What is climate anxiety? And is it all bad, or can we actually use it as a tool to motivate ourselves to be more sustainable?

The evidence is clear when it comes to anxiety having a detrimental impact on our wellbeing. We can experience anxiety in relation to lots of different aspects of our lives – whether it’s work or personal relationships.

We can even experience what is known as ‘climate anxiety’ or eco-anxiety: the sense of fear and worry that is linked directly to the impacts of climate change. It is becoming increasingly common for young people to report feeling anxious about their uncertain future and the state of the planet because of the impacts of climate change. Mental Health UK has some good tips for those who are struggling with climate anxiety, such as keeping active and remembering to empty your ‘stress bucket’.

While excessive anxiety can have a negative impact on wellbeing, there’s another perspective to consider: anxiety can be an effective tool to inspire action.

So, can anxiety be good for us?

Well, yes and no. Even though it is not pleasant to experience, there is both good and bad anxiety. ‘Good’ anxiety’ can spur us into action, like studying for an exam that we might be anxious about. On the other hand, an overwhelming sense of anxiety, such as climate doom, can be paralysing – it can lead to inertia, avoidance, and in some cases, climate denial.

This overwhelming sense of anxiety is common when we think about the sheer scale of the climate challenge ahead of us. It can be easy to succumb to a “doomsday” mindset when it comes to climate change and how we can make a difference as an individual. (The doomsday clock is not helping with this mindset.) After, all, what can we really do if we are heading towards a climate apocalypse?

This mindset encourages a lot of avoidance behaviours and in some cases, denial. In these cases, it is easier to remain stuck in inertia and continue the default option: do nothing differently. This type of anxiety is both unproductive for us and the planet, and a lack of action can lead to a down-turn in our own mental health.

‘Act now to secure your future’ is a difficult concept to grasp psychologically. We are biased towards our present because it’s easier to think about our immediate future than it is to think about an abstract future that is far off. So how can we inspire ourselves to act for a future that seems far away and won’t impact us, which is more immediate than we think it is? Let’s use this bias to our own advantage; focusing on what we can achieve in the present for now, and the future will follow.

Time to focus on how to act now.

Fearmongering (e.g., ‘There is no Planet B’) has been used to spur action, but this falls short of impact. Scare tactics can be more effective in creating panic and indifference than inspiring environmental action. Negative reminders and communication (e.g., This is the final warning to act) can sometimes hinder the desire to act (and certainly dampers the mood). Communication that focuses on how to act will be more beneficial in effectively encouraging sustainable action. So, our focus should be on what can I do right now? What small, tangible changes can I make?

Focus on your impact.

We all live on this earth, so we all have a role to play. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report now states that the climate risks they previously outlined were underestimated, and we are now looking at greater risks. However, it is important to remind ourselves that we can still reverse these impacts and the 1.5°C limit is achievable across sectors by everyone at all levels, but this window of opportunity is closing.

Act for better wellbeing.

We also know that pro-environmental behaviours have positive impacts on the environment, society, and our own wellbeing. For example, we worked with the BBC recently and found that their natural history series, The Green Planet, inspired audiences to connect and appreciate nature. This increased connection to nature improved viewers’ wellbeing. Which is certainly handy for reducing climate anxiety! You can find out more about the social impact of the BBC’s The Green Planet .

How do we then use this anxiety to our advantage to inspire us to act?

Let’s use eco-anxiety to our own advantage.

Instead of abstract future-focused doomsday thinking, let’s refocus on the present and what is achievable to us, right now. Seek out information that delivers critical information (the how-to) rather than the doom and gloom possibilities.

By using eco-anxiety to engage sustainable action, you can also indirectly boost your mental and physical health. So, act green if not just for the planet, but also for your own wellbeing boost.

Provided climate anxiety does not push us into the doomsday mindset, we can harness this good anxiety to create social change. We just need small reminders that there is hope in the future for our planet. Reading positive news about the environment, such as environmental updates published by Positive News can help ourselves to refocus on what is achievable and how small changes can create widespread impacts. The earth’s wellbeing, and our own mental and physical wellbeing, depends on it. We can start small and act now.

Do you care about saving the planet and encouraging impact through behavioural change? Please get in touch with m.arber@simetrica-jacobs.com