Small Steps For Processing Climate Grief: Experts Weigh in

drawing of girl crying on an island in a red sea

Verywell / Alex Dos Diaz

It’s impossible to deny that our planet is changing—and not for the better. The August 2021 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), written by over 200 of the world’s top climate scientists, makes for grim reading.

The experts say that in the next 20 years, the earth is likely to reach or surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming over pre-industrial levels. As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres recently said, “time is running out. Irreversible climate tipping points lie alarmingly close.” 

“Climate grief often involves thinking about how once things change, they can't go back to the way they were,” says Amy Morin, LCSW, psychotherapist and the editor-in-chief of Verywell Mind. “Many changes to the planet can't be undone and people may feel sad about how these changes are impacting the environment right now as well as future generations.” 

If you’re feeling anxious about the effects of climate change, you might be experiencing what’s being described as “eco-anxiety” or “climate grief”—terms used to describe feelings of anxiety, hopelessness, and sorrow in relation to climate destruction.

And you’re not alone. A 2019 poll by the American Psychological Association revealed that 68% of US adults are experiencing some anxiety about climate change. Almost half (47%) of respondents in the 18 to 34 age group said their anxiety about the climate was affecting their daily lives.

What Does Climate Grief Look Like? 

At the center of climate grief is typically a profound sadness about the changes to the climate, together with a sense of inevitability. 

Many people may also feel guilty about the impact of their own behavior on the planet, or feel that no matter how hard they try to care for the planet, they can’t make other people do their part. The easing of COVID-19 restrictions might exacerbate those feelings, Morin says. 

“When people stayed home during the pandemic, some places saw positive changes to the environment,” she explains. “This may have triggered sadness and anxiety about how we're treating the planet and how things are likely to revert once most people go back to business as usual.”

Amy Morin, LCSW

Many changes to the planet can't be undone and people may feel sad about how these changes are impacting the environment right now as well as future generations.

— Amy Morin, LCSW

Matt Lundquist, LCSW, MSEd, founder and clinical director of Tribeca Therapy, has noticed an increasing number of clients expressing concerns about climate change.

In some cases, they may not actually be aware of how much climate devastation is impacting their mental health. “It often comes up in the form of an ‘oh, by the way’,” Lundquist says. “Patients don’t at first see this as such a relevant therapy topic.” He tries to debunk that myth and invite space for the person to talk about their anxiety concerning the climate. 

Tips for Dealing with Climate Grief

First of all, Lundquist serves up a reality check: climate change is real, it’s impacting our lives, and its effects will increase for us and future generations. “There’s also the political reality—the global will to make the changes needed to fix this as yet eludes us and there is a reflection of problematic values, which is great cause for concern,” he says. 

Open Up and Seek Support

Comfort can be taken from sharing this type of anxiety, whether on a one-to-one basis with a therapist, or as part of an in-person or online support group. While this won’t take the issue away, it may help to know that others have the same feelings of sadness and loss. 

While Lundquist says therapy is an important place to talk about these concerns, he also believes that it’s best not to relate to climate anxiety as a clinical pathology or disorder. “It’s a sensible response to the state of the planet,” he says. “And so my intervention, as it were, is a political one: inasmuch as we can cure climate anxiety we need to change our political resolve and that means electoral and policy advocacy.” 

Focus on Things You Can Control

Julian Lagoy, MD, a psychiatrist with Mindpath Health, encourages his patients to try to only worry about things they can fully control. “We can do a small part to prevent climate change, but on the whole this is something so big it is ultimately out of our control as individuals,” he says. 

Julian Lagoy, MD

We can do a small part to prevent climate change, but on the whole this is something so big it is ultimately out of our control as individuals.

— Julian Lagoy, MD

Dr. Lagoy works with his clients to cultivate resilience to help protect themselves from the mental health impacts of climate change. “Resilience teaches us to persevere despite all the stressors,” he says. “It teaches us to be in control of the situation rather than only affected by it. It gives us the power to overcome.” 

Honor Your Sensitivity Toward the Planet

Panu Pihkala, a postdoctoral researcher in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki, is the leading Finnish expert in interdisciplinary research about eco-anxiety. He suggests trying to appreciate and respect your eco-anxiety instead of fighting against it.

"Successfully retaining your sensitivity to the world’s pain is something to be proud of," he says. "It means that you can also experience more joy, because you haven’t become numb."

However, he advises trying to remember to respect that anxiety by keeping it at a suitable distance. "Allow yourself to experience the sea of emotions, but don’t become completely submersed," he says. Seeking balance in your life will help with this. Think about what kind of things keep you going, and what drains your energy. For instance, if you’re active, make time for rest and recreation. And don't expect a quick fix. Just like the fight to save the planet, it's an ongoing process. If you struggle to find a balance, just keep going.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. IPCC Sixth Assessment Report. Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis.

  2. United Nations. Remarks to Pre-COP 26.

  3. American Psychological Association. Majority of US adults believe climate change Is most important issue today.

By Claire Gillespie
Claire Gillespie is a freelance writer specializing in mental health. She’s written for The Washington Post, Vice, Health, Women’s Health, SELF, The Huffington Post, and many more.