I am an environmental justice activist and have been since September 2019 when I spoke at a climate strike that month. It was the first time I had voiced my fears about climate change, one of the biggest threats my generation faces today.
Whenever I read about climate change and the effects we are seeing today, such as the severe winter weather we saw a few weeks ago and the extreme wildfires on the west coast last year, I feel terrified.
I am filled with anxiety. There are some days where it’s all I think about, and the sheer terror of climate change’s reality has even kept me from sleeping some nights. I’ve even had trouble focusing in class because I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
However, I don’t always feel scared; sometimes I feel overwhelmed, which leads to a numb sort of feeling.
This is climate anxiety.
Climate anxiety may not be a specific mental health condition, but there have been recent findings that climate-related events can cause anxiety and depression according to an article by Beyond Blue, an Australian mental health organization.
For some people, climate anxiety is caused by being in a climate-related disaster. Being caught up in fires, droughts and floods can be enough to cause serious mental health issues such as anxiety and post traumatic stress.
You don’t have to be in an extreme weather event to feel anxiety; it can also be a general feeling of worry about the future. Climate change won’t just impact our environment but also our communities and livelihoods.
When I feel anxiety about climate change, it’s more central to the fact that other people are being affected by severe and deadly weather. I feel more worried for others in my community who have been directly affected by climate change than myself.
Last year during the wildfires on the west coast, I would spend a lot of time online, watching the event unfold in front of me. Multiple times I had to take a break from watching the news about it because it got so overwhelming.
Even taking a break didn’t stop me from worrying about it though.
In 2016, a federal report by the U.S. Global Change Research Program found that the implications of climate change are negatively affecting people’s mental health and well-being.
The report mentions that certain groups of people are at higher risk of experiencing the mental health effects related to climate change, such as children, economically disadvantaged people and homeless people.
It also said that representations of climate change in the media and news can influence someone’s stress response and mental health related to climate change.
In 2019, the Midwest saw a lot of severe flooding that was so bad that I would be driving and see whole farms under water. That experience was scarier because it was so close to home that I expected to wake up and see my street flooded.
Floods aren’t the only natural disaster I think about; it’s also the potential for an increase in heat. Continuous rises in temperature in the Midwest can lead to heat related health problems, which can cause death.
Thinking about extreme heat makes me worry about homeless people who don’t have a place to go to cool off or those who don’t have good air conditioning. So the cycle of feeling climate anxiety continues again.
I’ve noticed that being an activist and an active part of solving this crisis has helped me get through my anxiety but also sort of continues building that anxiety.
Because I try to do some sort of action to help raise awareness about climate change daily, I am almost constantly surrounded by news about climate change, which is overwhelming.
However, being an activist with an online presence has helped me connect and relate to other people who have similar mental health problems like me. We can share our experiences with each other, and it helps to remind me that I’m not alone.
If you have anxiety about the climate crisis, you aren’t alone. There is always someone out there willing to listen and help.
Talking about something you are afraid of is hard to do, but voicing those fears makes dealing with scary situations like the climate crisis, much easier.
We need to keep talking about how climate change affects our mental health.