Most people, Davenport says, don’t experience persistent and paralyzing anxiety but are instead triggered occasionally by climate news or events. “Most feelings tend to come and go,” she explains.
Anxiety is a normal and healthy emotion, but it becomes a problem when it significantly starts to impair your ability to simply live your daily life or causes serious symptoms such as chronic sleep problems or panic attacks, say Davenport and Doherty.
Climate anxiety will hit certain people harder than others.
Although there’s little data on climate anxiety, the highest levels are thought to occur among people in their early teens through their 20s, says Davenport. “It’s a natural time to be looking into your future,” she says. People who have previously been diagnosed with depression or anxiety may be more likely to experience climate change anxiety, Doherty says, as well as climate scientists and activists due to the nature of their work.
People who have been personally affected by climate change are at increased risk of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression as well. “For some front-line groups around the world, the issue is not anxiety about potential threats—it’s facing clear and present dangers. That’s a different set of emotions,” says Doherty.
A 2021 report published by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) concluded that climate change disproportionately impacts marginalized communities, who are more likely to live in flood-prone areas, in urban areas subject to intense heat waves, or near sources of pollution such as factories. This includes people of color, people with low incomes, as well as disabled and houseless people. Because many Indigenous people consider plant and animal life as sentient relatives who are part of our origin stories as a people, they may grieve more intensely when these beings start to disappear in their communities, Kailea Frederick, a climate justice organizer at the Indigenous-led NDN Collective, tells SELF.
“Over and over again with climate change, we see people with fewest resources to cope with disasters are getting hit the hardest,” Kristina Dahl, PhD, a principal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, tells SELF.
Frederick says that this disproportionate impact “traces back to racist policies and the idea that these communities are dispensable.” She adds that it’s critical to create visibility around the implications that climate change has on everyone’s mental health. “We are in a mental health crisis, and our youth specifically are suffering as they consider a future that is hardly livable,” she says. “These are the people who during large weather events have nowhere to go to shelter through the storm, or are forced to work in unhealthy conditions, or are dealing with the need for relocation of entire communities because of sea-level rise, and must contend with the compounding effects of environmental and climate injustice.”
Disabled people and seniors, for example, haven’t been able to heed alarm systems during wildfires and are left behind during evacuations. Houseless people, who are among the most vulnerable to climate events like flooding, high heat, and smoke exposure, are facing even more anxiety as the pandemic has accelerated an already severe housing crisis. And low-income workers, such as delivery, sanitation, construction, and farm workers, are more exposed to these environmental risks as well, sometimes resulting in deadly consequences.
How to cope with climate anxiety
Davenport says there are two keys to coping with climate anxiety: learning self-soothing techniques and empowering yourself with a climate change action plan.