Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been in an existential crisis about the state of our climate. I first learned about global warming while flipping through my grandfather’s collection of National Geographic magazines when I was about 9 years old, and it had an immense impact on me. Discovering that climate change had the ability to threaten everything I knew and loved at such a young age instilled in me a fear just as pronounced as how I felt (OK, still feel) about the dark.
For most of my life, this fear was a motivator: I was going to be a hero that defeated the thing I feared most deeply. But after years of steadfast environmental reporting and advocacy, I burned out due to a mismanaged case of eco-anxiety. At first I felt ashamed that I let this anxiety get the best of me, but with some work—and much self-compassion—I developed a toolkit to help me work through my environmental angst, so I could get back to fighting the good fight.
In 2017, the American Psychological Association (APA) released a report on the psychological impacts of the climate crisis, which broadly defined eco-anxiety as the fear, anger, feelings of powerlessness, and exhaustion when witnessing the impacts of climate change unfold, both directly and indirectly. Eco-anxiety itself is not a diagnosable disease, but left unmanaged, can lead a person to develop mental health disorders or exacerbate existing conditions. A poll released by the APA in 2020 showed that more than two-thirds of adults experience some form of eco-anxiety.
Simply put, eco-anxiety is your body’s natural way of reacting when it does not have the coping mechanisms to deal with the magnitude of our changing planetary conditions. A little bit of anxiety in the face of a threat is a good thing: It drives us to action. However, the effects of climate change are only projected to get worse in the next decade, especially if we don’t reach the goals outlined in The Paris Agreement, the international treaty on climate change.
So how are we supposed to mitigate our eco-anxiety in the face of an unabating threat?
If your social media and news feeds look anything like mine, you are constantly inundated with reminders of the climate crisis. There is nothing wrong with logging off when this information becomes too much to handle. I’ve found that pairing this time to disconnect with grounding meditation practices is the best way to give myself a well-needed mental reset, even if it’s only for a few minutes.
When eco-anxiety and its mental health effects first became a fixture in my life, I found it almost unbearable to enjoy nature like I once did. Our connection to the Earth is the most sacred and healing source we have for maintaining our mental health and physical well-being. So it’s vital to find new ways to reconnect with your favorite spaces in ways that reduce stress and anxiety.
I’ve found that setting a clear intention before I begin any outdoor excursion is the best way to stay present and connected to the Earth. For some, that may look like doing an activity outdoors, like running, yoga, or cycling, or simply taking a walk with friends or family. For a nature nerd like me, bird watching is my favorite way to heal my connection to the outdoors.
According to the APA study, 51 percent of respondents said they care about combating climate change, but don’t know where to start. One of the most impactful ways to combat eco-anxiety is by channeling your nervous energy into action. Making sustainable changes in your own life—from monitoring energy use at home to composting food scraps, or volunteering at a local environmental clean-up—are not as insignificant as you may believe.
If you want to take your advocacy work a step further, collective organizing is the most empowering strategy for social change. Participate in a climate rally or attend community education events on climate change to connect with a larger community, and inspire feelings of place and purpose.
Remember: You are not alone. Eco-anxiety is a natural way that many of us cope with the climate crisis, so the most logical solution is to come together with our support systems to talk about our fears. Connect with your friends, family, therapist, or anyone you feel safe with about how eco-anxiety is impacting your life. You might be surprised by how many people feel the same way. And of course, if you feel like your eco-anxiety is leading to signs of mental illness or is exasperating pre-existing mental health issues, reach out to a healthcare provider.
The more that eco-anxiety is recognized and then normalized, the more that we can avoid the spread of “climate doomism” that is breeding social apathy and despondency. If we recognize the power in this fear and come together, there is still time to support our planet.