From climate worry to climate action

From climate worry to climate action

Climate anxiety is on the rise. UBC researchers are at the forefront of understanding this growing phenomenon — and developing strategies to help people cope.

Dr. Steven Taylor
Dr. Steven Taylor

Wildfires. Flooding. Extreme heat. These days, the impacts of climate change are being felt close to home, while at the same time dominating news headlines around the world. For many people, it’s a source of considerable worry and stress.

We spoke with Dr. Steven Taylor, a UBC professor of psychiatry and clinical psychologist, about the steps people can take to cope with climate anxiety — and how they can use it as a motivating force for climate action.

What is climate anxiety?

Climate anxiety, or eco-anxiety, is a chronic state of distress some people feel about the effects of climate change. It’s often accompanied by feelings of helplessness, loss, frustration and depression.

It’s important to remember that some level of anxiety is normal, and even healthy. It’s how we naturally respond when we feel threatened. So, when you consider a very real and urgent challenge like climate change, it’s understandable that many people are feeling increasingly worried about the impact on themselves, their families and communities, and future generations. The problem arises when that anxiety reaches unhealthy and debilitating levels.

How does climate anxiety impact people?

We often see climate anxiety present itself in two ways. There’s adaptive anxiety, which can be a motivating force that inspires people to take climate action.

On the other hand, there’s maladaptive anxiety, which occurs when the level of anxiety becomes unhealthy and starts interfering with a person’s day-to-day life. For example, if you find yourself constantly thinking about climate change, having trouble sleeping, withdrawing from normal activities, or “doomscrolling” through climate news in your newsfeed.

Who are we seeing this impact the most?

Climate change impacts all of us, and so can climate anxiety. But we all have different exposures to climate risk. People living in an area with increasingly frequent extreme weather, like wildfires in the Okanagan, are more likely to experience climate anxiety because they come face-to-face with the impacts of climate change year after year. This includes other populations disproportionately affected by climate change, such as Indigenous peoples, older adults, and people experiencing housing instability or food insecurity.

“Adaptive anxiety can be a motivating force that inspires people to take climate action. What we want to avoid is maladaptive anxiety, which occurs when the level of anxiety starts interfering with a person’s day-to-day life.”

– Dr. Steven Taylor

We’re also seeing heightened rates of climate anxiety in young people. They have their whole future ahead of them and climate change has a big impact on their projected life course and aging, and plans for decades to come.

What are some tips for people dealing with climate anxiety?

First, try to avoid extreme thinking that leads to panic, denial or avoidance. Instead, we want to shift our mindset toward constructive action.

Next, consider creating a personal climate action plan with steps you can take to reduce your environmental footprint. It’s important to feel like you are doing something to address climate change. It doesn’t have to be anything heroic — never underestimate the power of small things, especially at a collective level.

Third, get plugged into your community and connect with like-minded people. This could be through a climate action group on social media, community garden, recycling project, or neighbourhood clean-up. This has the dual benefit of achieving something constructive, while also providing social support and a sense of common purpose.

Lastly, the COVID-19 pandemic helped many of us identify personal coping strategies for managing stress in difficult times. Think about how you can apply those lessons in your life more broadly, whether it’s making sure to get enough sleep and exercise, spending time in nature, maintaining a healthy diet, or managing your news exposure and dedicating time to unplug.

Of course, not everyone can easily take these steps. For people experiencing housing instability, food insecurity, or other challenges, coping strategies can be more complicated. There are resources in British Columbia to help with this, but as governments and populations adapt to climate change, we need to prioritize forward-looking solutions to protect everyone’s mental health and physical wellbeing.

Knowing climate anxiety disproportionately affects young people, any advice for parents?

Parents know their kids best. If you sense your child is overly stressed about climate issues, my advice is to talk with them, find out what their concerns are, and see if you can do anything to help. This may involve you and your child both getting involved in climate-related activities around the home or in the community. It could be a win-win situation: you better understand your child, and you both take constructive action to mitigate climate change.

Any final takeaways?

Remember, you’re not facing this huge global problem all by yourself. This is a collective problem and it requires collective action. It can sometimes feel like our contributions to the climate crisis are small compared to the scale of the problem, but when you have millions of people making small, positive changes, that can translate into a big impact.

We’re all facing these challenges together, so reach out to your friends, family and neighbours about how you’re feeling. And if you feel like you need further support, I encourage you to speak with a health care professional, or with student counselling if you’re a student.

In the news

Dr. Steven Taylor spoke with The Globe and Mail about how to manage stress and anxiety related to wildfires and climate change. Read the Q&A

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