Climate anxiety – what to know

May 25, 2023

This past March, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its newest report – a comprehensive overview of the latest climate change science. The report is another stark reminder that the world is on track for catastrophic warming – unless governments across the globe take immediate action.

For many of us concerned about climate change – especially younger generations – reports like these can be a major source of anxiety.

How can we deal with this anxiety, while still working toward a greener future?

Defining climate anxiety

"Climate anxiety includes feeling anxious, nervous, scared, or worried about the consequences of climate change and its impact on the planet,” says Barbara Woods, a counsellor with Manitoba Blue Cross’s Employee Assistance Program. With a Ph.D in clinical psychology, Woods helps clients with a variety of mental health concerns, including anxiety.

“At times of higher stress related to climate change, the individual may experience difficulties with panic, irritability, loss of appetite and sleep disturbances,” she says.  

While climate anxiety isn’t a formal diagnosis in itself, its symptoms overlap with – and can develop into – several types of anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and trauma disorders.  

According to Woods, climate anxiety is also related to depression and substance misuse due to feelings of overwhelm and hopelessness that some people experience.

Dealing with climate anxiety can be challenging because a certain level of concern for the environment is healthy. When does healthy concern turn into anxiety?

“The main shift between concerns regarding climate change and anxiety disorders would be the impact that it is having on one's life,” Woods says. “If one begins to withdraw from social activities, experiences conflict in relationships, or experiences overwhelming anxiety that interferes with daily living, they’d benefit from professional help. In addition, if the hopelessness and helplessness create feelings of despair or suicidal ideation, it would be recommended to speak with a mental health professional.”

Generational concern

Climate anxiety can be particularly challenging for young people, who are more likely to feel the impacts of climate change decades down the line.

In a 2023 survey of a thousand Canadians aged 16 to 25, 56 per cent reported feeling afraid, sad, anxious and powerless regarding climate change. A whopping 78 per cent reported that climate change impacts their overall mental health and 37 per cent reported that their feelings about climate change negatively impact daily functioning.  

“This concern at times creates conflict between generations because of the differences in the degree of concern and impact on the individual,” Woods says. “Parents may be at risk of not recognizing the degree of anxiety their child or teen may be experiencing.”

Parents who are looking for strategies to support their kids need to be aware of generational differences when it comes to climate change. “If a parent is less worried about the environment, there is a significant possibility of invalidating the younger generation's concerns and creating more stress in the parent-child or parent-teen relationship,” she says. “It is important to give time to listen to the younger generation's fears, worries, and concerns, allowing them to feel heard and validated.”  

When parents prioritize environmentally friendly practices, their child will feel encouraged and supported in developing a lifestyle that takes the climate into consideration. Participating in family activities outdoors can also help build relationships while also building an appreciation for nature.

How to deal with climate anxiety

"Climate anxiety can be very tricky because the cause of the anxiety is larger than the individual and out of their control,” Woods says. “However, there are strategies that contribute to feeling like one can make a difference and have an influence in caring for the environment.”

One of the most important strategies is to take action by joining a group of like-minded individuals who are engaged in environmental advocacy, she says. While climate change can be too much for one person to handle, collective action is more likely to influence governments in making essential change.

“Another great strategy is to spend time in and connect with nature,” Woods says. “This could be walking in a forest, photographing the natural beauty, and being mindful of the beauty in nature.”

Research shows that spending time outside in natural settings helps to lower levels of stress, anxiety and depression.

A silver lining

While the IPCC’s report is sobering, it doesn’t mean there's no hope.

“It’s not that we are depending on something that still needs to be invented,” report co-author Friederike Otto told the Washington Post. “We actually have all the knowledge we need. All the tools we need. We just need to implement it.”

If you are struggling with anxiety, reach out for help. Manitoba Blue Cross members with Employee Assistance Program or Individual Assistance Program coverage can get counselling support. Begin the process here.

Unsure of your coverage? Confirm your eligibility in your mybluecross® account.

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