How Therapists Are Dealing With Anxiety Around Global Warming

Experts share how they're helping patients — and themselves — cope with fears about climate change.

In the 2017 film “First Reformed,” a character is racked with worry over global warming advocates not bringing a baby into the world because of climate change. It’s a striking and unfortunately relevant statement about the devastating effects of global warming ― one that many people are considering now, even off the silver screen.

Climate change and the uncertainty surrounding it is hardly just entertainment fodder; it’s a reality that’s taking a toll on people’s mental health. As global warming continues to trend, therapists are starting to have clients trickle into their offices expressing a multitude of fears on the subject.

“Worry about environmental problems can cause anxiety and depression,” said Josef Ruzek, a psychologist at Palo Alto University, adding that therapists have an increasing need to help their patients “challenge feelings of helplessness, engage in constructive self-talk and build a personal sense of resilience and optimism” in order to deal with fears that may be disrupting day-to-day life.

Here’s how therapists are enacting this and helping patients deal with the (very real) worry around global warming:

Focus on what you can control — and turn that into action

A woman displays a placard during a demonstration in New York in June 2017 to protest President Donald Trump's decision to pull out of the 195-nation Paris climate accord. 
A woman displays a placard during a demonstration in New York in June 2017 to protest President Donald Trump's decision to pull out of the 195-nation Paris climate accord. 

Melissa Wolak, a mindset coach in Boulder, Colorado, whose husband works in the climate change arena, is fully aware of the implications of global warming. (“Maybe too aware at times,” she said.) To manage the anxiety surrounding the issue, she suggested churning worry-laden thoughts into action.

“I have found that I need to be proactive to give myself a sense of control and ultimately hope,” Wolak said.

By focusing on what you can control, you can make a positive difference in your community and abate your anxiety at the same time, said Rachel Wright, a psychotherapist based in New York.

“Perhaps it’s getting involved in a local chapter that’s working to help the global warming efforts,” Wright said. “Or maybe it’s donating money to one of the many global warming activism groups. We can’t control everyone else, so focus on what you can change, which is you.”

Flip off the television for a little while

While it’s incredibly important to remain informed, gluing yourself to the TV may only exacerbate anxiety. “I personally have limited my news intake,” Wolak said.

If you notice that flipping on the news makes you physically stressed, try to take a break when you can or follow from a distance for a little while. Instead of watching every TV segment that airs, try glancing at newspaper headlines or following reputable sources on Twitter to stay educated. Scan through to stay updated but give yourself more control over what you actually choose to consume.

Get prepared

“We are seeing a clear increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events across the country,“ said Don Mordecai, a psychiatrist at San Jose Medical Center. “With this, we can anticipate the mental health impacts of the threat of harm and death, the loss of a home and disruption to communities ― all causes of stress and contributors to PTSD ― will increase as well.”

Although the likelihood of you being affected right away may be low, Mordecai recommended creating a plan as a way to alleviate some anxiety. For instance, putting together an earthquake preparation kit, arming yourself with a list of emergency contacts and having a spare cellphone charger handy can make you feel much more empowered.

Move your body

Anxiety ― whether it’s over global warming or caused by something else entirely ― can have a real, tangible effect on your body.

“Recognize that creating this worry produces a physical energy ― racing heart, palms sweaty, a feeling like something is crawling on you ― which all lead to physical manifestations of discomfort,” said Yael Katzman, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Encino, California.

Whenever you start to get worked up, go for a walk, try a run or do yoga “to release some of that energy,” she suggested. Bonus: Research has shown time and time again that exercise helps alleviate stress, both mentally and physically.

Turn your attention to the now

Living in the present moment has been associated with limiting stress, anxiety and even easing symptoms of depression, said Sarah Thacker, a therapist based in New York. Thacker added that “when you are able to fully connect with and be present with this moment, right here and now, those fears about a future catastrophe can dissolve.”

Any time your mind wanders to the past or the present and it starts to cause extreme stress, recognize what is happening and pause. Take in the sights, sounds and smells of your surroundings (Where are you sitting? What noise is outside the window?) and bring yourself back into the now.

Reframe negative thoughts into something more productive

Take catastrophe-based thoughts ― e.g., “we could die in the next storm that happens because of global warming” ― and reframe them into reality-based thoughts, Thacker said. So, for example: “If a major storm comes, we will make plans to ensure that we will be safe.”

Schedule time to worry (yes, really)

You might not be able to curb all of your worrying, so try setting aside time for it instead. Katzman suggested scheduling time in your week to ponder the implications of things like global warming and limiting it to only that.

“Set a timer and when the timer goes off, you have to start whatever is next on your schedule and engage in that, and put aside focusing on worry until the next scheduled time,” she said.

If a thought pops up prior to or after your designated worrying session, Katzman said, tell it: “I will give it attention during your scheduled time.” You can also write the thought down and revisit it later.

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