In an innovative study published last year in The Lancet, a group of nine researchers including psychologists, environmental scientists and psychiatrists surveyed 10,000 individuals ages 16 to 25 about climate anxiety and its relation to government action. Seventy-five percent of the young participants, from ten different countries, said that the future is frightening. Almost half of the respondents shared that their feelings and thoughts about climate change negatively impacted their everyday lives, including their ability to concentrate, eat, sleep, study and enjoy their relationships.
“Climate anxiety is not in itself a problem,” says Britt Wray, a Stanford researcher who specializes in climate change and mental health. “It’s actually a very healthy and normal response to have when one understands the escalating civilizational threat that we’re dealing with when it comes to the climate crisis. However, it can become a huge problem if the feelings become so severe that a person starts to lose their ability to function and access wellbeing and get through the day.”
Wray co-authored that novel 2021 study, “Young People’s Voices on Climate Anxiety, Government Betrayal and Moral Injury: A Global Phenomenon,” as she met with therapists, activists and epidemiologists while researching a book about eco-anxiety. In that new book, Generation Dread, Wray shares strategies for coping with mental health issues that often arise when confronting the climate crises. Smithsonian spoke to Wray to find out what she’s learned and get her advice.
Your book, Generation Dread, discusses the idea of climate anxiety. How would you describe this term?
Climate anxiety is an assortment of feelings that a person can experience when they wake up to the full extent of the climate and wider ecological crisis. As the term implies, anxiety is certainly an aspect of it, but there are other co-occurring emotions that mental health professionals and scholars believe are aspects of what it means to have climate anxiety. For example, grief, rage, helplessness, hopelessness, sorrow and these kinds of difficult and challenging feelings that point out our concern for the world.
What is your relationship with eco-anxiety, and did it spark your interest in researching the effects of climate change on mental health?
I became interested in the subject when I had a dramatic and arresting moment. In 2017, my partner and I started thinking about trying to get pregnant. Instead of being able to just hop into that decision, I had to pause, because as a science communicator, I was ingesting all of this information about the climate crisis that was becoming increasingly dire. I was looking at the political actions that weren’t being taken and the solutions that were not being upheld by our leaders but rather ignored as fossil fuel companies continued to be subsidized. It all didn’t add up to a situation in which I felt comfortable trying to get pregnant.
I felt really deviant for thinking this, I wasn’t sure if I was crazy by questioning whether or not it was okay to have kids in a crisis. And it became a difficult dilemma that I had to sort out myself. I had to process new emotions that were much more existential than the ones I had considered before—even though I had studied biology with a focus on conservation in my undergrad and been part of climate marches and environmental groups.
If I’ve now seen the psychological impact in my life, how might other people be similarly affected on an emotional, mental, even spiritual level by what’s going on? And that’s what then got me to say, well, perhaps my next project can be about getting to the bottom of this.
How did this “project” develop into what became your book?
I’m a radio producer, so I started by doing a one-hour feature documentary about the question of whether to have kids in the climate crisis for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. After I did that, I realized I had just barely scratched the surface on these emerging psychological impacts of the climate crisis. I thought, now I’d like to find out as much as I can about the issue and create a project. And that’s how Generation Dread came to be. It was driven by my own personal turmoil and need to find ways of coping and moving towards more nourishing and radically helpful narratives about the future, rather than committing to these fearful ideas about what’s happening and where this is all headed.
How did you come to launch a massive psychological study on climate anxiety?
By the time I had done a certain amount of research and writing for my book, it became clear to me that I wanted to divert all my energy and work hours towards supporting mental health in the climate crisis, because people are becoming increasingly alarmed by the stakes of the problem and the lack of action. There are also many communities on the front lines of this disaster who are already dealing with acute trauma from climate events and other forms of systemic oppression and marginalization that have a psychological toll attached to them. I thought, there’s so much work to be done. I could be of use here somehow, maybe by helping to make meaning from it. I wanted to contribute in a bigger way than just reporting about it.
So I came to leave my old field and start researching the mental health impacts of the climate crisis. And I’ve made a bunch of new colleagues: climate psychologists, therapists, psychiatrists, epidemiologists, theologians and activists—all kinds of people who are contributing in a big way to the scholarship around what it means to protect mental health and the climate crisis. And through some of my collaborations, I became part of the study to look at the effect of climate anxiety of 10,000 children.
What have been some of the key findings from your research? Did anything really surprise you?
We were trying to understand the burden of climate anxiety on young people around the world. We were looking at countries that are very different in terms of their income levels—low-, middle- and high-income nations—places that have a lot of exposure already to climate as well as those that are relatively protected from the worst effects of climate disaster. And we were even surprised by how heavy and dire the findings were.
