Part 1: The Rising Peak of Climate and Eco-Anxiety

Leyla Acaroglu
Disruptive Design


This is Part 1 of a 3 part series on this topic.

Have you ever felt overwhelmed or even depressed by the global climate and nature crises?

I know I have. Despite having a very optimistic future-focused perspective, I can often feel distressed by the constant compounding disasters; floods, fires, famine — the consequences of our nature-destructive tendencies are all over the news and often present in our daily lives.

Now moreso than ever, these issues are being directly attributed to climate change, which reinforces the need for action. But when you don’t see the action happening, it can create an even deeper sense of anxiety and despair.

The resulting stress and pessimism felt by the awareness of environmental issues is called climate or eco-anxiety, and we recently took some time to look into the science behind this. What we found was really concerning. This appears to be widespread with the emotional and psychological toll of inaction affecting people’s mental health, life choices and productivity across all age groups.

I wanted to share some of the high-level things we learned through our research, which also prompted us to create a survey about eco-anxiety to understand more about how this is affecting people in our community so we can develop some creative change-making tools to support people experiencing this. If you have a few moments to spare, please take it ⬇️

Over the next couple of months I will share a series of articles on what we have found out, report on what you share with us via the survey, and develop a toolkit for tackling this issue in a creative way.

What’s going on?

Climate-related emotions are becoming more prevalent as the awareness of the severity and the urgency to act on climate change has become more mainstream.

There has been an increase in the number of people expressing their experience of negative emotions, such as climate anxiety and distress about the future, as a result.

The concept of anxiety brought about as a result of experiencing environmental issues was first mentioned in the general media in the 90s to address citizen concerns about pollution in the Chesapeake Bay in the US. It started gaining more mainstream discussion in 2007, with the work of individual scholars like the Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht leading the conversation into the early 2010s.

However, eco-anxiety did not begin to garner as much widespread attention and research as we see today until 2017 when the American Psychological Association partnered with ecoAmerica and Climate for Health to deliver the report Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance.

This report delivered a working definition of eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” This identified a host of emotional and physiological experiences ranging from anxiety and depression to fear and “doomism” as part of the suite of emotional states felt by people in response to environmental disasters and threats. The report points out “that uncertainty, unpredictability, and uncontrollability seem to be important factors in eco-anxiety. Most forms of eco-anxiety appear to be non-clinical, but cases of ‘pathological’ eco-anxiety are also discussed.”

Despite this increase in research and mainstream discourse, climate or eco-anxiety is still widely misunderstood as a concept, with this 2021 systematic literature review concluding:

“Eco-anxiety is a concept used for understanding the link between climate change and anxiety associated with perceptions about the negative impacts of climate change. The evidence suggests that further clarity and theoretical development of the concept is required to advance conceptual understanding of eco-anxiety. Our review also showed that most of the evidence comes from the Western countries, and more research is needed in other parts of the world. Indigenous peoples, children and young people are identified as vulnerable where their lived experiences of eco-anxiety are unclear and require further research.” — Understanding Eco-anxiety: A Systematic Scoping Review of Current Literature and Identified Knowledge Gaps

Meanwhile, as academia works to come to a consensus and further develop an understanding of eco-anxiety, those who experience and live with the effects are left to navigate it with limited support while it impacts their daily functioning, life decisions, perspective of the future and productivity at work.

The Lived Experience

We live in an information overload age whereby it’s hard to switch off from content that can cause all sorts of distress and anxiety. But when you combine this with the lived experience of changing weather, fires, floods, the increased severity of weather events like cyclones and hurricanes, when you witness firsthand the devastation that environmental disasters, deforestation, and chronic air pollution have, the effects can be visceral and confronting.

Some of the emotional responses to these experiences are anger, fear, frustration, hopelessness, avoidance, anxiety, depression, lack of energy and guilt or shame. These can lead to sleeplessness, changes to appetite and difficulty concentrating.

