to drive the systemic change needed to address the roots of climate change and eco-anxiety — say, by joining or supporting groups actively working on a global level, like the Foundation for Climate Restoration, Extinction Rebellion, Sunrise Movement and Citizens Climate Lobby.
This can also help you make peace with the fact that you can’t do everything. “I find it helpful to network and see firsthand that other people are working on issues I care deeply about but don’t have the time to contribute to,” Dodds said.
You can also make small recurring donations to organizations working in areas you care about or subscribe to their newsletters to keep yourself engaged with their causes.
9. You have meltdowns about how climate change is affecting wildlife.
A few weeks ago, Dodds was marveling over a photo on Instagram of gorgeous whales sleeping underwater together — until she noticed the text accompanying the picture was describing the decimation of whale populations and its devastating effect on other species.
“In an instant, I went from awe to anguish,” she said.
The changes to our climate have been attracting so much social and media attention, especially lately, increasing the barrage of agonizing information about the climate and ecosystems. Cue despair.
If you find yourself stuck in grief or immersed in one meltdown after another, take action to protect wildlife. “Most people do feel better when they’re actively engaged in fixing the problems that are causing them anxiety,” Dodds said.
Whether you volunteer at a turtle sanctuary, donate money to support animals affected by wildfires or plant bee-friendly flowers, “every action you take that’s positive can be deeply cathartic,” Manly said.
10. You struggle to plan for the future.
When a person’s eco-anxiety becomes harmful, it’s often driven by a sense that the future is now uncontrollable and unpredictable.
“This can lead them to feel numbed out and hopeless,” Aimee Daramus, a Chicago-based licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Understanding Bipolar Disorder,” told HuffPost. “They start asking questions about the meaning of having a family and career, or the worth of human life if we’re so easily swept away by increasingly common fires and hurricanes. Is life just going to get harder?”
Taking action on ecological issues can help fight the helplessness and numbness. “Start with actions that feel manageable, no matter how small, because that success will help motivate further action,” Daramus said.
If the hopelessness wins out more often than you do, eco-anxiety can be treated like any other type of anxiety and depression, using modalities like cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy.
“Eco-anxiety support groups are also forming online,” Daramus said, such as The Good Grief Network.
11. You experience physical symptoms.
Eco-anxiety can manifest in a variety of physical ways, such as insomnia, panic attacks, digestive issues and lack of focus.
Sometimes these symptoms can be due to an acute stressor and may resolve on their own — but when they become intolerable or chronic, it’s important to determine if they’re due to a medical condition, such as a mood disorder.
“If your symptoms have been linked to excessive worrying, it may be necessary to speak with a counselor or therapist, begin medication or engage in other treatment modalities to improve your health,” Lippe said.
Much like developing good sleep, food and fitness habits, adopting an eco-friendly lifestyle should be looked at as an ongoing effort. And when you take good care of yourself, you’re much better equipped to take better care of the planet.