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Therapy for Climate Anxiety

People are seeking analysts' help to cope with their dread of rising temperatures, more powerful storms and explosive wildfires

By Wayne Kalyn

When I was younger, I used to look forward to summer — early departures from work on Fridays, long hikes in cool forests with the kids, and the slow downshift to a less busy, less noisy lifestyle for the next three months. Now that I'm older, with a brand new granddaughter on my knee, I dread what I once thought of as the dreamy days of summer.

Emergency workers helping after seere storm damage. Next Avenue, climate change anxiety, therapy
Houston Fire Department crews cleaning debris after a severe storm caused widespread damage in Spring Branch, Texas, May 2024.  |  Credit: via PBS NewsHour

I have developed a summer version of SAD (seasonal affective disorder). The trigger isn't dwindling light and icy temperatures, as with its winter cousin, it is the anticipation of heat waves, drought drying up farmlands and killing cattle, wildfires taking out forests, overheated oceans threatening the inhabitants.

By the time June arrives and weather experts' dire predictions have piled up high, I feel depressed, anxious, angry that the world has not addressed the crisis — or ever will. I'm very afraid for my year-old granddaughter's future.

Eco-Anxiety Around the World

As it turns out, many people are grappling with the same emotional stew. A 2024 study in the European Journal of Investigation in Health, Psychology and Education, showed that climate awareness can lead to increased levels of stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges.

"Distress about climate should not be thought of as pathological. We should all be anxious."

Last year, the American Psychiatric Association officially recognized the effects of climate on mental health. "Climate change poses a significant and growing threat to public health in general and to mental health in particular," it concluded in a position statement.

The psychological toll of climate disruption is serious and widespread. "There is the acute trauma that results from directly experiencing weather disasters — losing a family member, a house, a town, a farm, to a flood, wildfire or other disaster," says Dr. Lise Van Susteren, who cofounded the Climate Psychiatry Alliance in 2016 to address the growing need to manage the psychological effects of climate anxiety.

Dread of the Unknown

There is also the ongoing dread over what climate disruption may unleash on the world — this summer and for summers to come. "It's a feeling akin to sitting on a train track, and the train is coming," says Van Susteren, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

"We can hear the train, we can see it, and we're wondering if we're going to do what's necessary to save ourselves in time," she adds. "It is what I call a pre-traumatic stress condition."

Climate-Aware Therapy to the Rescue

In 2015, Van Susteren started receiving phone calls from people around the country looking for help to manage their climate-induced anxiety and fear. They wanted someone who would listen to their concerns and validate them. Many told her that they had seen a therapist in their town. In most cases, the therapist would nod politely as patients shared their worries, but didn't acknowledge that their anxiety was (or possibly could be) tied to climate change.

"People should know that climate anxiety is treatable."

"I knew then and there that we needed to educate therapists on climate change and how it affects mental health," Van Susteren says. "Distress about climate should not be thought of as pathological. We should all be anxious. We should look at climate anxiety as the blinking red light on the dashboard. I help people look at that blinking light as a springboard to action."

The Climate Psychiatry Alliance, along with the Climate Psychology Alliance in the U.K., spread the message about links between climate and mental health to fellow therapists, the public and policy makers. The Climate Psychology Alliance, specifically, offers training that therapists can incorporate into their clinical practices. Both organizations teamed up to compile a directory of climate-aware therapists.

Stand Up to Climate Change

"In the last five years, climate-aware therapy has become best practices for therapists across the country," says Thomas Joseph Doherty, who has a doctorate in psychology and runs a practice, Sustainable Self, in Portland, Oregon. Doherty is internationally recognized for his research on nature and mental health and the psychological impacts of global climate change. "And that's a good thing because people should know that climate anxiety is treatable," he says.

Van Susteren and Doherty advise climate-anxious people to tap into their anger, anxiety, fear and overwhelmingness to act against climate change. Joining a group of people who share your values, even if you just stack sandbags for an afternoon to stem flood waters from a rising river, reduces your fears and worries by channeling your efforts away from you and toward a higher good.


"Taking action as a group is the secret sauce for those in the grip of eco-anxiety," says Van Susteren. It helps change the world around us in small positive ways, and it lifts us out of paralysis and hopelessness spawned by the magnitude of the problem.

"Taking action as a group is the secret sauce for those in the grip of eco-anxiety."

Embrace the Five 'P's'

Van Susteren developed the following strategies to focus climate action efforts more effectively:

Personal. "Change begins at your own doorstep," she says. Gauge your carbon footprint with a calculator like CoolCalifornia, which measures your carbon footprint as you engage in everyday activities and offers easy, climate-friendly alternatives to reduce it. Knowing how you affect the environment will make you a better advocate because you will understand the challenges and your opportunities to act.

Professional. At the workplace, ask your company about hiring a sustainability officer. Talk about steps your company may be taking to move toward sustainability — tapping into wind and solar farms to power the heating and cooling systems, for instance. Share your values about climate with fellow employees and managers. "If you're not a burr under other people's saddles, you're not being an effective climate advocate," says Van Susteren

Political. Find a candidate who makes climate a priority and support her or him — make phone calls, knock on doors, contribute to the campaign. "Or, if you're up to it, run for office yourself," says Van Susteren, who ran for the U.S. Senate in Maryland in 2006 on an environmental platform. She lost.

Public-facing action. Find and join group activities in your community — cleaning up rivers, planting community gardens, designing a "solar garden" on a piece of unused land, advocating for the preservation of local forest and meadows, working on local legislation that limits the use of pesticides on lawns.

Protest. "If you've got the stomach for it, become what I call a 'conscientious protector,'" says Van Susteren. "Attend meetings and hearings at which permits are being reviewed for, say, a natural gas pipeline planned to run right through your town. Express your objections when you are called on — and when you're not called on. It is always easier to make your voice heard if you attend as a group."

Be aware, though, that advocacy can lead to mental health challenges. People struggling with climate anxiety, for example, may feel responsible for saving the world and thus risk burning out. This happened to me. As I invested time and money into lowering our family's carbon footprint, I felt as if I had failed when I could not afford to make a big, expensive change — swapping our natural gas water heater for a highly efficient heat pump model.

"The climate-anxious don't have to solve all the problems or have all the answers to derive the psychological benefits from taking action," says Doherty. "You can't change the world, but you can make a difference in your community. That is the best way to moderate the anxiety while pursuing climate goals."

Wayne Kalyn
Wayne Kalyn is a long-time magazine editor and freelance writer. He has written for Parade, Health Magazine, Good Housekeeping, Parenting, GQ, Esquire, People, Spry, The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, Parenting, Arthritis Today, and Parents, among others. He is the former editor of ADDitude magazine, a publication for adults and children diagnosed with ADHD. Read More
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