Realizing the extent of the threat of climate change is undoubtedly scary and daunting. And studies show that over time, numbers of Americans who believe in climate change—and who report being worried by climate change—are only growing. Cue in eco-anxiety: Something you may be experiencing without even realizing it.
Why Eco-Anxiety Is on the Rise
In Climate Change in the American Mind—an April 2020 study conducted by Yale and George Mason University—researchers reported several record-high findings regarding the degree of certainty that climate change is happening and how people view humans’ role in it. In addition, a 2020 compilation of Pew Research Center surveys about U.S. public opinion on climate change revealed similar findings. Overall, there's a greater awareness of climate change—and with that comes the growing worry about the threat it poses.
Strong climate emotions seem to be especially prevalent among young people. Both because of the increased sensitivity of the young brain to the effects of stressors, and also due to the increased likelihood young people face of being impacted by more—and more severe—climate-related effects throughout their lives. To put it simply, young people acknowledging they're “in it for the long haul” is a significant source of pressure.
What's Eco-Anxiety, Anyway?
Psychologists with the American Psychological Association (APA) define eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom." In addition, a 2020 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology summarizes it as “negative emotional responses associated with awareness of climate change” that include “cognitive and functional impairment factors.” The same study also found higher levels of eco-anxiety among younger adults.
So now that we know we’re not alone in our emotions, how do we address eco-anxiety so it doesn’t interfere with our mental wellbeing? Climate scientists and mental health professionals alike have offered ways of coping with climate emotions in a productive way—and they might be simpler than you think.
How to Cope With Eco-Anxiety
1. Rethink Your Commute
A joint report by the APA, Climate for Health, and ecoAmerica found small, individual measures—like biking or walking places as opposed to driving—had the potential to enhance one’s sense of well-being. Choosing so-called active commuting over vehicle commuting not only reduces your reliance on fossil fuels, but also contributes to overall physical health and stress reduction.
A 2014 study published in Preventive Medicine found active commuters experienced lower levels of stress than car commuters. And for walkers, sense of wellbeing increased proportionate to travel time. For drivers, sense of wellbeing decreased with travel time. Even the use of public transit correlated to higher levels of wellbeing opposed to driving. So if you’re able to walk, bike, or use public transportation on your next commute, your mind—and the planet—may benefit.
2. Think Small
In general, connecting climate impacts to practical, small-scale solutions can help boost emotional resilience. Beyond your choice of transit, small habits you can perform daily—like turning off lights you don’t need, reducing your shower time, and opting for reusable materials instead of single-use plastics—are examples of such solutions.
Reducing meat consumption, composting food scraps, and shopping secondhand are some more, and Brightly is basically your one-stop shop for learning about other ways you can live more sustainably, too. (Go ahead and dive in! We share new tips every day.)
3. Find Green Spaces
Reducing anxious emotions doesn’t have to involve concerted action, either. How and where you spend your free time can also influence anxiety levels and overall mental health. Spending more time in green spaces (and out in nature in general) has been shown to lower stress levels and reduce rates of stress-related illness. “Green spaces” refers to spaces outdoors that are at least partially covered by “natural elements,” like vegetation, flowers, or trees.
Parks, forests, wilderness areas, and gardens all fit the criteria, and in some places like New York City, green spaces have been purposefully constructed to serve city dwellers who may not otherwise encounter them naturally. Of course, not everyone has access to green spaces that facilitate these positive mental health effects, so community organizations like the New York Restoration Project in New York and City Blossoms in Washington, DC, aim to do just that by promoting and creating accessible green spaces in urban settings.
4. Talk to Family and Friends
Perhaps most important of all is remembering that the fight against climate change isn't an individual endeavor. Seeking out and talking to friends and family about eco-anxiety is a healthy form of expression. Plus, there's no better feeling than being able to teach those closest to you what they can do to help better the planet, too.
Introduce your family to composting, help your friend shop for more eco-friendly products, and educate those willing to listen about what's happening in the world (and how these small changes can help).
5. Find Your People
It's always nice to have a community that just gets you. Getting that support and validation from peers feels pretty darn good and is great for your mental wellbeing. In fact, group membership and participation in group activities—regardless of what the activity is—has been shown to help maintain and enhance mental (and even physical) health.
Plus, if you’re looking for a like-minded community of people striving to live more sustainable lives, you couldn’t have come to a better place. At Brightly, we know the feeling of wanting to make positive changes for the environment all too well. So don’t be shy: Join our Scouts program, or engage with us on social media. We’re all in this together!