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

Alexis Petru
| Wednesday June 18th, 2014 | 11 Comments

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


▼▼▼      11 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Pygmalion

    Don’t blame Climate Change! If you are paying any attention at all to dingbats with wacko doomsday scenarios asking for money, you are probably already suffering from these psychological ailments and need to have your head examined.

  • dan

    As we all know to well that man made climate change doesn’t exist; its just a way to justify a utilities tax for the redistribution of more income Isn’t the concept of climate change for many a great thing! It’s so easy to just ad-lib about the subject, make it up on the fly, you can speculate all day long about the evils of man made climate change and its effects on the earth and humanity without any facts what so ever, showing the world just how intelligent and caring you are! Along with making a little extra money, lets not forget that important item. All of this, built on a false premise,amazing! Hmmmm on second thought– maybe I should switch sides?

  • netprophet

    No we don’t all “know all too well the harmful effects that climate change will have on the environment”. Man-made climate change is a myth. There simply is no scientific evidence to support such nonsense. There has been no surface temp warming for nearly 18 straight years despite rising CO2 levels and there has been NO increase in severe weather events. In fact the complete opposite is true according the the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Adminsitrations own data on tornadoes, hurricanes etc. We have had only 610 tornadoes this year vs. a norm of 939 and last year we did not even reach 1,000 vs. an annual norm of just under 1,500. Stop promoting lies.

  • Earth scientist
  • Tobsky

    Climate change is real, caused by us and it is going to be bad.

    The time is long gone when could easily transition to a sustainable economy. We now have a situation of massive population overshoot for our lifestyles and it will be corrected. Collectively we have the intelligence of pond scum and will suffer the same fate.

    The longer we leave mitigation and adaption the worse it will be. It is probably past the point where we can save our civilization, wait too much longer and we will not save anything.

    • Schlibdiver

      Don’t be a tool.

      • Tobsky

        The heat does indeed originate from the sun, the greenhouse gasses simply keep that heat earthbound for that little bit longer. Just like your jacket does not create the heat that keeps you warm, trouble is we are creating a winter jacket in a summer world.

  • Schlibdiver

    Hypochondriacs see everything as a sign of disease. Climochondriacs suffer the same mental disturbance.

  • Science Officer

    Once you realize that the Medieval Warming and Roman Optimal Periods were even warmer than the conditions we’re apparently so deathly afraid of encountering again.The anxiety and stress just fade away. If the Vikings could raise crops in Greenland, and the Romans make wine in Britain, without the world ending, how can you possibly doubt our abilities to do even better than when their civilizations thrived.

  • Stanley

    If you don’t live on the coast don’t worry. Those that live on the coast now have to worry about hurricanes wiping out there home and now the level of the sea rising. Big deal.

  • bernard townsend

    400 parts per million, you’re soaking in it.