Climate Change & Eco-Anxiety

Climate change is linked to a wide variety of physical, mental, and community health impacts and, as a Health Promoting Campus, Cornell is concerned about its impacts on people, places, and the planet. According to numerous experts from multiple disciplines, climate change is one of the most significant threats to human health in the 21st century, impacting people of all ages all around the world (Watts et al., 2019).

Climate change has been linked to direct and indirect consequences for human health (Cunsolo et al., 2020).  Examples of these impacts include climate-change related:

  • illness and disease
  • natural disasters (floods, fires, drought)
  • agricultural losses
  • changing migration patterns
  • conflict over limited resources

More recently, there has also been a growing recognition that the threat of climate change can lead to a range of emotional and psychological reactions (Ojala et al., 2021). 

As society continues to learn about the effects of climate change and directly experiences the impact of climate change, it is understandable people may feel a sense of anxiety or worry about climate change. 

Learn more about climate anxiety:

[see video transcript]

What is Climate Anxiety?

Climate anxiety — also referred to as eco-anxiety, eco-grief, climate doom, solastalgia, or eco-worry —  is distress about climate change and its impacts to our ecosystems, the environment, and human health and well-being. It is not a mental illness, but rather anxiety rooted in uncertainty about the future and the growing concern and recognition about the dangers of a changing climate. Climate anxiety can manifest in different ways including intrusive thoughts or feelings of distress about the existential threat of climate change and the long-term future of the world. 

Impacts on mental health and well-being

  • Direct, indirect, and overarching impacts to our mental health.
    • For example, heat waves and increasingly high temperatures have been linked to a rise in aggression, violent crimes, interpersonal violence, emergency room visits and hospitalizations for mental disorders, and suicide.
  • Mental health impacts as a result of climate change-related disasters.
    • For example, the destruction and loss of land and corresponding displacement of people can lead to feelings of helplessness, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
  • Mental health impacts related to the existential threat of climate change and concerns about the future, especially if climate action is not taken

Anxiety about climate change is often accompanied by feelings of grief, loss, anger, sadness, and guilt, which in turn can affect one’s mood, behavior, and thinking. Climate anxiety looks different in different people and can take many forms, including jitteriness, nervousness, increased heart rate, shallow breathing, difficulty concentrating, changes in appetite, or insomnia due to worry or concern about the effects of climate change.

Anxiety — as a temporary worry or fear associated with a problem or challenge that feels overwhelming — is a normal part of life. In small doses, mild anxiety can be motivating. But anxiety becomes problematic when it starts to interfere with the ability to carry out daily tasks, pursue your goals, and connect with other people. The same is true for climate anxiety. 

Many people learn to manage stress and build resilience through self-awareness, self-care, meditation, or relaxation techniques or getting involved in climate action initiatives. Some also benefit from counseling.

Coping strategies

If you’re experiencing climate anxiety or eco-anxiety, there are coping strategies and resources available to help. Below is a list of strategies you can engage in individually as well as additional resources you can consider utilizing to support you in managing climate anxiety. 

Enhance Your Resilience

  • Educate yourself – Learn about concrete steps you can take as an individual to reduce your carbon emissions as well as steps you can take in your community to become more prepared and resilience to climate change.
  • Start each day with intentionality – Ask yourself these three questions to channel anxiety into action:
    • What is one thing I can do today to soften or attend to my climate anxiety?
    • What action can I take today to align with my sense of purpose?
    • What can I do today to connect with others working to address climate change?
  • Prioritize self-care – Self-care practices can help to build one’s individual level of resiliency, which can help you manage stress and bounce back in the face of adversity. Try to get enough sleep, eat well, and get some exercise.
  • Experience and enjoy nature! 
  • Learn to meditate – Attend a Let’s Meditate session or try another meditation resource. 
  • Live your values – Consider making small changes to your lifestyle that are consistent with your values. This may include deciding to eat less animal products (e.g., Meatless Mondays), conserving energy (e.g., turning off the lights when you’re not using them), using reusable materials and products (e.g., reducing single use plastic waste), or modifying your transportation habits (e.g., walking, riding a bike, using public transit more often, choosing to fly less often, or even purchasing an electric or hybrid vehicle).

Curate Your Consumption of Climate News

  • Limit social media & news consumption – Too much news about the negative impacts of climate change can have a negative impact on your mental health. Set a limit for yourself and stick to it.
  • Cultivate positive climate news consumption – There are lots of people and organizations working to fight climate change. Look for the bright spots and ways that individuals and organizations are working to mitigate and/or adapt to the impact of climate change.
    • Examples of Newsletters for People With Climate Anxiety
      • Happy Eco News: This online news outlet shares positive new stories about the climate.
      • Grist: This nonprofit is dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future through the power of storytelling.
      • Gen Dread: A newsletter about how the climate crisis is making us feel, why it’s happening, and what we can do about it. Subscribe to find community, comfort, and practical coping and acting strategies from experts around the world.
      • Life, But Greener: CNN has developed a newsletter that uses data and science to guide you on lifestyle changes to minimize your personal role in the climate crisis and reduce your eco-anxiety

Engage in Collective Action

Social support and working together with others with shared concerns and values can have a positive impact on managing one’s climate anxiety and channeling it into action. Cornell has over 40+ student sustainability clubs. Consider getting involved.

