This summer has highlighted the impacts of climate change, and even those who were feeling relatively safe are facing a new reality: Climate change is already happening, and it is going to affect all of us. In addition to all the minor annoyances and inconveniences (Canceled flights! Uncomfortable commutes! Restrictions on outdoor exercise!), these climate change events present real and serious threats not only to physical health and safety, but also to mental health. In the face of these conditions, people are feeling a wide range of negative emotions—sad, scared, overwhelmed, anxious—that are leading to new terms like eco-grief, climate anxiety, and solastalgia.
As a conservation psychologist, I have observed this through personal conversations and anecdotal reports, as well as multiple research studies on how our changing climate affects our mental wellbeing. Substantial survey data, such as a 2023 report from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, show high levels of worry about the personal impacts of climate change. Research also supports a link between experiences and emotions. For example, a 2022 study showed that the 2021 heat dome (a weather event in which a high-pressure system traps hot air over an area, leading to extended and often record-breaking temperatures) in Canada was associated with a significant increase in climate change-linked anxiety.
These emotional responses are complex. People are not only feeling sad and anxious—young people feel betrayed by the inadequacy of governmental response; people who have contributed very little to climate change are angry that they are experiencing more than their share of the consequences; many feel frustrated by the responses of others, or guilty about their own individual or collective involvement. We might feel all these emotions at once, or cycle through them in the course of the day. These feelings are hard to cope with—but we should own them.
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Although it is appropriate to be worried about climate change, at extreme levels, climate anxiety can threaten one’s ability to function, making it hard to sleep, work, or even have fun with family or friends. And since people don’t like to feel negative emotions, we have developed a number of strategies to cope with them—denying there’s a problem, avoiding thinking about it, or maintaining an unrealistic optimism that everything will work out. This makes some sense as a way to protect our mental health, but in reality, it is not very effective. Denying emotional responses does not make them go away. In fact, attempts to suppress them tend to be associated with worse mental health.
Therapists can offer an alternative toolbox of ways to deal with this feeling of overwhelm. For people who are feeling overly sad or worried, it might be worthwhile to step away from the news, and focus on sources of happiness or gratitude. Taking a long walk, ideally in a park or in the woods, can also help reduce stress and tension. We need to look after our own emotional state before tackling the rest of the world.
Nevertheless, we should allow ourselves to feel our negative emotions. Emotions don’t come out of nowhere; they reflect our understanding and interpretation of events. With some exceptions, we feel sad because something we value has been damaged or lost. We feel anxious because something we value is threatened. Avoiding these emotional responses would require us to reinterpret the event, and try to believe that there is no threat, or that it’s not something we care about.
Importantly, our emotions don’t only affect our own understanding; they communicate particular interpretations to other people. If I tell my friends that the wildfires make me anxious, I’m also saying that they should make people anxious, because my health, or my children’s health, or a place that I love, is at risk. Alternatively, if I don’t express any grief, I’m saying it wasn’t such a big deal. If I don’t express anxiety to my friends—or to elected officials, or industry leaders—I indicate that there’s nothing to be anxious about.
The result is a kind of collective or pluralistic ignorance, as most people believe that their peers or people within their communities are not anxious. (Remember, this is not true.) Social psychological research has shown that even in potentially dangerous circumstances, we look to others to help us interpret the situation, and if no one else does anything, we are likely to assume no action is needed. In an era in which there is a lot of disagreement about facts, truth, and objective reality, emotions contain their own kind of truth. We are sad. We are worried. By expressing these feelings, we legitimize them and allow other people to feel them, as well.
But these negative emotions can (and should) also co-exist with positive emotions. We need to hold on to hope. Hope is based on a belief that positive outcomes are possible, though not necessarily likely. Hope can be hard because it requires us to do something—whereas hopelessness lets us off the hook by saying that action and behavioral change are pointless. Hope allows us to envision a future in which people and societies can continue, thrive, and even experience positive transformation.
Without grief and anxiety, we will not be motivated to change. Without hope, we won’t think change is possible. As journalists and scientists and policymakers try to inform people about climate risks, they should find ways to communicate that allow people to feel this multifaceted emotional response.
Emotions are important not only to wellbeing, but also to action.
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