IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Climate anxiety is real. How to cope when it feels like the world is burning

There are tangible steps to take when you're feeling overwhelmed.
A little bit of climate anxiety is a good thing, said psychologist Patrick Kennedy-Williams. But there are ways to cope if it feels like too much. TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

From pollution to melting glaciers to catastrophic hurricanes, wildfires and floods, the effects of climate change can feel overwhelming — and that's having a devastating effect on our mental health.

Feel a sinking sense of dread when you watch the news and see wildfires ravaging California and a hurricane crushing New York City? That's climate anxiety, a term used to describe the negative feelings that arise due to the climate crisis. While it's technically not a mental health disorder, those feelings can lead to very real mental health problems, including depression, grief, anger or, yes, anxiety.

"There's an increased global awareness of climate change, and climate anxiety has very much been a part of that," Patrick Kennedy-Williams, a psychologist and the creator of Climate Psychologists, an England-based organization that provides climate mental well-being support, told TODAY.

A recent study out of London, said to be the largest ever to focus on climate anxiety among young people, found that people aged 16-25 are experiencing "profound psychological distress" related to climate change and that three-quarters of them feel that the "future is frightening."

So how does one cope when the problem feels so ... big?

Don't look away

Laura Schmidt is the co-founder of the Good Grief Network, which helps organize support groups worldwide for people with climate anxiety. Her first suggestion for people struggling with those feelings is to acknowledge the severity of the issue.

"When we sit with what the scientists tell us, it can be really scary or sad or overwhelming," she told TODAY. "This can make us want to turn away from the greatness of the situation. But if we can't sit with it, there's no way we're going to solve it."

Take a moment, let it sink in and then move to the next step.


Talk about it

In general, communication is helpful when it comes to mental health; climate anxiety is no different. This can mean talking to friends, family and peers.

Or, it can mean seeking professional help or finding a support group through an organization like the Good Grief Network, whose 10-step meetings are loosely modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous.

There are also climate cafes, informal meetups of people who want to discuss their feelings around climate change, in various locations across the world. (Can't find one but like the idea? Consider starting a climate cafe in your own community.)

"When you connect with other people, you reduce feelings of isolation," Schmidt said. "You also realize that these feelings (of climate anxiety) are very normal reactions to a crisis."

Take meaningful, sustainable action

It may be obvious that trying to solve the problem that is causing anxiety — in this case, climate change — can be helpful. But experts say that's a slippery slope: Take on too much and that can also have a negative impact on mental health.

That's why Schmidt said it's important to "reframe" what it means to take action. Maybe it's working in a community garden. For parents, it could be as simple as teaching their children how to cope with their own feelings about the state of the world. The key is to find something you enjoy.

"The climate crisis is going to be with us for the rest of our lives," she said. "So we need to have a relationship with it that doesn't always burn us out, or deplete us of our joy and meaning."

Kennedy-Williams, who has an upcoming book about managing climate anxiety, added that it's important the action be sustainable, too. (That has a double meaning here: sustainability for the planet, yes, but also something that's sustainable for the person, long-term.) "Ultimately, this a marathon, not a sprint," he said.

Spend some time outside

Taking breaks is just as important as taking action, and both Schmidt and Kennedy-Williams emphasized the importance of self-care.

Kennedy-Williams said many people will benefit from being in nature when they're suffering from climate anxiety.

"Time in nature is really beneficial for our psychological health," he said, adding that it can be especially powerful for those who are fighting for climate action and feel discouraged. "It is important to remind yourself what it is that you care about and what it is that you're fighting for."

Ready to take action on climate change? Join us at TODAY Goes Green for more stories like this.