Environmental activism can do wonders for your mental health

Step one: Examine your role within the “story of climate change."

Dewey Saunders
A Green New World

Melanie O’Driscoll was studying zoology at University College Cork when she had a first-hand encounter with the mental health impacts of climate change. A nature enthusiast since childhood, she loved learning about different species and their habitats. But as she studied, she became increasingly worried about warming global temperatures and the existential threat they posed to the planet’s ecosystems.

“It was this building of fear around climate change. I was taking anti-anxiety medication, and I would have a really physical manifestation of a hand squeezing around my heart so I couldn’t breathe,” O’Driscoll says. “I was self-medicating, smoking weed, and just stuck in really heavy feelings.”

Compounding those feelings was her own judgment of them. As a white woman living in a European country, O’Driscoll knew she wasn’t suffering the direct impacts of climate change in the ways indigenous, BIPOC, or marginalized communities were. She not only felt grief over the climate crisis, she felt she wasn’t entitled to that grief. “I was learning about how I’ve benefited from these systems that have come on the backs of other people who've been oppressed,” she says. “It was just starting to crush me.”

Mental health experts are just beginning to study the impacts of climate change on our psychological and emotional wellbeing. They’ve coined terms like “eco anxiety,” “climate anxiety,” and “climate grief” to describe the complex mix of rage, despair, guilt, dread, and paralysis that many people are feeling, particularly young people. More than eight in ten Gen Z’ers are concerned about the future of the planet, according to a 2021 survey.

Some balk at lumping feelings like O’Driscolls in with anxiety, a disorder that involves excessive concern about everyday situations that don’t really call for it. Bridget Bradley, a social anthropologist and PhD recipient from the University of St. Andrews in the UK, says “climate anxiety” may be a perfectly rational response to living through a slow-motion catastrophe. As part of her “Eco Worrier, Eco Warrior” project, Bradley interviewed and surveyed dozens of people involved in climate work about their experiences with ecological anxiety. They overwhelmingly rejected the idea that their feelings were symptoms of a disorder in need of treatment, she says.

Bradley’s own views on eco anxiety are conflicted. On the one hand, she believes it’s a major mental health problem of our time. On the other, it’s hardly a problem that can be fixed through individual therapy or medication. Instead, “the cure for climate anxiety is effective climate action,” she says.

Like all feelings, anxiety has a purpose. It directs our attention to impending danger and gives us a shot of energy to take life-preserving action. But when the danger is as big and nebulous as climate change — rather than, say, a bear — it can feel like there’s no action to take and nowhere for that energy to go. Rather than channeling anxiety to fight back or get out of harm’s way, we spin internally.

Klaus Vedfelt/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Psychologists point to a study on mice to illustrate this. When the mice were conditioned to associate a certain tone with an electric shock, their amygdalas — the brain’s center for fear and other primal emotions — lit up and the mice froze. But when the researchers showed the mice a trap door through which they might escape, the neural impulse traveled on from the amygdala to more action-oriented parts of the brain, and the mice moved toward the door rather than freezing. MRI studies on humans showed similar brain activity. According to climate psychiatrists, this shows how “frightening people can cause them to freeze, whereas giving them a sense that they can take personal, meaningful action obviates freezing.”

But what exactly constitutes meaningful action when it comes to the climate crisis? When headlines are warning us that arctic ice caps are dumping billions of tons of water into the ocean and that the Amazon rainforest may be beyond hope at this point, obsessing over your grocery packaging or cutting back on your personal beef consumption feels a bit pointless.

If you’re not sure what to do, thinking about your role within the “story of climate change” is a good place to start, says Rachel Malena-Chan, a community health researcher and co-founder of Eco Anxious, a group that uses storytelling to help people translate their eco anxiety into action. “When you identify as a character in the story, it starts to feel pretty overwhelming if you don't have a role to play, or if you just feel like a bit of a guilty bystander, or maybe even part of the problem,” she says.

Once you begin probing those uncomfortable feelings, you’ll probably find they’re stemming from living out of alignment with a deeper value you hold, like love — love for your community, your family, care for future generations, for indigenous people, or for the other species that share our planet. Remembering how we’re all connected can be a route back to our values, and our agency, Malena-Chan says. “The more isolated people feel in their sense of overwhelm, the harder it is to find connection to other people, and those wider, larger-scale solutions.”

And what might finding connection look like for you? You might join climate groups or take part in protests, or you might find a way to take action through communities you’re already part of. One Eco Anxious participant channeled her climate anxiety into art and dance, which helped reenergize her work in policy, Malena-Chan says.

The participants of Bradley’s study saw huge benefits from getting involved in climate work. They found motivation, energy, and a community of people to share their concerns with, she says. But for some, increased exposure to the extreme and frankly terrifying realities of climate change added to their stress. “Climate action was in itself often stressful and demanding,” Bradley says. People need to find a balance between “valuable work to impact positive change,” and burnout.

Now that she’s recovered from her own existential crisis, O’Driscoll has made it her mission to help other people find that balance. She founded a group called the Greenstep, which offers a podcast and workshops on emotional literacy and self-care for activists. She facilitates conversations about overwhelm and burnout, and uses meditation, journaling, and other techniques to help participants restore themselves, and their work.

The program has been remarkably healing not only for participants, but for O’Driscoll as well. “It’s helped me shift focus away from what I don’t want, which is climate catastrophe, to what I was moving towards,” which is supporting a community that shares her values, she says. “It’s what has led me to where I am now, which is a much more balanced, happy, gentle place.”