More than 50 percent of 16- to 25-year-olds feel that humanity is doomed, which is an incredibly heart-breaking statistic. Also, 50 percent said that they won’t have access to the same opportunities that their parents had, and that the things that they value most in life will be destroyed. These are very scary thoughts, and they really urge us to take this seriously and understand what can be done to support young people with the existential stress that the climate crisis is putting on them.
Additionally, 39 percent of these global respondents said that they’re hesitant to have children because of the climate crisis, which of course directly links to what got me to pay attention to this field in the first place. The findings show that it’s not just that young people are feeling distressed because the environment isn’t doing well, but specifically that it’s significantly correlated with perceptions of government betrayal and being lied to by leaders. So, there’s even aspects of institutional betrayal that we’re getting at here in terms of young people being left with a really complex set of problems to deal with as they grow up.
People have tried to alleviate their climate anxiety in many ways. Which strategies do you think are the most effective?
It’s crucial that people have a place in which these feelings can be expressed and that they will be met with validation and support. I have hundreds of people reach out and tell me that their anxiety is made so much worse by the fact that if they try to talk about the concerns in their circles of friends and family and those people aren’t ready to hear their concerns and legitimize them, they can end up feeling many times worse. It leads to feeling very isolated and alienated in the intensity of these emotions, which makes them very difficult to cope with. So this act of stepping out of isolation and finding others who support your concerns is an incredibly simple but super crucial part of the process. Then we can start exploring the emotions and integrating them in ways that we can actually live well with them and effectively harness them and tap into them as super fuel for making the kinds of changes that the world needs right now.
Research shows that this kind of internal processing is required in order to be more effective on the technical and hard skills of change-making in the world. We are dealing with major challenges, because our culture is not emotionally intelligent, and it’s not easy for us to acknowledge our emotions or feel our feelings. We try to turn away from things that make us feel uncomfortable, and that’s not a viable way of relating to our emotions in a climate crisis that is escalating and in its intensity.
Increasingly, people are despairing and they’re talking with an overcoat of doom and saying that it’s basically too late to make a difference, which is absolutely not true. It’s a pervasive lie that is being told about the climate crisis and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. So when people start telling themselves that it’s too late to make a difference—I might as well find a way to just enjoy myself rather than help be part of the collective action-taking—that becomes as dangerous as denial.
And we need to advance this conversation in order to break open that inaccurate binary and allow people to start exploring their emotions and understanding how they could be harnessed towards pro-environmental and pro-social change that matters. So you need to start at a simple foundation, which is having authentic conversations with people. It’s really hard to get to that place of empowerment if you’re sitting with these feelings alone.
Did the pandemic have any impact on your incentives?
I was actually in a writing residency (Mesa Refuge) working on this book when the World Health Organization called [the spread of the novel coronavirus] a pandemic. I had to leave the residency (at Point Reyes Station, California) early to go home because the world was going into lockdown. It was a very disorienting time, but it was clear to me that there were massive parallels between the mental health impacts of the climate crisis and the mental health impacts of Covid-19. What we’re dealing with is a planetary health crisis, not just a climate crisis. And the common source of the problem is how humans interact with the natural world. Humans try to dominate nature rather than finding healthy ways of integrating within it.
So, it was generative to be going through a pandemic while writing this book, because mental health had never been spoken about publicly with as much interest, urgency or collective bandwidth. This whole new attention span for discussions on mental health because of the pandemic felt directly tied to the need for conversations around the mental impact of climate change.
What takeaways would you like readers to have after reading the book?
One is to understand that it is a healthy and normal response to feel distressed about the climate crisis. It’s not a pathology. It’s not a mental health disorder. It’s a sign that you care and are attached to what’s going on in the world and aren’t numbed by unconscious defenses that are just trying to protect you from anxiety and pain.
Second, it’s important to know that activism is not only external in terms of science and policy and technology. It’s internal too. There is work to be done within ourselves to help us cope better. We have to find ways to have the resilience and strength to take the collective pairing actions on the external activism side.
Third, it’s really important to find a container. And by that, I mean a safe space with others in which to share these feelings, speak authentically, dwell in whatever you’re feeling without judgment or shame and having people legitimize and validate all of that. We need to find people who are emotionally mature enough to be able to stand in the tough stuff with us. And from there, some openings can occur.
Fourth, there are lots of things that we can do to help ourselves cope on the nervous system level if we’re finding ourselves really worked up or anxious or feeling like the world is ending. Those are outlined in the book, but for example we can stretch our window of tolerance, work with mindfulness, meditation and other self-care approaches that are relevant to climate distress.
We also need to understand how to reinvest our energy while sitting with immense uncertainty. We can turn these difficult emotions into meaningful actions that bring purpose to our lives. We must be able to look at this crisis every day and show up when it’s so much easier to look away. We must show up with our full, purposeful selves to be part of the collective change-making that billions of people around the world are trying to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.