Support the Environment

Activities that promote well-being and engagement with the environment have also been shown to be effective at taking climate worry and turning it into motivation to do something constructive to improve the climate.

  • Participate in community-based work to improve the physical environment around you or build climate resilience in your community (e.g., planting trees, cleaning up natural areas, etc.)
  • Get involved in climate change advocacy efforts (e.g., clean air initiatives, recycling, composting, policy advocacy, etc.).
  • Advocate for people to vote in local, state, and federal elections with climate change in mind. 

Talk it Out and Get Support

Share your worries and fears with trusted friends, parents or family members, your professors, your health care provider, a therapist, or in a support group.

If you find that climate anxiety is affecting your quality of life, we encourage you to reach out for support. People may need different kinds of support. Consider the following:

  • Peer support: 
    EARS (a Cornell student organization) offers the Peer Mentoring program, which provides one-on-one peer support for currently enrolled undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. EARS offers Peer Mentor Drop-In hours in Willard Straight Hall. Review the schedule.
  • Spiritual support:
    The Office of Spirituality and Meaning-Making (OSMM) supports Cornell undergraduate, graduate, and professional students of all religious and nonreligious identities, ethical backgrounds, and worldviews. The office provides guidance and support for students to explore the spiritual dimensions of life and learning. Cornell’s multifaith community includes more than 40 affiliated chaplains and spiritual leaders and more than 40 different student organizations. You can connect with one of these communities and/or get involved with Interfaith at Cornell.
  • Mental health services:
    • Drop-in consultation: Talk with a Cornell Health counselor online or at “Let’s Talk” site (visit our Mental Health Care page for more information). A counselor can help you identify specific stressors and thought patterns that worsen your climate anxiety, and help you learn to mitigate your body’s response through behavioral therapy, relaxation, and other techniques. Sometimes, medication is prescribed to help individuals manage symptoms.
    • Group counseling: Talking with peers can be a way to support individuals who are struggling with eco-anxiety. In fact, the benefits of peer interaction can help combat feeling alone and isolated in these thoughts of ecological grief or climate anxiety (Cunsolo et al., 2020)
    • Individual counseling: Cognitive behavioral therapy and other strategies can help individuals learn how to identify and reframe thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes related to eco-anxiety.
    • Visit our Mental Health Care page to learn about the services and support Cornell Health offers, including our Let's Talk walk-in consultations
    • Visit Mental Health at Cornell for more resources for emotional, academic, and social support
  • Learn about managing stress and building resilience
  • Learn how to help a friend

Differential impacts of climate change and related anxiety

Climate anxiety will be experienced differently by individuals and communities based on a number of factors, including geographical location, socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, gender, ability status, educational attainment, and age.

The most severe harms from climate change disproportionately effect underserved communities, who are typically already disadvantaged and least likely to be able to prepare for and recover from climate change disasters such as heat waves, poor air quality, and flooding.

Climate change is an environmental injustice that is likely to further exacerbate existing health disparities. 

Climate Justice

Globally, there is a significant divide between those who have contributed to climate change and those who are suffering its effects. According the University of California Center for Climate Justice, “climate justice recognizes the disproportionate impacts of climate change on low-income communities and communities of color around the world, the people and places least responsible for the problem.” We recognize that climate anxiety impacts members of our Cornell community- students, faculty and staff alike- who also come from these communities.

Climate justice pursues solutions to climate change through the Six Pillars of Climate Justice:

  1. Climate education and engagement: This pertains round not only climate science and the causes of climate change, but also about the ways climate change is interconnected to social, racial, health, and environmental issues.
  2. Indigenous climate action: Many Indigenous communities have a relationship to the land and a sense of responsibility to serve as stewards of the land and water. Indigenous communities are leading efforts in climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts across the globe.
  3. Just transition: The refers to the transition of fossil fuel-based economies to equitable, regenerative, renewable energy-based systems, and sustainable land use practices.
  4. Community resilience and adaptation: Recognizing the need to prepare for and adapt to the reality of climate change, using a social justice and equity perspective is critical to building capacity to recover from climate related disasters.
  5. Natural climate solutions: Forest restoration, land preservation, urban gardens, and regenerative farming are examples of natural climate solutions.
  6. Social, racial, and environmental justice: The recognition that the climate crisis is connected to social, racial, and environmental issues and that there are disproportionate impacts of climate change on low-income communities and communities of color around the world. 

If you’re interested in Climate Justice, consider the following resources: