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Feeling Hopeless About Climate Change? Here are 5 Ways to Cope with Eco Anxiety

Apropos of everything, I’ve been having a lot of feelings about the planet lately. The grief of watching communities just hours from my home burn to the ground. The disturbance of looking out to a horizon smudged out by smoke and smog. The mental tennis game of catastrophizing and denial. The guilt of driving on a bikeable errand, buying grapes from Mexico, and seeing the packaging in my kids’ lunch box. The fear of what this world will look like when my kids are having kids. 

Anxiety about climate change (referred to interchangeably as both eco anxiety and climate anxiety) has always been something that people have brought up in therapy. In recent weeks – as one community after another has been consumed by fire –we’ve been having more eco-anxiety related conversations than ever. 


The stark realities of climate change are no longer abstract ideas: they’re in the smell of the air, the sun burning our skin, and that trip you had to cancel at the last minute due to flooding. Unless your denial mechanisms are approaching delusional, you may be one of the many people experiencing a distinct form of malaise – eco anxiety. 


Eco anxiety, as its also known, may include:


  • Catastrophizing thoughts about the future
  • Maladaptive, obsessive scrolling or information seeking
  • Persistent feelings of grief and sadness
  • Disrupted sleep due to intrusive thoughts and worries about climate change
  • Feelings of overwhelm and hopelessness


So, you might be wondering: can counselling help people with eco anxiety? 


Climate anxiety provides counsellors with a unique challenge, as much of the anxiety about climate change is valid. Many of the concerns and fears that beget the anxiety and chronic gloom are based on reality; it’s tough to refute some of these thoughts as irrational. And yet…simply empathising seems to fall short. 


Sometimes, people with climate anxiety are sometimes hesitant and  unwilling to reduce their climate anxiety, since, after all, it is based on a very real threat. In counselling, when we explore eco-grief and anxious preoccupation about climate change, we hear things like: “but isn’t trying to reduce eco-anxiety a sign of climate denial?” or “my anxiety shows that I care!”


Here are some ways we’ve helped our clients work through their eco anxiety in counselling  (and how we work through our own feelings and disturbance about climate change).

  1. Navigating the Emotional Landscape of Climate Change


The first step towards managing climate anxiety lies in acknowledging our emotions. Allowing ourselves to feel the grief, anger, or anxiety that arises from contemplating the state of our planet is the first step towards having the reckoning necessary for meaningful action. Stay with these feelings, rather than suppressing or avoiding them. Speak to other people about the feelings that come up in you when you see news coverage of wildfires, floods, and displaced people. Check in with those around you to ask how the current climate crisis is affecting them, and how they cope with the chronic heaviness of the anxiety. Not only is it validating to share common feelings, it can also introduce you to new perspectives and coping skills.


  1. Coping with Eco-Anxiety: Managing Fear and Overwhelm


Climate anxiety often involves catastrophizing – envisioning worst-case scenarios that amplify feelings of hopelessness. Catastrophizing rises with uncertainty, which makes sense: we actually really don’t know what the future will look like, and that’s scary. However, speaking of climate change and the apocalypse as though they are interchangeable concepts amplifies our anxiety and feelings of doom – and it’s also not a necessary component of taking responsibility. The truth is, we don’t actually know what the future holds, or if that future includes a dystopian apocalypse. Speaking with certainty about the impending End of Days is two sides of the same coin to pretending the earth will self-correct on its own. It’s simply not helpful for our psyche – or our planet – to speculate and pontificate about the future as though it’s a given.


What do we know? That the present reality is alarming. And there is plenty of material for thoughts, conversation, and processing just by exploring what we know about the present, and what needs to happen to improve our prospects for the future.


You can start by noticing when the doomsday thoughts emerge, and responding to them. You might say: “nobody really knows what the future holds, but my brain sure goes to a very dark place with it.” In this sense, you’re deactivating the tendency that we all have to believe that we can tell the future. Some people find it helpful to say to themselves: “It’s not helpful to ruminate about the future, but it could be helpful to think about what I can do in the present to help alleviate my anxiety.”


  1. Taking Action Against Climate Anxiety: Channelling Concern into Meaningful Change


Many people recognise that in order to prevent climate change from escalating into (even more) dire consequences, there will need to be significant tradeoffs. But it’s fair to say that not everyone has engaged in a true reckoning of what that means to them. 


The concept of climate reckoning is often used to refer to governments or corporations who must take an inventory of how their actions are contributing to climate change, and engage in significant sacrifices and policy changes to mitigate further damage.


In order to have this reckoning on a personal level, it can be helpful to have another person to talk this through. While it’s not a therapist’s role to educate you or give you ideas on all the things you could be or should be doing to save the planet (is there a term for ‘eco-splaining?), counselling is a place to explore how in alignment you are with your values. These types of explorations often lead to re-shuffling priorities, because the anxiety of being out of alignment with your values can mobilise you towards action. 


At the same time, your counsellor can also help you see how perhaps you may be getting in your own way. For example, Amina (not her real name) realised through her conversations in counselling that she wasn’t taking action because her perfectionism kept upping the standards for her actions. Another client, we’ll call him Derek, rationalises away his agency: “Most of the pollution is happening overseas; what’s the point  of even trying?” Looking at these defence mechanisms in counselling helps us to block them from hijacking our sense of responsibility and choice.


Taking imperfect action is ultimately more empowering – and more impactful – than ruminating over how to do better, or how insignificant we are.. 


  1. Cost or Inconvenience? You decide.


One thing to note is that a lot of the action involved in combatting climate change is inconvenient. Driving is faster than cycling or taking public transit. Putting a pre-wrapped cheese stick in your kids’ lunches is less messy than slicing cheese and placing it in a tupperware (that you then have to wash). There’s also the issue of cost: some eco-friendly measures are much costlier than their environmentally unfriendly counterparts, which adds a contemplation of the role privilege plays in being climate conscious.


Whether it’s through inconvenience or financial investment, making sacrifices for a greater cause or value is a sign of commitment and responsibility.


Shifting your attention from feelings of powerlessness to action doesn’t necessarily make you feel great about the current climate crisis, but it does help you feel like you have agency and self-respect. If you are raising children, consider this: our kids are being raised in an era of instant gratification; dopamine surges at their fingertips. Modelling to them how and why you are taking a more intentional, but also less convenient path, might give them some perspective that shapes their understanding of the power of choice.


  1. Engage in mindful media consumption


Limit exposure to negative news and doomsday narratives. Seek out constructive stories of environmental progress, innovation, and activism. Surround yourself with content that inspires hope and encourages meaningful action.


Conclusion: Taking Action Against Climate Anxiety: Channelling Concern into Meaningful Change


As we wrap up these musings on the role of counselling in climate anxiety, remember that the goal is not to have zero anxiety – it is to be able to manage our anxiety about the climate crisis in a productive way, and channel our very valid worries and emotions into meaningful actions that will restore a sense of agency and responsibility.

About the Author

Elana Sures is the owner of Open Space Counselling. She has a Masters degree in Counselling Psychology from UBC (2005) and is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and an Accredited Clinical Supervisor with the BC Association of Clinical Counsellors. Elana is a go-to expert on the psychological experiences of female high achievers.