Updated: Apr 16, 2022
No one is born as a “tabula rasa”—a blank slate, with no innate ideas or behaviors at birth. We are born with some form of mental content, but much of how our brains develop is dependent on the surrounding environment. This does not just include our physical environments; rather, the larger natural climates that we occupy can have profound effects on our mental health. In our current era of climate change, these effects are more apparent than ever. In 2019, Time Magazine published an article titled “How Eco-Anxiety Exploded Across the Western World.” The key term in this title is “eco-anxiety,” defined as “a sense of anxiety largely based on the current and predicted future state of the environment and human-induced climate change.” While most people are not scrambling to prepare for an ecological crisis, eco-anxiety does manifest in subtler, yet impactful, ways: a 2018 survey revealed that 70% of people in the United States are worried about climate change, and 51% feel “hopeless.” Higher rates of depression and anxiety have been linked to eco-anxiety in Greenland, as rising temperatures impact how residents go about their daily lives. Children have been found especially fearful of climate change. And it isn’t just the fear of climate change in eco-anxiety that impacts our mental health. When natural disasters such as flooding, drought, or wildfires occur, populations can be affected by elevated levels of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), among more serious and debilitating mental illnesses. People of lower socioeconomic status, refugees, migrants, the homeless, and people with pre-existing mental and physical health conditions are disproportionately affected by these disasters and the trauma that comes with them. Medical aid may arrive for short-term assistance, but longer-term mental health services almost never do. Natural disasters, and their resulting effects on the population, are often a result of changing climate. Whether you experience eco-anxiety or are diagnosed with a mental illness, it is essential to take care of your mental health. Practice healthy coping strategies, especially the following, designed to ease anxieties and fear related to climate change: Allow Yourself to Feel It’s easier said than done to address anxieties about climate change. Know that what you’re feeling is valid; however, pushing and blocking away these anxieties will not help. Have compassion for yourself and others attempting to make more sustainable lifestyle choices. Bottling up unwanted, intrusive feelings only intensifies them, and it is important to acknowledge your emotions. Get Involved Humans thrive off of emotional and social support. When it comes to grief brought on by climate change, it’s no different; connecting with a community is an effective way to relieve this grief. Participating in environmentally beneficial gatherings (socially distant and with masks, of course!) such as gardening and waste reduction efforts can give you a chance to receive support from your community while practicing sustainability. Go Outside Of course, nature’s healing is beneficial to all. If you have access to green space such as a park, beach, or other outdoor location, getting outside and distancing yourself from screens and electronic devices always helps. Sunshine creates the production of vitamin D in our bodies, which has been proven to elevate mood and decrease anxiety, and exercise produces endorphins that relax and stabilize emotions. Seek Help In the case of serious mental disorders, therapy, medication, and other resources are incredibly essential to self-care. If you have access to therapy, confront your emotions about the environment. Medication is a route to explore if your emotions and feelings are severely impacting your daily life. If you think you are experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression, PTSD, or any other mental illness, reach out to the national helpline for substance abuse and mental health services at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) to start finding care. Climate change isn’t just threatening our physical environments—it’s affecting our mental health. Eco-anxiety, alongside the already-occurring changes in our environments, can perpetuate stress and unwanted emotions. Recognizing how larger climate, weather, and natural disaster trends cause mental illness is the first step to combating what could become a public health emergency on top of a climate emergency. Take care of yourself, and the environment too.