Climate anxiety is plaguing young people: What is it? And how can you combat it?

Leah Thomas watched a video of the ocean on fire and was filled with a "sense of hopelessness."

"I remember just not wanting to move the next day... I just didn't want to get out of bed," recalled the 26-year-old founder of The Intersectional Environmentalist. "What do you do when the ocean's on fire? What do you do when a climate report comes out and suggests that we only have a couple more years to maybe reverse the impacts of climate change?"

Earlier this week the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a devastating report that called the danger of climate change a "code red for humanity," prompting people to share their worries on social media.

"I’ve been having so much natural disaster and climate anxiety lately and the new UN report has made it worse," wrote Twitter user @PDXpichus.

Leah Thomas, 26, says her climate anxiety fills her with a "sense of hopelessness."

Thomas' climate anxiety developed over the last two years as she saw kids take part in climate strikes and school walk-outs.

"I started to feel sad. And then I just feel really anxious, so it's kind of a paralyzing feeling," she said. "I would also say my climate anxiety was intensified by a lot of social injustice, because that's also connected with environmental injustice."

Climate conversations piled on top of pandemic lockdowns and protests for Black Lives Matter. Then came hate crimes against the Asian community. "The world seems to be ending," she thought.

What is climate anxiety?

Climate anxiety is the "fear or worry about natural disasters and climate events like wildfires or flooding," said Melissa Dowd, a therapist at virtual mental health and primary care company PlushCare.

This fear commonly manifests in a variety of ways, she explained, including anxiety, depression, trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, strains on relationships and feelings of hopelessness.

Though climate anxiety is not a specific diagnosable condition, it is very real for the people who experience it. 

"Certainly anything that we feel like is a threat can increase our anxiety," said Amy Morin, psychotherapist and editor-in-chief at VeryWell Mind. "(It's) a normal thing to worry about with so much uncertainty, so many things being out of our personal control and just not knowing what the future holds."

Dowd mostly frequently sees climate anxiety affecting those who have been directly impacted by extreme weather conditions as well as Millennial and Gen-Z clients.

"The younger generations tend to be very mindful of the current climate, and I think they feel a big sense of responsibility," she said. "They worry what it means for the world they live in and how it will be for their future generations. They want to take action, but often don’t know where to start or worry it won’t be enough."

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Climate anxiety can impact major life decisions

For young people especially, climate anxiety can also impact decision-making. For Thomas, climate was front-of-mind when she was determining where to live.

"We're in California, so I don't want to be too high in the hills, because there were just mudslides in Santa Barbara, (and) there's fires happening all the time," she said. "And I'm also like, we can't be too close to the beach, because who knows when it comes to sea level rise."

She also feels time ticking when she's vacation planning.

"Certain places might not exist the way that they do, and this is a very real thing that we have to be aware of," she said, adding there's a "sense of dread" in knowing she should travel to certain places sooner rather than later because "who knows what it's going to be like in the future."

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'How could I bring a child into the word?' More women say climate change means they won't have kids

For others, fear about the climate can impact whether to have kids and how to spend their money.

"I do know a lot of climate activists who have just completely opted out of having kids because they believe very deeply that there won't be a planet that is safe for kids," Thomas said.

While these considerations may seem extreme to those who don't experience climate anxiety, Morin said as long as someone doesn't have high levels of distress, it's not a red flag.

"If somebody comes to the conclusion, 'I'm not going to buy a house,' or 'I'm not gonna have children,' and they're comfortable with that decision, you probably don't need professional help," she said. "If it's causing you extreme anxiety to think, 'I can't live the kind of life I want.' ...it could help to talk to someone. "

Thomas hopes that others, especially those in older generations, will start to feel seriousness of the situation. 

"There's thousands upon thousands of literal children who have been leaving their schools, striking, trying to motivate government politicians to change – that's not normal, that's not healthy and a lot of them are feeling pretty terrible, especially after it seems like nothing is really getting done," she said.

How to help climate anxiety

"When it comes to any kind of anxiety, the goal is to focus on what you can control," Morin explained.

While you can't control what's going on in other parts of the planet, you can control what goes on in your own home and the choices you make.

"Somebody who's stressed out in general will benefit from saying, 'OK, here are the three things I can control today, here's what I want to focus on,'" Morin said. 

She also recommended limiting your news intake, adding that studies show it often takes us 20 minutes to calm back down after watching the news.

Dowd suggests focusing your energy in productive, tangible ways.

"Some great ways to channel that anxious energy might include... organizing a beach cleanup, getting involved in your local community events that aim to address climate change or volunteering with natural disaster relief organizations," she said.

It might be time to seek professional help, Dowd said, if anxiety begins to "overwhelm an individual to the point where they cannot focus on everyday tasks, lose interest in activities they once loved or begin to show signs of depression such as hopelessness."

Morin said it can also help to get your mind off climate change: "That might mean having fun with friends; it might mean going out and doing certain things that aren't directly related to climate change, just so that you can feel like you're relieving all the stress that you have built up."

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