Stress and Anxiety: The Lesser-Known Effects of Climate Change

Factory pollutionWe now know all too well the effects that climate change will have on the environment and society: from making weather events more severe to damaging infrastructure, displacing populations and threatening our food and water supply. But climate change will also have a significant impact on our psychology and well-being, according to a new report from the American Psychological Association, the country’s largest professional organization representing the field of psychology, and ecoAmerica, a nonprofit focused on climate solutions.

Rather than being simply another “doom-and-gloom” study intended to scare unconvinced Americans into acknowledging that climate change is real, the report’s authors hope their findings can help people better understand the phenomenon of climate change, as well as motivate them to take action.

Anxiety, depression, shock, grief and post-traumatic stress disorder – these are some of the mental health consequences for individuals experiencing climate change-related disasters like floods and hurricanes, according to Beyond Storms and Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change. One study of flood survivors found that some individuals were having panic attacks, insomnia, low motivation and obsessive behavior long after the natural disaster hit their community.

People exposed to the gradual effects of climate change – increased air pollution, proliferation of disease and food insecurity, to name a few – are at risk for different psychological conditions, the report said. For example, mental health workers have noticed an uptick in substance abuse and the use of mental health programs in Canada’s Inuit community in response to climate change’s gradual impacts. “Ecoanxiety” – a term frequently lampooned by the media – is also a real reaction to changing climatic conditions, according to the report: Many people feel deeply helpless and fatalistic while watching the effects of climate change unfold and worrying about their families’ future.

Droughts – another calamity exacerbated by climate change – are a special type of long-lasting natural disaster that doesn’t quite fit into the categories of acute disaster or gradual impact, the report said. While individuals may withstand a drought well initially, their mental health is likely to deteriorate as the drought persists over time. Droughts affect rural communities more, the report went on to say: One study found an increase in suicide among male farmers during an Australian drought.

The study noted that certain populations are more susceptible to climate change’s psychological impacts: children and seniors, women, and communities with aging infrastructure, high levels of poverty or a lack of health care services.

The psychological well-being of communities can also be affected by the changing climate, the report said, as climate change influences the way community members interact with each other. “Environmental refugees,” who are forced to vacate their community after a natural disaster or as climate change makes the environment inhabitable, may lose their feelings of continuity and belonging, one study found.

Communities may see an increase in violence and crime, as food becomes scarce or governments devote more resources to responding to natural disasters, instead of their criminal justice and mental health systems. Some studies suggested that a mere rise in temperature corresponds with an increase in aggression: One researcher predicted that higher global temperatures will lead to an additional 30,000 murders and 3.2 million burglaries during this century.

How the power of positive thinking can combat ecoanxiety

However, the report’s authors concluded on a positive note, with a list of tips to assist sustainability advocates and policymakers in communicating about the impacts of climate change, including the psychological effects, that will help people better understand it and inspire them to take action. Focusing on climate change solutions rather than the problem itself, using hopeful, positive messaging, and avoiding graphic images of climate change’s impacts are some effective ways to educate the public on this environmental crisis, according to the report.

The report also included recommendations for how communities can prepare for the mental health impacts of climate change, aimed at city planners, public health agencies and disaster relief organizations. Suggestions ranged from encouraging community members to add items that promote well-being to their emergency kits – like family photos, games and religious items – to strengthening community infrastructure including transportation, housing and health care to better withstand natural disasters.

The authors of the “Beyond Storms and Droughts” report pointed out that despite the psychological trauma caused by climate change, individuals and communities have the opportunity to transform themselves in positive ways in the face of adversity. For example, a study of low-income mothers who survived Hurricane Katrina found that the simple power of positive thinking helped the women survive and thrive after the disaster.

For individuals, psychologists use the term “post-traumatic growth” to describe the experience of using optimism, flexibility and problem-solving to overcome a difficult situation and feel they have gained something worthwhile, like stronger social relationships or special skills. On a community-scale, I would suggest that the sustainability community already calls this “climate resilience.”

Image credit: Flickr/Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Patch.com. Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.