Weight of the world: how climate activists handle anxiety and distress

Alarming news stories about the climate crisis are triggering anxiety and fear in a growing number of people. Helen O’Callaghan talks to activists and experts about finding ways to be proactive despite the dramatic changes happening in nature
Weight of the world: how climate activists handle anxiety and distress


Whether it’s watching a David Attenborough interview or seeing fires raging in California, becoming aware of the climate emergency is leading to anxiety and distress.


Check out our Sustainability and Climate Change Hub where you will find the latest news, features, opinions and analysis on this topic from across the various Irish Examiner topic desks and their team of specialist writers and columnists.

Dublin-based Declan Mulligan recently finished medical training at UCD and is chair of the just-formed Climate and Mental Health group at Irish Doctors for the Environment. The 27-year-old says “for the longest time”, climate change was in the back of his head. “I had a sense there’s something really terrible coming. I was choosing not to find out more about it.”

This changed in 2019 when climate change became a big topic in the media. “I joined Irish Doctors for the Environment. Coming into the fold has been massive for me. I still get pangs of ‘Oh God, the world’s collapsing in on itself’, but it’s great to see the impact the group’s having – being part of that’s hugely helpful,” says Mulligan.

Declan Mulligan: at the forefront of climate and mental health
Declan Mulligan: at the forefront of climate and mental health

He set up the Climate and Mental Health group – its first meeting was in April with GPs, psychiatrists and researchers attending – because he’s interested in “how we keep our heads screwed on while working to combat the climate crisis” – plus he wants to explore how climate change and eco-anxiety might impact patients.

Like Mulligan, Cobh-based Melanie O’Driscoll is taking a proactive approach to dealing with the anxiety and grief she felt around the climate crisis. She set up The Green Step after graduating from a ‘United Nations Sustainable Development Goal’ advocate training programme hosted by Development Perspectives.

A start-up social enterprise, The Green Step’s mission is to empower people/businesses to take enlightened action in face of the climate/biodiversity emergency. With a background in environmental education and training as a zoologist, The Green Step arose from O’Driscoll’s own eco-grief experience.

Melanie O'Driscoll: "infinite growth" makes no sense in a finite planet
Melanie O'Driscoll: "infinite growth" makes no sense in a finite planet

“Around 2016, I became more aware of the climate crisis. It impacted my mental health. I was on anti-anxiety medication. I was looking at the economic [thrust] of infinite growth, which – with my biological training of the earth – didn’t make sense in a finite planet.”

O’Driscoll found healing in psychotherapy and in connecting to the earth. “Seeing a beehive inside a tree-hollow, an otter in the river, helped me feel everything isn’t lost. It’s medicine to remember we’re all inter-connected, to each other and to all of nature.”

‘There were days I woke in a panic’

Marta Neto: "There were days I woke in a panic."
Marta Neto: "There were days I woke in a panic."

Four years ago, Marta Neto – a 34 year old from Portugal, currently doing research in systems biology at UCC – went from feeling the environment is important, to feeling how “really existential is the scale of impact of climate change/biodiversity loss on our lives and the lives of those to come”.

What got her, she says, was realising no matter how much she did individually, it made little difference if governments/companies don’t act swiftly on a large scale. “I felt a lot of ecological grief, almost global dread. There were days I woke in a panic.”

Realising she could “spin and spin”, yet get nowhere, Neto identified her grief as deep sadness arising from a deep love for all life on earth. “I sensed if I allowed myself feel the sadness, pretty quickly I’d come out the other side with new energy.”

Through programmes like Good Grief Network - 10-Steps to Personal Resilience & Empowerment in a Chaotic Climate (exa.mn/GoodGrief), Neto now tries to help others move past eco-distress. “It’s not therapy. It’s peer-to-peer support. These groups certainly help me feel I’ve got choice – I can channel my righteous anger to make a difference in whatever small way I can.”

Claudia Tormey: Joined Young Friends of the Earth to avoid climate alarmism
Claudia Tormey: Joined Young Friends of the Earth to avoid climate alarmism

Dublin-based Claudia Tormey’s journey with her emotions around the climate emergency takes a similar trajectory. In her early 30s, she works for Friends of the Earth. “In 2016, I did a six-month placement in Australia with Climate for Change. I was reading a lot about climate issues. I discovered the nasty side of things – about fossil fuels and big profit-making industries that were responsible for causing climate change and benefitting from it.

“Back in Ireland, I felt I couldn’t talk about this in the way I needed. I joined Young Friends of the Earth and felt less alone. I attended a workshop based around Active Hope.

“Developed by Joanna Macy, it’s inspired by Buddhist philosophy and deep ecology. It’s about engaging with your emotional response to the climate crisis and opening up about how you feel in a supportive environment – building resilience that supports you to keep going in facing the crisis.”

