The continuously expanding literature exploring the relationship between climate change and mental health reveals more and more evidence supporting the idea that extreme weather events can trigger post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression (MDD), anxiety, grief, survivor guilt, and suicidal thoughts. Paradoxically, these events can inspire altruism, optimism, and action, which can help alleviate mental burdens. Climate change affects our mental health, but how we respond to it is crucial to how.
Climate change evokes despair and hopelessness, as the measures taken to address it seem inadequate in the face of the threats. However, when we choose to take action, the traumas and sense of loss caused by climate-related disasters can be channelled towards personal growth, providing comfort and hope amidst the chaos.
The Health of the Planet and the Mind
While the health risks posed by climate change receive increasing attention, discussions about mental well-being are often neglected. This global problem is not limited to climate change; mental health is generally overshadowed by physical health, despite both being essential factors in overall well-being.
Climate change is challenging to comprehend as its effects are often distant and abstract. According to sociologist Anthony Giddens, this spatial and temporal distancing from climate change is a paradox. Known as the “Giddens Paradox,” he argues that since the dangers of global warming are intangible and not immediately visible in everyday life, many people fail to take action. However, waiting for these threats to become apparent and tangible, i.e., waiting for disasters to strike, is not a viable solution; it will be too late to act.
The experience of grief over human losses has a well-defined process rooted in deep psychological background. However, the lexicon for understanding and managing grief related to natural disasters is lacking.
Ecological grief refers to the emotional response to the loss of natural values. It is an emotional reaction to environmental losses caused by natural and human activities. Recognising signs of ecological grief in ourselves and others can help us move forward and effect change.
Debates among experts exist as to whether acknowledging grief is encouraging or discouraging action. Some argue that if we accept our grief, we may be less likely to take action to address the issues, as we legitimise and process the trauma instead of seeking solutions.
Contrarily, recognising grief does not mean pathologising it. We must act on our emotions before we devastate our environment. Taking small steps that benefit us and the planet can make a difference.
Ecological grief is a significant burden for anyone who cares about the world around us, the plants, animals, and natural values. The good news is that plenty of evidence shows that eco-consciousness has a fantastic impact on mental well-being.
Adapting mentally to environmental challenges requires first acknowledging the global crisis. We need to develop coping strategies for managing emerging emotions and thoughts to face the threats and consequences rather than ignore the problem. This commitment demands changing our mindset, behaviour, and habits to protect ourselves from the psychological effects of helplessness.
Active hope supports mental adaptation. It means shifting hopeful intentions from a passive state to active engagement. Instead of waiting for others to solve climate change, we change our own behaviours. The key message is that hope alone does not protect us, but action does.
Taking action benefits the environment and strengthens community building and active participation, promoting mental well-being.
Leading a sustainable and green lifestyle has a dramatic effect on cognitive health. The concept of ecotherapy, the idea of connecting with nature, appeared as early as 1984 in Edward O. Wilson’s book “Biophilia.” According to this theory, our connection with nature is rooted in our genetics. Japanese doctors began prescribing “forest bathing” around the same time Wilson’s book was published. Similarly, the term “friluftsliv” was coined in Norway in the 19th century, referring to outdoor life, and it soon became part of Scandinavian culture.
Research by Natural England supports that people who engage in nature-related activities frequently, experience lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.
Purpose, Meaning, and Importance
We are responsible for our planet, which determines our survival and the well-being of future generations. Knowing we are actively contributing to this responsibility rather than causing harm brings tremendous comfort—many struggles with an overwhelming sense of purposelessness, leading to self-esteem issues. Environmental protection and a green lifestyle provide purpose and meaning, reducing stress and anxiety while deepening our connections with nature and people. It gives us a sense of purpose and responsibility, empowering us to effect change.
Mindfulness: The Power of Conscious Presence
Being environmentally conscious teaches us to pay closer attention to what we consume, use, think, and want. We can better manage negative emotions and thoughts by consciously observing our daily activities and their impacts on the environment and ourselves.
Being Part of Something Bigger
Adopting a sustainable lifestyle helps us focus on the bigger picture and downplay our own problems. We become part of something greater by directing our energy towards protecting the planet. According to therapist Dr Jared Scherz, this feeling is “the best antidote to depression.”
Knowledge is Power
Climate change and environmental crises can contribute to existential anxiety. Scherz believes that attempts to understand our connection with nature can be constructive. When we value clean air, low-emission projects gain significance. Understanding what, why, and how we can contribute to the environment makes us feel empowered and capable of making a difference.
The Confidence of Eco-consciousness
Our self-confidence grows when we use our abilities and skills for a good cause and achieve success. Even small acts, such as biking instead of driving or growing our own vegetables, improve ourselves and the world. We become a piece of the puzzle, integrated into the ecosystem, feeling we have a vital role in its preservation.
Caring for the environment helps people dealing with grief and eating disorders.
Seeing the Bigger Picture
Environmental protection helps us understand the complexity of things. Many hesitate to take action, believing their efforts must be more significant to effect change. The planet may be dire in many respects, but there are also positive areas. While it is understandable to question whether we are trying to repair a sinking ship, taking action allows us to notice the small changes and perceive the whole picture, recognising problems and accepting what we cannot change.