Coping with climate grief

The effects of climate change are now evident to all but the most foolish sceptic – the worst bushfires in living memory two years ago, more extreme storms, melting ice and ocean water flooding of Pacific islands.

Many of them are, naturally, fearful and anxious. And most of those under thirty know that they will inherit from older generations climate problems that could overwhelm their future, which may make them even more anxious.

Climate grief is a thing

Psychologists recognise that climate grief is a form of trauma that can have serious physical and mental effects. I have heard conference talks on how we can assist those experiencing climate grief.

For our own wellbeing, and to help others, it is worth becoming aware of ways to best cope with climate grief. The following suggestions come from Coping with Climate Change Distress prepared by Australian environmental and psychological organisations.

Coping with climate grief

There are helpful and unhelpful strategies people can use for coping with climate grief. Here are some helpful ones.

Behavioural strategies: 

Things we can do to manage distressing feelings 

Taking action
Taking realistic action on climate change (changing some aspects of our energy usage, lobbying politicians, writing letters to newspapers, etc) not only helps the movement to better responses, but also assists us to cope with the stress. We generally feel better when we do something rather than just think about the problem.

Taking a break
Sometimes it is good to stop thinking about climate for a day. Don’t watch the news, take a break from emails and social media. Keeping up with a constant stream of information doesn’t actually help solve the climate crisis, and it can take a psychological toll.

Having fun, feeling good
Do some things that feel good. Cultivate positive emotions like fun, playfulness, passion, expansion, excitement, joy, or satisfaction. People who feel good are more able to deal with threats and find creative solutions.

Maintaining healthy routines
Get out into nature, do exercise, play with children, get plenty of sleep. These thing help us thrive.

Focussing on only a few issues
Working on too many issues or in too many organisations can be overwhelming. It is best to avoid saying yes to everything and trying to be everywhere. Prioritise the activities you chose to invest your energy into.

Relational strategies:

Ways we can use our relationships with others to help us cope.

People flourish in relationships and communities. Social support (the feeling that we are supported and cared for) is incredibly helpful and important. It enhances psychological wellbeing and reduces psychological distress during stressful times. It is good to share our concerns with like-minded friends and family, and to work together with others to take action.

Cognitive strategies:

Ways we can use our thinking to help cope with distressing feelings.

The aim of cognitive coping strategies is to attain a more realistic and empowering way of thinking about problems, to identify and then replace unhelpful thinking patterns. When we are stressed our capacity to think flexibly often diminishes.

Stopping self blame and guilt
We need to be able to recognise when we have made a mistake so we can correct our response in the future, but beating ourselves up serves no useful purpose and can inhibit more constructive action.

Balancing action with reflection
Reflecting on how we are going can be productive. It can help us re-orient towards our goals and work out achievable steps to reach the goals. Small steps are important because they give us a sense of accomplishment. Reflection can help us be patient and to develop ways of coping with our sense of urgency.

Cultivating hope
Fear of a destructive future may be a useful beginning, but for effective action we need to have positive hope based on knowledge of how a low carbon future can be achieved and how we can play apart in it.

Restoring ourselves mentally
Focusing on the task of addressing climate change enables us to achieve results, for example, remaining patient in a difficult conversation with a sceptical friend. But committed, focused action can be mentally tiring. Sometimes we just need to rejuvenate our minds. Activities which may assist here include getting out in nature, doing something entirely different, engaging with something that is ‘softly fascinating’ that require little or no attentional effort (e.g. watch a fire, a waterfall, or waves at the beach.

Emotional coping strategies: 

Ways we can work with emotions to help cope with distressing feelings.

Our emotions can go up and down so easily. At times we may feel passive or dispirited, at other times active and anxious or hyped up. We can learn to regulate our emotions by following learned practices:

Acknowledge how you feel ….
…. by labelling the emotion (“I’m feeling shame, guilt, anger, hurt, pain, overwhelm, apathy…”). Putting feelings into words activates the part of the brain that enables regulation. Validating our feelings by acknowledging that
it makes sense to be feeling whatever we are feeling.

Be kind
Approach painful situations and painful emotions with kindness and compassion, warmth, and care towards ourselves and others. It is OK to cry and can be very helpful.

Get in touch with your body ….
…. via meditation or mindfulness. The more we are aware of our physical bodies the more attuned we become to the subtlety of emotion.

Recognise patterns or cycles of emotion
Negative emotions will pass, so recognising patterns can help us patiently give ourselves time.


This material was taken from Coping with Climate Change Distress prepared by the Australian Conservation Foundation; The Climate Reality Project, Australia; the Australian Psychological Society and Psychology for a Safe Climate.

Photo by Liza Summer from Pexels