Coping with Climate Anxiety

The personal toll of driving forward climate action

Climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing our ocean and our planet. At Ocean Conservancy, after workdays focused on the multifaceted impacts of climate change on our ocean, we are going home more often to wildfire-smoke filled skies, dangerously hot temperatures or flash flooding in our neighborhoods. It can feel like an overwhelming wave of climate crisis.

I recently had the honor of speaking with Dr. Britt Wray, an expert on the intersection of mental health and climate change, and author of Generation Dread: Finding Purpose in an Age of Climate Crisis. Our conversation helped me understand not only my own climate grief and climate anxiety, but also the tools and coping skills we have available here at Ocean Conservancy and in our daily lives. I hope these highlights will help you as well.

Climate- or eco-anxiety, defined unironically by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom” is increasingly felt by people all over the world. And while excessive anxiety can be unhealthy, experts consider climate anxiety to be a reasonable response to our reality. Dr. Wray pointed out that mental health is not the absence of distress. Distress suited to a person’s situation is actually healthy because it reflects reality and can spur positive action. Realizing that climate anxiety is a natural and appropriate reaction was new to me!

Just as the impacts of climate change are inequitably distributed around the globe, so too are climate anxiety and its effects. For many more privileged individuals, climate anxiety is a new and unique feeling. But people from traditionally marginalized communities have faced the challenge of navigating a difficult and damaged world under existential threat for centuries. As Dr. Wray told me, people struggling to secure food or shelter may not name climate anxiety as one of their worries, but that does not mean that it is absent. It is merely another “layer on the cake of difficulty.”

For those experiencing climate anxiety as a specific challenge, feelings of grief, stress and anxiety can help privileged people build bridges of solidarity with those who carry more burdens. Many communities have faced existential crises before, yet have endured and remained hopeful. Now, everyone faces a changing climate that challenges us all. We can learn critical lessons about hope and strength from the past and from each other.

A healthy reaction to feelings of climate anxiety is taking deliberate action. Action provides us with a sense of agency in the face of great challenges. It also helps me direct my emotions positively toward creating progress and momentum. One action I took recently was to testify at the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea alongside representatives of the Coalition of Small Island States to explain the impacts of climate change and risks it poses to the ocean. Testifying was a powerful, difficult and profoundly emotional experience—both a critical act for the ocean and an action to help respond to my climate anxiety. 

But testifying took a huge emotional toll on me. We must pair taking action with self-care and rest. I’m still learning to balance these activities, but after testifying I did spend dedicated time with loved ones to celebrate several family milestones. When we balance action and self-care, we can return to the work of responding to climate change with renewed energy and determination.

Many of us on the front lines of climate work feel that we can never take a break—the problem is urgent and everywhere. I know all too well that one of the most common personal consequences is burnout. But as Dr. Wray has reflected, using ourselves up in pursuit of global climate action exactly mirrors the entrenched, extractive and harmful systems that cause climate change. Audre Lorde notes that self-care is “not self-indulgence” but “is self-preservation” when we are dismantling harmful systems. Sometimes, we need to slow down, to take breaks and to rest. The fight against climate change is a long one, and we need self-sustaining strategies to make this not only a manageable experience but also a pleasurable one. Finding joy in this work is critical to making the hard work possible. 

At Ocean Conservancy, we are fortunate to be able stand up every day for the ocean and the people who depend on it. We are equally fortunate to have a system here that supports us in this hard work. Staff at Ocean Conservancy can participate in a climate grief affinity group, designed as a listening circle that supports staff in connecting and sharing challenging emotions. Staff also can have opportunities to develop mindfulness practices through shared training and practice. By developing specific coping skills, Ocean Conservancy staff are building the foundation for a balanced approach to living and working with climate grief.

We have these feelings because we care so much about the fate of our ocean and planet. Our response to climate change is rooted more in compassion than fear. Something precious to us is threatened, and we are trying to mobilize every available resource to fend off the danger. I can’t yet say confidently that my climate grief and anxiety are under control, but I can see positive changes already from understanding that my feelings are reasonable, that I can learn from others, that I must pair action with rest, and that I cannot sacrifice myself in pursuit of this big collective goal. My advice to you all, inspired by the insights of Dr. Britt Wray, is to take away your self-judgment. When we learn to respect our climate anxiety and grief, much more becomes possible as we persist through this change together.

For resources on climate anxiety please visit: 

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