Have you experienced any of these effects? Some people who struggle with eco-anxiety have reported difficulty with concentrating at work and can’t decide if they want to have a family with the potential for a climate-ravaged future. In an interesting juxtaposition, some share that they avoid absorbing any media that reminds them of the impending climate doom, while others sometimes even seek it out in what’s been called “doom scrolling.”

I’ve worked in sustainability for over 20 years, and I absolutely choose to switch off to avoid certain portrayals of climate change. I’ve long felt that the negativity framing doesn’t work to engage people, as I myself become riddled with fear, which makes me shut down. It certainly doesn’t inspire creativity or action.

Understanding eco-anxiety has the potential to shed light on a range of eco-emotions that reflect our interconnectedness with all life and systems on Earth. Eco-emotions can illuminate our relational ties, encourage us to reflect on what we truly value, and remind us of our fundamental dependency on complex ecological systems so we are moved to protect and nurture the Earth.

So perhaps the fact that so many people are feeling some sort of pain associated with the crises in nature demonstrates the deep interconnection that we humans have with the natural world and innate desire to resolve this. And these feelings can be transformed from a negative ones of loss to proactive action.

Let’s dive into how the definition of eco-anxiety has come to spread across three distinct contexts and how it’s affecting us.

The Contexts of Eco-Anxiety

There are numerous definitions of eco-anxiety that have emerged as the arena has gained more researchers focusing on it. There are inconsistencies in the use of the term and debate in the medical community around its definition. Still, there is a consensus that eco-anxiety is fueled by uncertainty and uncontrollability (similar to other anxiety disorders).

The two commonly cited definitions include the APA’s 2017 version previously mentioned, “a chronic fear of environmental doom,” and The Climate Psychology Alliance’s version: “heightened emotional, mental or somatic distress in response to dangerous changes in the climate system,” in which somatic refers to the physical embodiment of stress.

“The grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change. We contend that ecological grief is a natural response to ecological losses, particularly for people who retain close living, working and cultural relationships to the natural environment, and one that has the potential to be felt more strongly and by a growing number of people as we move deeper into the Anthropocene.” Cunsolo, A. & Ellis, N.

Professor Albrecht, who has been at the forefront of this research, suggests that chronic stress on ecosystems is likely to result in “psychoterratic” or Earth-related mental health syndromes, including eco-angst, eco-nostalgia, solastalgia, eco-guilt, eco-paralysis, ecological grief and environmental distress.

But this is not a one-size-fits-all situation. The context in which the person experiencing the emotions lives, the threats they experience directly or indirectly and their socio-economic situation will all affect the way eco-anxiety is experienced (a systems thinking perspective can greatly assist in better understanding these nuances).

For example, a person living in a climate-affected area will have a very different threat level than a person living in an area that has not yet experienced any significant climate-related impacts. There is also the issue of climate injustice, where young people are likely to experience the greatest mental burden from climate change that older generations have caused and where countries that have not benefited from the rapid industrial growth of the West suffer the worst of the climate and nature crises.

How is this experienced?

The human brain is wired to respond to threats. As humans we have negativity and optimism biases that help us hone in on threats that may negatively impact our ability to survive, and conversely, have the ability to imagine a positive future for ourselves so that we can still function in everyday life (check out our course on Cognitive Science and Biases to learn more about this).

The research indicates there are loosely three climate-related contexts for “ecological grief”, which is a subset of eco-anxiety:

  1. Grief associated with physical ecological losses: Refers to anxiety from the physical disappearance or degradation of species, ecosystems and landscapes, which can emerge due to gradual changes over time. This is also sometimes referred to as “slow violence,” in which harmful impacts play out over the course of many years or decades.
  2. Grief associated with the loss of environmental knowledge and identity: Refers to the grief experienced by those who have strong relational ties to the natural world and whose personal and collective understandings of identity are created in relation to the land (this is often referenced by Indigenous groups and identified as a core grief in the fight to communicate this to non-Indigenous peoples).
  3. Grief associated with the anticipated future losses: Refers to the future and anticipated losses to culture, livelihoods, and ways of life based on the changes already experienced and those projected to occur.

