Coping with a Changing Climate

February 06, 2023

Managing Eco Anxiety, Climate Grief, and Climate-Related PTSD

Author’s Note: When I first wrote this blog post, I did not realize just how much the start of this month would feel like a reminder of February two years ago. Experiencing new extreme weather events, or simply experiencing reminders of past events, can precipitate an increase in symptoms. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for help as needed in the days and weeks ahead.

This February marks the two year anniversary of Winter Storm Uri, in which millions of Texans experienced a threat to meeting their basic needs for safety and survival, and hundreds of families experienced losing a loved one. Many Texans may find they continue to experience symptoms of grief, anxiety, or PTSD following these events. For me, I grieve when I pass by the now-dead grapefruit tree that once provided fresh fruit for me and my neighbors this time of year, a reminder also of the many lives lost, and I feel anxious whenever I receive another text from ERCOT requesting that we conserve energy, hear a weather report calling for an extreme cold snap, or encounter a news story about another climate disaster.

Ecoanxiety and Climate Grief

Over the last decade, mental health experts have developed new terminology to help us understand the impacts of our changing climate on our mental health. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines ecoanxiety as a chronic fear of environmental doom–watching the effects of climate change and worrying about the future for oneself, one’s children, or future generations.[1] Climate grief, also called ecological grief or eco-grief, is the emotional response to losses or anticipated losses due to environmental change (including, but not limited to, loss of species, loss of ecosystems, and loss of meaningful landscapes). [2] Younger people, including children, adolescents, and young adults, are more at risk of experiencing ecoanxiey and climate grief. Teachers, parents, individuals who work closely with the natural world, and members of Indigenous communities are also uniquely affected.

Climate-Related PTSD

Research indicates that extreme weather events, such as Winter Storm Uri, are followed by increased rates of mental illness.[3] By some estimates, 30% – 40% of disaster survivors develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Following Hurricane Harvey, one study found that 46% of Houston-area residents developed PTSD symptoms and more than half of the study’s participants had increased symptoms of anxiety. Individuals who have survived multiple extreme weather events are more likely to develop such symptoms.

How to Cope with a Changing Climate

Whether you’re experiencing ecoanxiety, climate grief, or climate-related PTSD, there are many steps you can take to help yourself cope:

  • Control what you can: work with family and community members to develop an emergency plan and take simple steps to improve your disaster preparedness.
  • Develop and maintain social connections: invest in your personal support network and develop community resilience by getting together with neighbors and other like-minded people.
  • Talking about it helps: find a place to discuss feelings and allow yourself to grieve.
  • Spend time in nature: allow yourself to experience the positive mental health benefits of time spent outdoors.
  • Take action to address climate change: becoming more informed about climate change, and finding ways to take action in your community can help mitigate the negative mental health effects.
  • Take care of your mental health (before and after disaster strikes): attend to your mental health needs by reaching out to a mental health care professional when you’re in need of support. SAMHSA runs a free and confidential 24-hour Disaster Distress Hotline; you can call or text 800-985-5990.[4]
[image source: pbs.org/newshour/science/how-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-climate-change]

Talking to Kids about Ecoanxiety and Climate Grief

Kids pick up on what’s happening in the world around them, and young people are disproportionately affected by ecoanxiety and climate grief. If you believe your child is experiencing ecoanxiety, climate grief, or climate-related PTSD, you can help support them in the following ways:[5]

  • Pay attention when your kids are worried.
  • Listen. Ask questions about what they already know. Try to understand what their worries are.
  • Don’t dismiss their feelings or worries with phrases like “everything’s fine.”
  • Do reassure them that you will do everything you can to keep them safe and make the world a better place.
  • Follow-up: take action towards disaster preparedness and to prevent climate change in your community and find developmentally appropriate ways for your child to become engaged as well.
  • Reach out for extra mental health support as needed.

References and Additional Resources

[1] APA’s MENTAL HEALTH AND OUR CHANGING CLIMATE: IMPACTS, IMPLICATIONS, AND GUIDANCE March 2017.

[2] Is climate grief something new? by Summer Allen (apa.org) Feb 19, 2020.

[3] “It’s destroying me”: Storm after storm, climate change increases strain on Texans’ mental health by Erin Douglas (Texas Tribune) Sept 8, 2022.

[4] How to care for your mental health in the age of climate change and worsening natural disasters by María Méndez (Texas Tribune) Sept 8, 2022.

[5] How To Talk to Your Kids About Climate Change Anxiety by Dr Robin Cooper (APA) Apr 22, 2022.

Written By: Jim Rowell, LMSW, supervised by Tammy Linseisen, LCSW-S

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