Psychological impacts of climate change: How can we prepare?

Extreme weather events, such as droughts, heatwaves, wildfires, and floods, have a clear impact on the mental well-being of the people who experience them. However, the persistent anxiety about the future of life on our planet can also take its toll. In this Special Feature, we explore not only the direct effects of climate change on mental health but also the importance of building resilience and turning “eco-anxiety” into action.

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How should we prepare mentally for the incoming effects of climate change and global warming? fotojog/Getty Images

Imagine if astronomers discovered that a planet-destroying meteor is on a collision course with the Earth. Surely the world’s leaders would do everything in their power to deflect it and save the planet from catastrophe?

But suppose they didn’t? What if they dismissed the astronomers’ warnings and carried on with business as usual until it was too late?

This is the premise of Don’t Look Up, a satirical movie that has resonated powerfully with environmental campaigners who are frustrated at the failure of politicians and the media to treat climate change and loss of biodiversity as planetary emergencies.

Anxiety is a rational, adaptive response to a perceived threat if it provokes action to keep us safe from harm. But chronic anxiety in the face of threats over which we appear to have little control can lead to feelings of helplessness and even clinical depression.

Young people may be particularly vulnerable to such feelings when they witness a lack of urgency by the world’s political leaders to address environmental dangers such as climate change, habitat loss, and species extinction.

In a recent survey of 10,000 individuals aged 16–25 years in 10 countries, over 45% said their feelings about climate change had a negative impact on their daily lives and functioning.

Ratings of anxiety and distress were significantly associated with the impression that the government response to the climate emergency has been inadequate.

One of the study’s authors, Caroline Hickman, Ph.D., from the University of Bath in the United Kingdom, is a psychotherapist specializing in eco-anxiety in children and young people.

“I’ve been listening for 10 years to children and young people telling me that they feel doomed, they feel abandoned, they feel betrayed,” she told a recent webinar about eco-anxiety organized by Public Policy Projects.

She recalled an occasion when a 10-year-old boy got very angry trying to make her understand what it is like as a child growing up in today’s world: “[Y]ou grew up thinking that polar bears would be there forever, he said, I’m growing up knowing they will go extinct.”

The increased frequency of extreme weather events, such as wildfires and floods, due to climate change is already impacting human health directly.

While scientists have accumulated a wealth of evidence about the effects of climate change on physical health, there has been much less research into how it can affect mental health.

But a recent review of 120 studies published over the past 20 years that investigated extreme weather events, such as heat, humidity, drought, wildfires, and floods, concluded that the possible consequences may include:

  • psychological distress
  • worsened mental health, particularly for those with existing psychiatric diagnoses
  • increased psychiatric hospitalizations
  • heightened rates of suicide

The authors conclude that climate change is likely to affect mental health not only through direct exposure to traumatic weather-related events but also indirectly through its knock-on effects, such as poverty, unemployment, and homelessness.

They note that extreme weather events will have a disproportionately large influence on individuals who are already vulnerable, such as older people, those with preexisting mental health conditions, and the populations of low-income countries.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) predicts that the mental health effects of climate change will range from mild stress to an uptick in psychiatric diagnoses, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

The APA also warns that some people may resort to high risk behaviors, such as increased alcohol intake, to cope with the psychological trauma due to the changing climate.

Research suggests that extremes of heat, specifically, are linked to higher rates of violence and suicide, possibly due to disrupted sleep and agitation.

There is also strong evidence of an association between extreme heat and a surge in hospital admissions for mental illness.

The Climate Psychiatry Alliance provides a wealth of practical tips for vulnerable individuals on preparing for and staying cool during a heatwave.

Among its recommendations are:

  • asking a friend or neighbor to check on you at regular intervals
  • learning to recognize the signs of heatstroke
  • consulting a healthcare professional in advance about any changes to your regular medication during hot weather

According to the APA, preparing for extreme weather events is not not only prudent but also helps people manage their ongoing emotional responses to climate threats.

Prepare for the worst

The organization recommends the following strategies:

  • making household emergency plans, such as where you will meet and how you will communicate if you get separated
  • preparing an emergency kit
  • building strong social networks to help with disaster planning and to share resources and skills within the community

Lifestyle changes

Similarly, there is growing evidence that pro-environmental lifestyle changes, such as minimizing one’s carbon footprint and using less of the planet’s limited resources, can help improve psychological well-being in the face of climate threats.

A study of 1,220 people in Canada and 1,001 in the United States found that pro-environmental actions predicted levels of life satisfaction, even after controlling for demographic characteristics such as age, income, and education.

This association with life satisfaction held for 37 out of 39 of the pro-environmental behaviors surveyed. Among the apparently beneficial activities were:

  • home composting
  • growing your own food
  • eating organic food
  • talking with children about environmental issues
  • avoiding excess packaging in purchases

The authors conclude that pro-environmental behavior, just like other forms of prosocial behavior, such as volunteering, random acts of kindness, and spending money on others, is associated with greater subjective well-being.

