Collective Action Could Relieve Climate Anxiety

illustration of people gardening together

Verywell / Theresa Chiechi

Key Takeaways

  • Engaging in collective environmental action, like outreach, advocacy, etc, was associated with fewer depressive symptoms.
  • Individual efforts, such as recycling, did not have comparable mental health benefits to those found with group activities. 
  • These findings suggest the potential to create opportunities for collective action to address climate change and mental health.

Global warming has long been discussed, but the US heatwave of 2021 made our anxiety around climate change feel much more urgent. A new study published in Current Psychology found that collective action may relieve climate anxiety.

Based on a survey of 284 students at US universities, research indicated that anxiety related to climate change was only linked to depression among those not engaged in group activities aimed at tackling climate change.

These findings hold promise for how peer education and group participation may help both the climate, as well as individual mental health needs.

The Benefits of Working Together

This research was conducted with 284 students at universities across the country and found that collective environmental action, but not individual acts, was associated with fewer depressive symptoms among participants.

Researchers note that these web-based surveys were collected between October and December 2020, when most universities engaged in remote learning due to COVID-19, and there may have even been heightened political anxiety given the November 2020 presidential election.

In terms of qualitative feedback, no participant wrote about actions to address climate change without also describing their worries. Regarding climate anxiety, themes included environmental damage, collective inaction, human global suffering, and individual suffering.

The study found that higher levels of individual climate action was linked to higher levels of collective climate activism. A strength of this survey was its inclusion of 3 gender options, given how often that is a study limitation.

Applicable Push for Collective Action

Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, says, “The great thing with this study on climate anxiety is that we can all apply this in our lives. The takeaway from the study is that anything we do collectively will help alleviate any anxiety or depression that we do have."

Dr. Lagoy explains, "Climate change is a great example of how collective action can help alleviate this anxiety. The bottom line is that when you do things collectively or socially with other people, it has a much stronger effect on your mental health than if you do things independently."

While this research was specific to the mental health benefits of collective action specifically with regards to climate change, Dr. Lagoy notes that it could be expanded to how many actions that are taken collectively instead of independently will have a stronger positive effect on mental health.

Julian Lagoy, MD

Climate change is a great example of how collective action can help alleviate this anxiety.

— Julian Lagoy, MD

Dr. Lagoy highlights, "This study is further proof that humans are social creatures, and when we do things with other people and socially, it is more beneficial for us instead of only doing things in isolation. 

Human beings thrive more by taking collective action rather than being independent and only self-serving, according to Dr. Lagoy. "From my experience, the patients I see who have great social support and have strong, positive family and friend relationships are usually happier than those patients I see who are isolated and less social," he says. 

Climate Change Hurts Oppressed Groups Most

Psychotherapist, Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC, says, "Collectively, one of the greatest fears among human civilization is the fear of the unknown."

Glowiak explains that when individuals are unsure of what happens next, worry can ensue. Climate anxiety perfectly fits into this context," he says.

With increased global temperatures, violent storms, erosion, forest fires, overfilled landfills, oil spills, toxic emissions, melting of sizable ice caps, etc., Glowiak notes that a great deal of this future remains unknown.

Glowiak underscores, "Although collective efforts may provide some relief, the only true known here is that we cannot continue down our current path for much longer. The main takeaway readers may have from this article is that we are amid a major global problem that warrants attention."

Beyond complications stemming from the unknown, Glowiak highlights that people also struggle with a lack of control. "Our current climate is well beyond the control of any one person—leading toward sensations of helplessness—further contributing toward anxiety," he says.

Glowiak notes, "Although there is substantial information available, there is not nearly enough discussion around the inequities bestowed upon impoverished communities, which include many oppressed populations."

Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC

Without more education and advocacy on the topic, many who experience climate anxiety are unaware of the root cause—internalizing the problem and thinking something is wrong with them.

— Matt Glowiak, PhD, LCPC

While efforts are made in more affluent communities to address a correctable problem, Glowiak underscores how lower-income areas often serve as a dumping ground. "Flint, Michigan is a perfect example," he says.

Glowiak explains, "Deceit, coercion, and dollars drive inequity in an institutionally unjust society. We cannot merely focus on privileged communities. We must advocate for collective action that benefits all."

Since climate anxiety is not a formal clinical diagnosis, Glowiak notes that attention in the medical community is sparse, which can be an issue.

Glowiak highlights, "Without more education and advocacy on the topic, many who experience climate anxiety are unaware of the root cause—internalizing the problem and thinking something is wrong with them."

Despite how such people may be impacted, Glowiak notes that it is society that is at fault for ignoring this with catastrophic implications. "Speaking to the issue normalizes the experience and may put many at ease," he says.

What This Means For You

As this research study highlights, collective action may alleviate climate anxiety. Especially given how marginalized communities are more likely to bear the brunt of climate change, those in positions of power have a responsibility to address this issue. If you are new to thinking critically about climate change, this may be a great opportunity to consider how to contribute to collective activism.

1 Source
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  1. Schwartz S, Benoit L, Clayton S, Parnes M, Swenson L, Lowe S. Climate change anxiety and mental health: Environmental activism as bufferCurrent Psychology. 2022. doi:10.1007/s12144-022-02735-6

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.