Climate Anxiety—It’s Real
How can we cope with fears about the future of our planet and channel them into positive action?
With industrialization, technology, and large-scale agriculture, the world has arguably changed more in the past three hundred years than it has in the past three hundred thousand years. The climate is changing, sea levels are rising, ocean currents are slowing, and entire ecosystems are being disrupted by the actions of humans. It’s not easy to take in—what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. When Sabreen Lyman, a May 2022 graduate of the University of Southern California (USC), thinks about the environment, she feels existential dread. “It is difficult for me to retain hope,” she says, “when I am seeing the direct impact of climate change, with more intense fires, floods, and heat waves.” One way she is coping is to plan to use her double major in geology and environmental studies to apply scientific data to these real-world problems in her career.
Thinking about how we take care of our planet is not a simple or convenient undertaking, particularly if we feel we don’t have any control over decisions being made about saving the environment and especially when the outcomes of any actions remain uncertain. Psychologist Kelly McGonigal posits that stress is what arises when what we care about is at stake. It is because we care that we experience anxiety. When climate anxiety arises, we can take a moment to pause and recognize it as a response to our caring about the earth and the future of the species on it. We can take a breath and look at what we can control in the situation—getting clear and present, managing our emotions, and then acting from a place of wisdom to channel anxiety into action. I’ve found that the following practices can be helpful:
1: Get present. Anxiety is fear directed toward the future. When thoughts start to run toward what has already happened or what might happen, take a moment to get present and grounded, connecting with the breath, senses, and body. Slow, deep breaths send a signal of calm to the nervous system. Try breathing in for a count of four, exhaling for a count of six. Notice the way your breath moves through your body. Let your breath anchor you.
2: Manage perspective and emotions. While we may not be able to control climate change, we can have a say in how we show up to meet the challenge. When anxious thoughts about the earth spiral into a doom-and-gloom scenario, practice discernment to ask, “Is this true? Is this useful?” For example, “Is it true that temperatures will rise to the point that the earth will be uninhabitable? Is it useful to be consumed by this thought?” Anxiety over the environment can trigger anticipatory grief in the impermanence of our planet as we know it.
Equanimity can help us accept what is happening. Acceptance here isn’t passive, and it’s not indifferent. It is accepting that it is happening. Equanimity allows us to engage with saving the planet without getting overwhelmed and without indifference. Helpful phrases to use here include “It is what it is” and “May I find peace in my heart amid what is happening.” With equanimity, we can see more clearly what is happening to the environment, get grounded, and then consciously choose to take action on an individual, collective, or policy level to meet environmental challenges from where we stand.
Self-compassion is another way we can meet ourselves with kindness. Self-compassion involves 1) mindfulness to notice that this is a moment of difficulty; 2) kindness in how we show up for ourselves, perhaps by stating a kind phrase (“may I meet environmental fear with compassion and action”) or placing your hand on your heart in support; and 3) recognition of our shared humanity and the fact that we are not alone in our fears about the environment. Countless others on college campuses and in places throughout the world are worrying about the survival of our planet and the collective actions we must take. May we hold us all with kindness.
3: Take action and live in the solution. What is in my control? What am I willing and able to do? What does it mean for me to stand for the environment? How much does the earth’s future matter to me, and what am I willing to do to help save the planet? While it can be tempting to look away, awareness and social consciousness is the first step toward change.
Individual action. Eight years ago, Sabreen went on a plant-based diet. She is conscious of the products she buys and the packaging they come in, opting for sustainable swaps like bamboo toothbrushes and biodegradable floss. She takes her recyclables to friends’ houses that have recycling bins. “Although reduction should always be the priority,” she says, “recycling is an important step in understanding what you are consuming and where your garbage is going.”
Collective action. What can be done on a collective level? Does your campus have a recycling program in place? What is the approach toward single-use items in dining halls? What corporations do business with the university and what are their policies toward the environment? Does the university offer fields of study related to the environment? What about action-based environmental clubs where students can participate in events or advocate for policy?
Sabreen has participated in group coastal clean-up days and believes that individual action needs to be coupled with collective and policy action. “When better choices are not convenient or expensive it is unlikely that individuals will make changes,” Sabreen says. “Big changes need to come from the local government, federal government, and large corporations—which is why I have the career goals that I do.”
Policy action. Widescale change will only happen through ambitious laws and policies across public and private sectors that match the scope of the challenge. While the local, national, and global action needed may seem beyond our ability to influence, we can advocate for policy change in governments and organizations:
1) Vote with your wallet. Support socially responsible organizations that have positive environmental policies.
2) Vote for candidates who support environmental sustainability.
3) Talk to and write letters to policymakers about environmental issues. While protests generate awareness and influence, they don’t change laws—policymakers do. What needs to happen for them to act? How can the valuable environmental research being done in higher education be translated into concrete policy recommendations?
4) Go into careers that help address climate change or environmental sustainability.
5) Advocate for just environmental policies in your place of work. How does your organization use resources? Does it consider sustainability and make decisions that will help the environment?
Though solving climate change is a monumental challenge, how we navigate our inner environment will increase our capacity to take action to save our outer environment. In higher education, this means addressing the mental effects of climate anxiety and offering students pathways to channel their distress into meaningful action. Emotions and fears about the future of our planet can help us act on individual, collective, and policy levels not only to cope but to transform and alchemize that anxiety into solutions.
Illustration by Simon Pemberton
In my mindfulness class, I teach students the GOBB technique to Ground, Orient, and tune in to the Body and Breath.
Ground: Notice the earth under your feet and your body supported by the surface beneath you.
Orient: Activate your senses to curiously notice what you see, hear, smell, taste, or touch in the space around you. Note specific objects (red shoes, square tile, blue sky, and other concrete items).
Body: How does your body feel? Where does it feel free or constricted? Scan your body from the crown of the head to the soles of your feet, bringing awareness to each part along the way.
Breath: Take five to ten deep breaths in and out of the nose.
This technique can help us notice and process emotions as they arise rather than being overwhelmed by them or stuffing them away.
Recognize: Notice the emotion that is present. Label the nuance of the emotion, whether fear, futility, grief, or frustration over the state of the climate.
Allow: Rather than pushing the emotion away or making it into something else, simply allow the emotion to be there. Trust that you have what it takes to breathe through this moment and be with what arises.
Investigate: Get curious and notice where and how the body is experiencing the emotion. Is it in the abdomen, chest, throat, or elsewhere? What texture, intensity, temperature, or flavor does it have?
Non-identify: Try not to identify with the emotion as part of who you are (the emotion, rather than my emotion). We are not our emotions. They don’t define us; they are temporary states. I am not an anxious person—I am experiencing anxiety about the environment right now.
Nurture: Hold what arises with nurturing kindness.
Patagonia employs fair-trade initiatives, hosts a Worn Wear product recycling program, and donates 1 percent of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment.
works to track its carbon footprint, reduce emissions, and bring clean drinking water and sanitation to farming communities across the globe.
crafts yoga mats from eco-conscious, sustainably sourced materials, has eliminated plastics from its packaging, and shares a transparent sustainability diary.