For many, the uncertainty surrounding climate change can be summed up with the looming questions of “How bad? How soon?” It’s easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of such daunting issues, especially when it feels like individual actions won’t have much impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions on a global scale. Anxiety can manifest when faced with uncertainty in the context of elevated stress. The key is not to let anxiety become so pervasive that it gets in the way of daily living. 

“Emotions help us navigate the demands of life,” says Karin Coifman, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences. “Emotions have very clear functions: fear when we encounter something threatening; sadness when there’s a loss; joy in moments we share with others. Emotion processing refers to our ability to flexibly change our emotions depending on the circumstances and our needs.”

Emotion-related disorders such as depression and anxiety commonly feature a tendency toward rigidity or an inability to regulate emotions relative to circumstances. A person with an anxiety disorder might exhibit a fear response even when there isn’t an explicit threat. When a threat is ambiguous, a fear response can be very costly and have negative physiological and psychological consequences. 

“Fear responses trigger changes to the cardiovascular system that increase your heart rate, changing blood flow,” Coifman says. “Fear also shifts your focus, narrowing your attention to improve your ability to respond. Your body and mind are poised and ready. This is very functional in the short-term, in response to a real threat. But if you remain at this level of constant activation it starts to wear on your system. Your body is not designed to be in that state of readiness all the time.”

Physiological symptoms of anxiety include muscle tension, headaches, difficulty sleeping and digestive issues. A sustained state of readiness makes it difficult to concentrate and focus on anything other than all-consuming worry. The American Psychology Association defines eco-anxiety as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one's future and that of next generations.” 

“Worry on some level is appropriate when faced with a real threat. It’s better to actively manage that worry than try to deny it or suppress it.”

Younger generations are more prone to experience eco-anxiety, partly because they’ve been raised within the context of environmental concerns. There is also a demonstrated psychological phenomenon that as people age and gain greater perspective, they tend to be less reactionary to negative circumstances. Regardless of whether people are worried about experiencing the effects of climate change during their lifetime or have concerns about what future generations will face, ongoing anxiety over the unknown can be distressing. 

“When it comes to climate change, that is a legitimate worry,” Coifman says. “The threat to humanity is explicit. The ambiguous part is not knowing how quickly it will impact our lives. Worry on some level is appropriate when faced with a real threat. It’s better to actively manage that worry than try to deny it or suppress it because that often leads to backlash.”

When faced with an enormous problem that feels out of control, finding little things we can control can help manage anxiety. Activities such as composting, growing your own produce, planting native species or installing rain barrels may offer comfort and reassurance that you are doing your part to mitigate climate change. 

“Sometimes you can feel overwhelmed by negative information or a feeling that things aren’t changing fast enough,” Coifman says. “It may help to pivot toward focusing on your own behavior and your own actions, the things you can control, because you can’t control the bigger picture.”

Learn more about the Department of Psychological Sciences.

Students’ advice on how to cope with climate anxiety:

Recognize your feelings. It’s OK to feel bad about climate change.

Write down your anxieties in a list. Cross off any you can't control.

Find things that calm you down when you are distressed. It could be a song, exercise or meditation.

Try to find something—small or big—that you can do. Commit yourself to it.

—Excerpted from “Climate change: Don’t let doom win, project tells worriers,” BBC News Climate & Science