These three contexts can be felt both simultaneously and on a spectrum. For instance, someone who has experienced a climate-related disaster can be anxious about the physical losses of their local environment while also being worried about the future anticipated losses.

The symptoms of eco-anxiety

Many of the symptoms of eco-anxiety are similar to that of general anxiety disorder. Like all emotions, the symptoms and their intensity can range and are influenced by personality traits, cultural notions of value (i.e. a greater value attributed to ecological loss can result in greater climate anxiety), and personal experiences (e.g. experiences of climate-related disasters).

Research into other eco-emotions is emerging and reveals the complex and often competing feelings that fluctuate and can occur simultaneously.

It’s not specifically anxiety that people feel; in fact, the research states that people have a constellation of emotions with common symptoms of eco-anxiety including:

  • Worry
  • Fear
  • Anger or frustration (e.g. due to the inaction of governments, large organizations and industries; self-directed anger; anger as a result of concern for younger generations and feeling unable to to cause systemic change)
  • Grief
  • Shame and guilt (i.e. their environmental impact or lack of effort in the past)
  • Irritability
  • Hopelessness/ powerlessness
  • Existential dread/ fatalistic thinking
  • Obsessive thoughts about climate change
  • Depression and sadness
  • Shock
  • Stupor
  • Overwhelm
  • Stress
  • Physical impacts include: headaches, stomach aches, chest pain, sleeplessness/insomnia, panic attacks, loss of appetite

Experiencing intense feelings of eco-anxiety or being a survivor of climate-related disasters can lead to a state of eco-paralysis that manifests as apathy or fatalistic thinking, PTSD, suicidal ideation, and maladaptive coping strategies like substance misuse.

Furthermore, research is beginning to uncover complex forms of climate anxiety and trauma and their intergenerational effects, such as when environmental damage causes the loss of personal or cultural identity, ways of life and knowing. For Indigenous and First Nations People, this is a deeply embodied experience whereby the loss of nature, land and culture is deeply connected to the colonial severing and stealing that led to the nature-disconnect we live in today (where we moved from human-nature relations that were based on reciprocity to one of dominance and exploitation that has fueled the eco-crises we face). So, in this case, the term eco-anxiety could be seen as a privileged position connected to the difference between those who can afford to feel anxiety about the situation versus those who are living the losses in real time.

It’s important not to dismiss that positive emotions can also result from eco-anxiety, particularly when the feelings are acknowledged and navigated effectively. They can be a source of motivation for active engagement, hope, resilience, empowerment, and connection, particularly when participating in co-designing initiatives for collective action. The negative feelings are often the stated motivation for people getting involved in taking action, from tech solutions, young activists through to CEOs deciding to make the needed changes to their businesses.

This is often where the hope lies, in being able to feel through the complex emotional states that fear and grief generate for us and transitioning these from paralysis to action. Or at the very least, having a collective dialogue about the felt realities so those experiencing them don’t suffer in silence.

We are eager to understand more about these experiences so that we can develop an action-oriented toolkit to support people experiencing eco-anxiety — which is why we developed a survey to capture people’s thoughts, experiences and emotions about eco-anxiety.

Our survey is designed to help you reflect on these experiences as much as help us understand more about how people are navigating eco-anxiety. The science on how to address climate anxiety is out there, so please help us in creating a tool for making change by taking the survey.

In the next part of this series, I will dive further into how eco-anxiety is currently impacting citizens across the globe, so stay tuned for more.

If you need support, please contact your local mental health support service, there is a global list provided here, or seek support from a qualified healthcare professional. Additionally, the Climate Council offers these resources.

Thank you to Charlotte Adams for the research and writing contributions to this series of articles.



Leyla Acaroglu
Disruptive Design

UNEP Earth Champ, Designer, Sociologist, Sustainability & Circular Provocateur, TED Speaker, Founder:, &