What Is Climate Anxiety?

A Guide for Business Leaders

Jane Courtnell
October 17, 2023
Woman covering her face with her hands in front of her laptop.

This article explores the emergence of climate anxiety, explaining its causes and symptoms. Effective strategies to help business leaders address climate anxiety in their professional and personal lives are then provided.

Distinguish Between Worries and Anxiety: What Is Climate Anxiety?

Climate anxiety, also referred to as eco-anxiety, refers to feelings of worry, fear, helplessness, stress, and despair about the problems caused by climate change. These feelings can impair a person’s day-to-day life. Climate anxiety arises from an awareness of how climate change harms the environment, animals, and society.

It's normal to worry about climate change. But when these worries become overwhelming and impair a person’s day-to-day life, this is considered to be anxiety.

How Common Is Climate Anxiety? Know That Climate Anxiety Is on the Rise

27% of Americans were concerned about climate change, as reported by a 2023 Yale study. And the number of people very worried about it has tripled in the last six years. 10% of Americans fit the diagnosis of climate anxiety, as reported by Yale in 2022.

Research suggests climate anxiety affects young people more, with 59% of youth expressing significant worry about climate change (2021). Within this group, 45% stated this anxiety negatively affects their daily lives. 

What Causes Anxieties About Climate Change? Define the Signs and Symptoms of Climate Anxiety

A stressed man with his back against the wall taking his glasses off

Unlike clinical anxiety, climate anxiety isn't officially recognized as a mental health disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) or other diagnostic criteria. This might be because it's a relatively new concept. The term ‘eco-anxiety’ wasn’t used until 2011 by Albrecht, and served as the precursor for climate anxiety.

Hence, one could argue that there hasn’t been enough time to create a clear way to diagnose climate anxiety. Therefore, doctors and therapists might not be entirely sure how to identify and help people who are suffering.

For example, to treat clinical anxiety, therapists often ask people to write down their anxious thoughts to then challenge those thoughts as irrational or unrealistic. This might not be the best approach for climate anxiety due to the realism of today’s environmental threats and challenges.

Just as various treatments exist for distinct anxiety disorders, such as phobias and generalized anxiety, a specific and tailored treatment for climate anxiety is necessary, considering its unique characteristics.

  • Triggers and focus: Concerns related to climate change.
  • Duration of severity: This will vary from person to person. First responders to climate disasters and climate scientists and activists are particularly at risk. Vulnerable populations, including children, the elderly, the chronically ill, and those with mental or physical disabilities, are also at greater risk. 

What Are the Signs of Symptoms of Climate Change Anxiety?

During climate anxiety, a trigger - such as news about a natural disaster - causes the brain's stress response to go into overdrive. The part of the brain responsible for fear (the amygdala) is activated causing feelings of unease. The brain's decision-making area (the prefrontal cortex) may struggle to handle these intense emotions, which causes more distress. Hormones like cortisol are also released. This bodily reaction can cause the following symptoms:

  • Sleep disturbances
  • Changes in appetite
  • Difficulty concentrating 
  • Churning feelings in your stomach
  • Sweating or hot flushes
  • Faster breathing

Along with these physical sensations, you may also begin to have thoughts and feelings such as:

  • A heightened hopelessness about the planet's future
  • Anger or frustration toward climate change deniers, governments, or older generations
  • Feelings of existential dread
  • Guilt or shame related to one's carbon footprint
  • Post-traumatic stress from climate change impacts
  • Feelings of depression, anxiety, panic, and grief over environmental loss
  • Obsessive thoughts and recurring daily worries about the climate

Identify the Causes of Climate Anxiety

Melting arctic ice

There are two main causes of climate anxiety:

  1. Environmental problems: Climate anxiety can be triggered by natural disasters or resource depletion. People who deeply value the natural world are especially affected. Individuals can experience ‘ecological grief’, which is the feeling of loss when nature is harmed. 
  2. Climate change communications: The way you learn about climate change matters. News channels, online articles, and social media can worsen climate anxiety, especially when alarming or apocalyptic language is used. The constant stream of distressing information, often with powerful visuals, can cause overwhelming feelings. Even credible scientific reports (e.g. the IPCC's Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C which has gained significant media coverage), can fuel anxiety when results are portrayed in a frightening way.

Manage Climate Anxiety: 3-Step Guide to Address Climate Anxiety Personally and Professionally

Step One: Communicate and Collaborate

Engage in meaningful discussions about climate change. Avoid false or sensationalized information, and rely on credible science.

Share your climate concerns with friends and family. This will help you feel more connected and foster a sense of unity for positive change. 

In your professional life, your aim is to motivate and enthuse your team. In this, celebrate the achievement of emission reduction goals, and the sustainability changes your business has successfully made.

Step Two: Take Action and Aim for Net Zero

On a personal level, use online carbon footprint calculators to measure your emissions, and identify proactive steps to reduce them. Actions include recycling, turning off appliances when not in use, eating less meat, supporting offsetting projects, and using more environmentally friendly ways to get around, like cycling and walking.

In business, plan for net zero. This means determining your business's carbon footprint and striving to reduce emissions by 50% by 2030. The transition to net zero involves three main steps:

  • Step one - Measurement: Quantify emissions from various business sources. Use carbon footprint calculator tools to help you measure business emissions.  
  • Step two - Reduction: Implement energy-saving initiatives and energy-efficient systems. Transition to renewable energy sources where possible.
  • Step three - Offsetting: Identify business emissions that cannot be entirely reduced and invest in offsetting projects to compensate for them.

It’s important to keep in mind that, although small actions have a positive impact on the environment, studies show they aren’t effective means of addressing climate anxiety. This is because these actions can make people feel like they aren’t doing enough. Having a net zero goal for your personal life, and as a business target will help reduce these feelings. As would advocating for local and national climate action, as discussed below.

Step Three: Vote for Change

A man putting his vote in the ballot box

Take action on a national, state, and local scale by voting for candidates who prioritize climate change. Support climate-friendly policies and politicians, sign climate-related petitions, and engage with your elected representatives through calls and letters.

In the business world, leaders can support climate action by:

  1. Encouraging employees to stay informed about local and state elections.
  2. Give your employees paid time off to vote, and volunteer for environmental causes and projects.
  3. Get involved in efforts to promote eco-friendly policies in your community and state.
  4. Join industry groups that are committed to sustainability and fighting climate change.
  5. Share annual reports about what your company is doing to help the environment and how it's progressing toward its emission-reduction goals.

The Aclymate platform is designed to help you understand and reduce your impact on the climate, both professionally and personally. Doing so will benefit your well-being and the well-being of the next generation.

Jane Courtnell
October 17, 2023

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