“[L]ifestyle changes that might be part of a sustainable society need not represent threats to well-being and might even provide a means of enhancing well-being,” they conclude.

A sense of control

A study of more than 9,000 households in the U.K. provides a clue about the psychological mechanism that may underpin these beneficial effects.

The research found that pro-environmental behaviors — specifically, energy use and recycling — were associated with higher scores on measures of life satisfaction.

Similar to making emergency plans for extreme weather events, these kinds of behavior may help reestablish a sense of control, which is thought to promote psychological well-being.

The researchers describe this as a “win-win” for public health and the environment.

The study also suggests that if householders share similar pro-environmental attitudes to each other, this is associated with better physical and mental health.

Crucially, however, they found that individual pro-environmental attitudes — independently of the attitudes of housemates — were linked to worse mental health and lower life satisfaction.

This may reflect higher levels of anxiety and a sense of helplessness about the future of life on Earth. But the good news is that taking pro-environmental action may partly alleviate the negative impact of eco-anxiety on mental well-being.

Take a stand

When she was 11 years old, Greta Thunberg stopped eating and talking. She was deeply depressed about the state of the planet.

“One of the reasons was I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that people didn’t seem to care about anything, that everyone just cared about themselves rather than everything that was happening with the world,” she told The Guardian in a recent interview.

What saved Thunberg was her momentous decision, at the age of 15, to start a school strike outside the Swedish Parliament every Friday, which led to the global Fridays for Future climate movement.

“I know lots of people who have been depressed, and then they have joined the climate movement or Fridays for Future and have found a purpose in life and found friendship and a community that they are welcome in,” said Thunberg, now 19 years old and one of the world’s most famous climate activists.

For Thunberg, taking action and connecting with like-minded people helped turn around her life.

In association with COP26 climate talks in 2021, the nonprofit Force of Nature established an online forum where young people can not only vent their frustration but also enjoy the benefits of being part of a like-minded community.

Additionally, the website Call your Mother describes itself as “a space for you to open up and share your feelings about the climate crisis — anger, fear, grief, urgency, hope, motivation — and connect with others who feel the same.”

There are two major misconceptions about eco-anxiety, according to Kalpana Arias, communications director at Force of Nature, which aims to channel young people’s anger and frustration into action.

The first misconception is that eco-anxiety only arises from the ecological crisis itself, whereas in reality, it also stems from our inaction.

“The second misconception is that we should try to fix eco-anxiety,” Arias told an online workshop “Eco-anxiety to agency” organized by Force of Nature for the Festival of Discovery in November 2021.

“Eco-anxiety is a healthy response, and it shows you that you are awake to the world’s issues,” she insisted.

Force of Nature believes that to avoid being paralyzed by anxiety, stress, and anger, the key is to couple these feelings with a sense of agency, community, and vision.

The organization aims to challenge the twin beliefs that we are too small to make a difference and that the system is too broken to create meaningful change.

Sacha Wright, a research coordinator at Force of Nature, said:

“These are beliefs that we hold that are incredibly destructive, both to our own mental health and also to our ability to show up in a way where our mindset can effect meaningful change for ourselves, for our planet, and for one another.”

Many of the activities that help bring about this meaningful change — such as involvement in projects to plant trees, protect natural habitats, and rewild degraded habitats — have the added bonus of bringing people into closer contact with nature.

A survey of nearly 20,000 people in the U.K. found that participants who had spent at least 2 hours in contact with nature over the past week were significantly more likely to report good health and high well-being.

The link between contact with nature, health, and well-being remained even after the researchers accounted for the amount of green space that participants had access to locally as well as other possible contributory factors.

It did not seem to matter whether participants got their nature “fix” all in one go or spread throughout the week.

The apparent benefit for health and well-being of spending at least 2 hours a week in nature was comparable to that of achieving the recommended amount of physical activity in the past week.

Another study, which surveyed 16,307 people in 18 countries, found that the frequency of recreational visits to green spaces and coastal areas in the past 4 weeks was associated with greater well-being and less mental distress.

There is now a wealth of evidence to suggest that the benefits of spending time in nature are real, according to Mathew Wright, Ph.D., an environmental psychologist at the University of Exeter in the U.K., who led both studies.

However, he emphasized that the benefits are not as great as the influence of factors such as income, relationships, and chronic health conditions.

“So they are important but shouldn’t be overplayed,” he told Medical News Today.

Questions remain about what kinds of nature contact work best and whether different people have different needs, he added.

“The good news is that some studies suggest access to and use of nature can reduce income-related health inequalities and buffer people against some stressors,” he said.

One of the stressors that time in nature may help relieve is chronic anxiety about the future of life on Earth.

All the same, it is worth remembering that eco-anxiety is not a clinical condition that we should try to “cure,” but a rational response to the ecological threats that our planet will face in the coming decades.

Organizations, such as Force of Nature and other green campaign groups, provide an opportunity for like-minded people to come together and rise to the challenge.