Forget climate anxiety: many people are in flat-out climate despair. About two-thirds of Americans (65%) report being worried about global warming, according to a January report from the Yale Program for Climate Communication. One in 10 say they’ve recently felt depressed over their concerns for the planet, and a similar percentage describe feeling on edge or like they’re unable to stop worrying about global warming.
No wonder more people are seeking care from climate-aware therapists. Some go to therapy to figure out whether they should have kids in the age of rapid climate change. Others are dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from natural disasters or are burned out from advocacy work.
But if the threat is existential, is there value in sorting out how you feel about it? “The very first step is full validation,” says Leslie Davenport, a climate psychology educator and author of books including Emotional Resiliency in the Era of Climate Change: A Clinician’s Guide. “Things like, ‘This makes so much sense, I hear you, I understand, let’s talk about this more.’” Understand that it’s not irrational to be full of worry, rage, fear, guilt, or grief when the planet’s on fire.
Here, climate-aware therapists share their most effective coping strategies for going from overwhelmed to empowered.
Talk about it.
Climate change tends to get the religion-and-politics treatment—people avoid talking about it, says Carol Bartels, a therapist based in Long Beach, Calif. “But we need to talk about it,” she adds. “We need to know that other people are feeling the same.”
Join a climate café—discussion spaces, both online and in-person, where people can talk freely about their fears and other feelings related to climate change. Or try the Good Grief Network, a peer-support group that follows a 10-step approach to help people process any type of grieving, including for the planet.
Use your connections.
Research suggests that the lonelier and more socially isolated someone feels, the higher their levels of climate distress. Finding your people can help. Join local land-restoration efforts, get involved with community gardening, or stop by your favorite park’s clean-up day. “A lot of the messaging we get is very individualist, like, ‘Stop driving so much,’” says Jenni Silverstein, a licensed clinical social worker based in Santa Rosa, Calif., an area that’s been ravaged by wildfires. “Those actions are valuable, but this is a collective situation, and collective responses are where we have power.” We accomplish more with others than we do by ourselves, she adds.
If you’re struggling to find a like-minded community, think about where you already have a foot in the door. If you work in the medical field, for example, ask your colleagues if they want to help start an initiative for reduced waste, Davenport suggests, or your department could oversee a new rooftop garden. “You have some influence—you’re already part of a community,” she says. “If each of us engaged in the places where we’re already active, it would make a huge difference.”
Analyze your carbon footprint.
Some people cope with climate distress by distancing themselves from the problem—they ignore it, hoping it will go away, says Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist in Washington, D.C., who co-founded the Climate Psychiatry Alliance. It’s more effective to “take the energy of all those emotions and redirect them into constructive action,” she says, and that starts with analyzing your own carbon footprint. Online calculators can help you determine the total amount of greenhouse gases generated by your actions. It can also be helpful to simply take inventory of your habits, Van Susteren points out: Could you walk or bike instead of driving to work? What about cutting CO2 emissions by taking the train instead of an airplane? “Be honest with yourself so you can understand both the opportunities and challenges,” she advises.
Share your views.
This is no time for humility. Make sure everyone around you knows what you’re doing to combat climate change, says Van Susteren. “What motivates people is not our independence—we follow the crowd.” Someone might not make green choices in the interest of future generations, but will do it if everyone else is. So post about your advocacy work or the trees you planted on Facebook, and tell whoever you’re standing next to at parties.
If you’re surrounded by people who don’t appear to prioritize the environment as much as you do, lead by example rather than trying to change their minds, Bartels advises. She grows fruits and vegetables and shares them with her neighbors, for example—even the ones who don’t care about climate-friendly lifestyles. If they ask about her garden, she explains how to get started. “Getting angry with people does zero good,” she says. “It’s important to keep the dialogue open. When we make enemies out of people who could be our allies, we’re making a grave mistake.”
Make it a family affair.
Some research suggests that climate change is especially affecting young people’s mental health. If your kids are coming to you with concerns, listen to and validate them, Van Susteren says. Then get imaginative about how your whole family can take action together. If your kids are young, “you’re not going to talk about climate tipping points, but you can say, ‘Let’s plant a garden, let’s clean up a park. Let’s show Mother Earth that we care about her.’”
Middle-schoolers like to do things with their community, she adds, so consider banding together to raise money to install solar panels at the school. Older teens might like to start or join climate clubs; if they express interest in going to a protest, ask if they’d like you to tag along, or if you can help them get there. “You can also have family meetings and say, ‘We’ve taken your feelings seriously, and we’ve decided as a family that these are some of the things we can do,’” Van Susteren suggests. For example, “‘That’s why we’re not going to fly off here or fly out there; we’re going to get a hybrid instead and drive through the Shenandoah and camp out and look at the stars.’” Brainstorm activities or changes that will help you all feel like you’re making a difference.
Making art can help people regulate and work through their emotions, says Ariella Cook-Shonkoff, a psychotherapist based in Berkeley, Calif., who specializes in art therapy and eco-therapy. “You’re doing patterned, repetitive movements and getting into a flow state,” she says. “It’s calming.” Try it in the natural world—by sketching in front of the ocean or on a bench in the woods, for example.
She often challenges clients to use colors, shapes, and lines to express how they’re feeling at that moment. You might be surprised at what comes out on the paper; art is a way of tapping into thoughts you didn’t even realize you had, Cook-Shonkoff says. As you study your finished work and try to make sense of its meaning, you might gain a deeper understanding of how you’re really feeling. “You can start to distill those emotions and be able to communicate them with other people,” she says. “There’s a lot of dialogue that can happen.”
Savor time outside.
Spending time outside in green spaces benefits well-being—though Davenport acknowledges it can be complex. You go to your favorite lake, but it’s closed because there’s toxic algae growth caused by warm water. A hike in the woods in the dead of winter is lovely, but the unseasonable warmth unnerves you. “Love and grief are two sides of the same coin,” she says. It’s worth pushing through the challenging feelings, she says, “because doing so can renew your sense of why it’s important to fight for this.”