Earth Day: Environmental anxiety – what it is and what can we do

Earth Day: Environmental anxiety – what it is and what can we do

Preserving the natural world is important for the sustainability, prosperity and future of humanity. Part of that future undoubtedly involves the children and young people who will become tomorrow’s adults. Research shows that children and young people care deeply about the natural world. More than three-quarters of children and young people (78%) nationally said that looking after the environment was important to them, with 4 in 5 (81%) saying they wanted to do more to look after the environment.

However, children and young people across the world are also worried about climate change. In a world where natural disasters, like hurricanes, mass flooding and wildfire, are becoming more frequent it is easy to see why widespread worry about climate change is a legitimate daily concern for many. The physical impact of these disasters and climate change as a whole on people’s wellbeing and livelihoods is clear and well documented. The psychological impact that this pressing issue creates for individuals is, by contrast, a more subtle effect of the climate crisis. Despite this subtlety, anxious feelings about climate change, sometimes described as environmental or climate anxiety, are very real for those experiencing them, and it is important to provide the right support so that any potential impact on their wellbeing is lessened.

What is environmental anxiety?

So what, exactly, is environmental/climate anxiety? Who does it affect and in what ways? Climate anxiety is best described as feeling anxious, worried or tense about climate change. There is an important difference between the act of simply worrying about climate change and the negative impact that can be felt by those overwhelmed by anxious feelings around environmental issues. The Royal College of Psychiatrists tells us that it is, in fact, completely normal to have anxious feelings over current world affairs. Yet, issues arise when these feelings overwhelm, become hard to deal with and are detrimental to one’s mental health and wellbeing. These feelings can develop into a chronic and paralysing fear of environmental ‘doom’ which can disrupt an individual’s quality of life if they are not properly supported.

Although climate anxiety can be experienced by anyone, children and young people are the most likely group to be affected. One global survey measuring climate anxiety in children and young people (aged 16-25) revealed that:

  • 59% were very or extremely worried about climate change
  • 69% said they did not feel optimistic about the future
  • 67% said they felt afraid about climate change

In addition, almost half (45%) said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning. This serves to highlight the importance of providing support to these children and young people that are experiencing climate anxiety and evidences that this issue goes beyond simply worrying about the future.

What can be done – tips and advice

So, what can be done to aid those experiencing climate anxiety? Research that examines effective interventions for this growing issue is currently in short supply. That being said, there are some tools and tips available to help guide parents, caregivers and educational professionals in supporting children. Some simple steps that can be taken are:

  • Talking to children and young people about how they are feeling and reassuring them that those feelings are valid, whilst reminding them that it is not their responsibility alone and the situation is not their fault.
  • Encouraging them to take action. This can help them to feel more in control of the issue. Remind them that any contribution, however seemingly small, is still helping to make a positive difference.
  • Encourage them to stay hopeful and connected to others. Encourage them to talk to others about the situation. The knowledge that many people are going through similar experiences and sharing your feelings with others can be reassuring.

Alongside this, there are some more general tips that can support the management of anxious feelings and maintaining overall wellbeing. Keeping active, for example, is an important part of maintaining mental wellbeing. Exercising regularly and staying healthy can improve mood, reduce stress and help to alleviate anxiety. It can also support the environment e.g. (This can take the form of something like) encouraging children to cycle more instead of taking the car to lessen emissions.

Reading and wellbeing

Reading can also make a huge difference in supporting those experiencing general anxiousness and anxiety-related feelings. Reading can help to boost an individual’s ‘mental resilience’ to anxiety and anxious feelings. Adults who read for just 30 minutes a week are better able to cope with difficult situations. Reading more can also act as a great springboard for additional conversations relating to the environment, helping to empower young people to take positive action.

Independent research commissioned by the Reading Agency in 2021 found that children who engaged more with reading for pleasure experienced a range of positive impacts on their wellbeing including reduced feelings of stress, alongside feeling happier and calmer. Reading can also help build understanding of issues and positive action.

Employing some, or all, of this advice can help to mitigate the impact that climate anxiety may have on one’s overall quality of life. It is normal to have some feelings of anxiety surrounding this topic. The goal is not to make all of those feelings disappear but, instead, lessen their ability to negatively affect the daily life and functioning of those that do worry about this very legitimate concern.

What we’re doing

In honour of Earth Day, Get Islington Reading, a joint initiative with The Reading Agency, National Literacy Trust and Islington Library Service, hosted an event for students from local Islington schools.

A panel of artists, writers and activists discussed themes of climate-anxiety, activism through art and how young people can use reading and writing as a tool to make positive change without facing overwhelm.

The event also provided pupils with an opportunity to make a difference in their own community, making eco-pledges, and feeding back ideas and questions to Islington Council, contributing to their Go Zero strategy to become a net zero carbon borough.
Find out more about the scheme here.

To support the Save Our Wild Isles Campaign, we curated this reading list to inspire young people to learn more about protecting our planet.
Check out the booklist here.

We also developed the Reading Well for Children and Teens schemes, to support the wellbeing of young people by providing information, advice and support to better understand their feelings, handle difficult experiences and boost confidence.
See our Reading Well for Teens booklist and Reading Well for Children booklist.

For the full list of references, see the PDF version here.

The Reading Agency

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