Skip to content

Navigation breadcrumbs

  1. Home
  2. Information and Resources
  3. Planetary health cases
  4. Case 3: struggling to cope

Case 3: struggling to cope

20 year old old psychology student comes saying that she is not coping and worries about the climate and her / her family’s future. She’s thinking of stopping university as there is no point getting a degree if the world continues to get hotter. In the past she got very involved in eco activism but now she is thinking that there’s no point as big business and capitalism is so powerful. She is eating OK and sleep is 6 hours a night with some early waking.
Is this more likely to be depression, anxiety or an appropriate reaction to a difficult situation?

Her story suggests that she is experiencing Eco distress. This is not a mental health disorder but a rational response to the crisis we are in. (Some people use the term eco-anxiety which can be seen as a medicalisation of her issues and makes it easier to then reach for tablets as a “solution”). Eco-distress can encompass a wide range of emotions including anxiety, grief, despair, anger, hopelessness and feelings of overwhelm. It is important to validate rather than seeking to minimise or dismiss the feelings of those with this challenging situation.

How common is eco-distress?

It is common and getting more common. 59% extremely worried about climate and 84% at least moderately worried.

What approaches are likely to be effective in eco-distress?

There are several resources available to guide management these difficult emotions. Most contain 4 core elements:

1.Take action – Doing something positive helps us not to drown in despair

Living and acting according to our values is empowering and energising.

In this strange world where people around us seem oblivious to the threat we face, being aware of the crisis can feel isolating. Joining with others to work towards a shared positive vision of the future and take part in collective action nurtures hope, helps to validate your feelings and builds support around you.

2. Self-care

Pacing ourselves and accepting the limits of what we, as individuals, can achieve. Taking time for regeneration when we are struggling.

Accepting help from others and not feeling we must do everything ourselves.

Paying attention to our physical and mental wellbeing by making sure we are getting enough sleep, eating healthy diets, getting enough physical activity and making time to connect with the people, activities and places that nurture and recharge us. Re-connecting with nature has been found to be particularly beneficial (nature connectedness engagement with nature (green prescription) or water (blue prescription). Practising gratitude for ourselves, the people around us and the natural world that sustains us.

3. Nurture hope

Make time to read about hope-based, solutions-focused visions of the future, not just negative information.

4. Allow space to process distress and times to shut off from it

We often try to push away difficult feelings, but this can prevent us processing them so that they become disabling. Rather than try to avoid or ease these emotions, climate psychologists advise that we make time and space to accept and experience them without avoidance, denial or intellectualisation. This is best done in a safe space with a supportive group of trusted people. Equally it is important to make times not to think about it and to focus on people and activities we enjoy and renew us. Spending time in nature can help many people. 

Discussing her involvement with a group working with the environment is likely to be important, she may benefit from a different type of group. In addition The Resilience Project  works specifically with youth activists struggling with eco distress and burnout.

Other resources might include the Climate Psychology Alliance; Climate Cafes – Ultimate resource for green and sustainable living | Speak your #ClimateTruth and The Royal College of Psychiatrists has produced a podcast and fact sheets for children and young people and for parents, carers, teachers and other adults who support young people.

If there is such severity that treatment with drugs needs to be considered this  should include full discussion of the carbon footprint of the treatment and comparison with non pharmacological options.