The solutions to climate change are self-evident. Opportunities for change within our systems, countries, and institutions have been clearly defined, and yet political forces stifle systemic climate action as well as individual agency. This inability to change what is right in front of us—coupled with the catastrophic outcomes that are here and that are to come—is what drives “climate anxiety.”
Climate anxiety is especially becoming prevalent among adolescents, who are more likely to be aware of and concerned about climate change than previous generations.
Adolescents’ climate anxiety is often described as a simmering or underlying cause of poor mental health. This is because climate anxiety may not be the primary cause of mental health issues, but rather a contributing factor that intensifies existing symptoms.
For example, studies have described climate anxiety as a “slow-burn” stressor that can accumulate over time and increase the risk of mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. Similarly, one systematic review noted that climate anxiety may interact with other stressors and amplify their negative effects on mental health.
Climate anxiety may also be described as a hidden or silent stressor, as it is often not recognized or acknowledged by health care providers or society at large. This can lead to a lack of appropriate support and resources for individuals experiencing climate anxiety, which can further exacerbate their distress. Fortunately, the research also suggests ways that we can help adolescents to navigate these negative feelings and turn toward hope and positive action.
How climate change fuels anxiety
Overall, describing adolescents’ climate anxiety as a simmering cause of poor mental health highlights the importance of addressing climate change not only as an environmental issue but also as a mental health issue. It also emphasizes the need for comprehensive and integrated approaches to mental health that consider the complex interplay between environmental, social, and individual factors.
In a study conducted two years ago, researchers investigated the prevalence of climate anxiety among adolescents around the world and its potential impact on mental health. The study found that climate anxiety was a common experience among the surveyed adolescents, with the majority reporting feeling very or extremely worried about the impact of climate change on their future.
Further studies have found a significant association between climate anxiety and poor mental health, including symptoms of depression and anxiety. Adolescents with high levels of climate anxiety were more likely to report poor mental health compared to those with lower levels of climate anxiety.
Jennifer L. Barkin is an epidemiologist at Mercer School of Medicine with expertise on the intersection of climate change and mental health. Her research focuses on understanding the impact of climate change on the health and well-being of vulnerable populations, particularly childbearing women, children, and adolescents. She and her colleagues have found that adolescents who experience high levels of climate anxiety may be at risk of developing anxiety and depressive disorders in adulthood, as well as other negative health outcomes such as substance abuse and chronic stress-related conditions.
It is important to note that the long-term effects of climate anxiety may also have broader societal effects. Climate change is a complex and multifaceted issue that can feel overwhelming, and adolescents may feel powerless because there is no connection to making meaningful changes in the face of such a massive global problem. Additionally, the slow pace of action on climate change by governments and other institutions can contribute to a sense of hopelessness about the future. This, in turn, can further exacerbate feelings of anxiety and helplessness, creating a vicious cycle that perpetuates poor mental health outcomes.
How to help teens with climate anxiety
While the solutions to climate change might be economic, systemic, and structural, there are steps individuals can take to manage their own anxiety, which may help them to develop the future-oriented thinking they need to engage in actions and to fight for the policies that can mitigate the damage.
We can start with compassion training, as it helps individuals to develop a more positive and supportive relationship with themselves and others. Most importantly, compassion training cultivates discernment and wisdom with tenderheartedness. According to the Greater Good Science Center, researchers define compassion “as the feeling that arises when you are confronted with another’s suffering and feel motivated to relieve that suffering.” That’s why compassion training works in the case of climate change: It directly addresses this sense of helplessness by orienting one’s attention toward what they can do and how they can make an impact. With a compassionate attitude, we can aim to alleviate both nature’s suffering and our own.
Research has found that compassion-based interventions can be effective in reducing anxiety and depression symptoms, increasing positive emotions, and improving overall mental health outcomes. In the context of climate anxiety, compassion training may help individuals to feel less isolated and overwhelmed by creating a sense of shared concern and connectedness with others.
There are several examples of compassion-based interventions that have been developed specifically for adolescents with climate anxiety. For example, one intervention involves group-based mindfulness and compassion training, which combines mindfulness practices with compassion-focused exercises to help adolescents develop a more supportive relationship with themselves and others.
There are several examples of compassion-based interventions that may support adolescents with climate anxiety. For example, one intervention involves group-based mindfulness and compassion training, which combines mindfulness practices with compassion-focused exercises to help adolescents develop a more supportive relationship with themselves and others. Another example is the “Eco-Compassion” intervention, which emphasizes the importance of compassion for the natural world and uses mindfulness practices to help adolescents to connect with nature and to develop a deeper sense of care for the environment.
Within the Center for Contemplative Science and Compassion-Based Ethics, at Emory University, there are several domains of development that can have a direct and lasting effect on climate anxiety. None of these recommendations are specific to adolescents—and, indeed, parents and teachers should consider first adopting them for themselves, and then modeling them for their teens.
Tenderheartedness: This refers to the ability to be kind and gentle with oneself and others. Practicing tenderheartedness can help individuals develop self-compassion and reduce self-criticism, which can be especially important when dealing with the overwhelming and potentially distressing emotions that can come with climate anxiety. By cultivating a sense of kindness and compassion toward oneself, individuals may be better equipped to handle difficult emotions and take positive action toward addressing climate change.
Common humanity: This involves recognizing that suffering and struggle are universal experiences, and that we are all interconnected. Practicing common humanity can help individuals feel less isolated and alone in their experiences of climate anxiety and develop a sense of shared responsibility for addressing climate change. By recognizing our common humanity, individuals may be more motivated to act toward addressing climate change and may feel more supported in their efforts.
Interdependence: This refers to the recognition that all beings are interconnected and interdependent. Practicing interdependence can help individuals develop a sense of connection and responsibility toward the natural world and recognize the ways in which our actions impact the planet and all living beings. By cultivating a sense of interdependence, individuals may be more motivated to take actions toward reducing their carbon footprint and protecting the environment.
Compassionate engagement: This involves actively working toward reducing suffering in oneself and others. Practicing compassionate engagement can help individuals develop a sense of agency and efficacy in addressing climate change and develop a deeper commitment to making positive change. By engaging in compassionate action, individuals may feel more empowered and effective in their efforts to address climate change, which can in turn reduce feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
Wisdom: This involves developing an understanding of the causes and conditions that give rise to suffering, and the ability to respond skillfully to difficult situations. Practicing wisdom can help individuals gain perspective on the complex and interconnected issues that contribute to climate change and develop more effective strategies for addressing these issues. By developing wisdom, individuals may be better able to see the bigger picture of climate change and take a more balanced and informed approach to their actions.
Through these practices and ideas, teens can learn to overcome feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, to take action against climate change. This can include interventions that promote community engagement and social support, as well as education and advocacy initiatives that help individuals feel informed and equipped to act on climate change.