Active Hope isn’t “wishful thinking”, but realising our deep connection with the natural world, says Tormey. “I set up the Active Hope Network in Ireland – a community of 20 to 30 people meeting monthly. It’s a diverse group – some psychologists, environmental workers, artists, writers, people working in education, aged from 20s to 60s.

“There’s a lot of guilt put out to be eco-friendly, which is quite challenging because it’s more time-consuming and expensive. It shouldn’t be [just] up to individuals to make these changes. It needs to be collective. We want to build people up to take bigger actions – to engage politicians and push for legislative change.”

Impact on mental health

Megan Kennedy-Woodard: deals with activists and the climate-concerned of all ages as a psychologist
Megan Kennedy-Woodard: deals with activists and the climate-concerned of all ages as a psychologist

Experts who work at the interface of environmentalism and mental wellbeing report that many are finding it difficult to deal with the emotional and psychological fallout of the climate emergency. Caroline Hickman’s psychotherapy practice has changed in recent years. “Half my practice now is people coming for psychotherapy because they’re anxious about climate change,” says Hickman, who teaches at the University of Bath and works with the Climate Psychology Alliance (exa.mn/ClimatePsychology).

Hickman’s experience reflects the research. A 2020 YouGov poll conducted with Friends of the Earth found 70% of 18 to 24-year-olds were more worried about climate change than in 2019 – despite Covid. And new research by the British Royal College of Psychiatrists shows three in five people report the climate and ecological emergencies are affecting their mental health now.

Hickman runs training workshops for doctors and therapists on how to support clients with psychological distress arising from increased awareness of the climate crisis. There are no Irish stats for how many people are suffering here, but Hickman confirms professionals from Ireland attended her most recent online workshop. “They felt they really needed additional support. People are coming for therapy – they don’t always know what to do with them.”

While traditionally more women than men came for psychotherapy, Hickman now sees significant numbers of men, aged from late teens to late 40s/early 50s. “Many are fathers, distressed because they’re struggling to protect children against the trauma of climate change.”

Megan Kennedy-Woodard, coaching psychologist and co-founder of Climate Psychologists, meets parents concerned about “very young children” suffering from eco-anxiety, as well as young climate activists and people working in the sciences/in sustainability. “Some have decided not to have children because of potential repercussions on the planet.”

She sees people avoiding potential triggers like strange weather patterns – for example, a very warm February day. “They disengage from social interaction outside – it’s too upsetting to enjoy themselves when they’re thinking this [unseasonably] hot day’s due to climate change.”

Others, she says, feel unable to go to the beach because of plastic pollution – or visit family overseas because they’re conscious of their carbon footprint. “People’s personal triggers are whatever hits to the heart of their values,” says Kennedy-Woodard.

What have we done?

Among activists working at the environmental coalface – exposed to lots of climate information – there’s high burnout. “They’re working tirelessly. Self-care and optimism may not be priorities,” says Kennedy-Woodard.

“Sometimes they feel the personal responsibility on their shoulders, which leads to feelings of low self-efficacy that their actions matter. They become disillusioned and hopeless if they don’t maintain resilience.”

Hickman says eco-anxiety isn’t just anxiety. It often develops into grief, sadness, despair, sometimes depression, shame and guilt. “People think: ‘What have we done? What are we doing? We’ve failed to take care of this beautiful planet.’”

She believes in apologising to younger generations for the crisis. “I say to them ‘I’m really sorry – we’ve messed up’. Because we’ve known the seriousness of this since the 1960s and it’s a crime that we knew and failed to act.”

Hearing older generations say sorry can be a relief, says Hickman – because young people are upset, not just because of climate change, but because they feel betrayed by their parents’ generation. “And in therapy, the point at which we say ‘we’ve really got this wrong’ is the point at which we can start to repair.”

Hickman’s adamant we shouldn’t talk about a ‘cure’ for eco-anxiety. “It’s a healthy emotional response. We measure mental health by looking at people’s capacity to respond to external reality. Well, the external reality’s scary so we should feel scared.”

People feel anxious, she says, because they care. Such feelings – though unpleasant – can motivate eco-friendly action. “It’s about showing people how to stay with their feelings, not get overwhelmed.”

Hickman believes the way to deal with eco-distress is collectively, in groups and communities.

The Climate Psychology Alliance runs climate cafés, bringing people together to talk about how they feel – there’s one for young people on June 5.

Kennedy-Woodard believes we have the science to sustain us – but not without the stories to engage us. “We want people to harness the power of their emotions, to use their voice and their story to engage others, to hold governments and corporations responsible and to feel empowered to act.”

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