Most of us will have seen the coverage of the COP 27 summit on climate change in November 2022. Our news feeds are full of reports of extreme weather events and the impact they are having on the planet, nature and people. This crisis threatens the whole of humanity and at times is overwhelming. As awareness of the seriousness of the problem the planet is facing permeates our consciousness, climate anxiety or eco-anxiety is a rising problem affecting the mental health of many people (Frumkin 2022). I will outline the ways in which this is both similar and different to other types of anxiety and discuss PP interventions that might be helpful in ameliorating the impact.


Climate anxiety

Anxiety is a normal emotion experienced in the face of challenge and uncertain outcomes. Indeed we need a certain amount of anxiety to perform at our best. The word is also used to refer to aspects of the clinical state of mental illness which can result when our normal threat response processes go wrong.

In evolutionary terms, when we faced a physical threat, such as being eaten by a predator, those whose bodies responded with an effective “flight or fight” (FF) response were more likely to survive and reproduce. So this process became embedded in human neurophysiological functioning through natural selection. The FF response sends blood to the arms and legs and away from the gut, increases heart and respiration rates and floods you with adrenaline to prepare you to run/ fight. In modern life, most of the threats we face are not physical but social, and our cognitive abilities mean we are able to repeatedly predict and perceive threats that may not exist.

Our response to these types of threats does not require a physical reaction, but our body doesn’t know that and it is easy for us to get stuck constantly activating and failing to discharge the impact of these bodily changes, which has a long-term damaging impact on our body and health. Additionally, the impact of the anxiety response on the body, which can manifest as hyperventilation, palpitations, feeling hot and sweaty, lightheadedness, nausea etc can feel very unpleasant. If we then focus our attention on this new “threat” (“Am I having a heart attack?”), we then amplify our threat response and can end up with full-blown anxiety symptoms such as panic disorder. Our natural attempts to suppress and avoid unpleasant feelings further compound the situation and can narrow our life leading to issues such as agoraphobia and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

A further evolutionary neurophysiological process also comes into play if a threat is seen as inescapable. This is known as the freeze or more accurately flop and drop response. If flight or fight doesn’t work to free us from threat, we tend to become paralysed and play dead (as this gives the best chance of survival).

If our modern “social” or other overwhelming threat such as climate change persists this response can promote a sense of helpless paralysis. This is a huge simplification of our response to threat (For more information see and but I hope it illustrates the point I am trying to make. Most anxiety disorders relate to a threat that is social. Social belonging is also important for survival and in evolutionary terms rejection from the group often did result in death or injury, which is one reason we are so sensitive to it. In modern society not getting any likes on your social media post, although not nice, does not represent an imminent threat to life and limb.


An adaptive response?

The difference between regular anxiety problems and climate anxiety is that the threat to humanity is physical and real if we continue to destroy our planet. Another evolutionary factor comes in here. We are primed to give priority to short-term rather than long-term consequences as, if you die now, you don’t need to worry about tomorrow. Hence my use of the word imminent above. Ignoring and avoiding the unpleasant feelings associated with confronting the impact of climate change helps us feel better in the short term, reinforcing that strategy (as with not going outside in agoraphobia) but fails to address the long-term problem.

However, those who are attempting to confront the reality of climate change often become overwhelmed and feel helpless in the face of such large-scale difficulty, especially when most of the world has its head in the sand. This can lead to clinical levels of eco-anxiety and/or depression, with paralysis of mental and physical energy and action via the processes described above. This does not bode well for humanity if it happens in the people we need to be the change makers if we are to survive as a species.

In summary, the symptoms associated with climate or eco-anxiety may be similar to conventional anxiety. However, the traditional approaches to treating anxiety such as challenging the accuracy of our thoughts and responses to threats, reframing them, and learning relaxation techniques, may not be appropriate in eco-anxiety because eco-anxiety is an adaptive response to a genuine threat which is a necessary call to action. Whilst we need a certain amount of eco-anxiety to spur us to act to change our behaviour, excessive eco-anxiety is unhelpful and can lead to mental ill health and paralysis of action.


How can PP help?

Clinical anxiety should, of course, always be fully assessed and treated by a mental health professional. However, PP has a number of strategies that can help address milder climate anxiety. These ideas have been crystallised by the inspirational work of Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone (2022) on Active Hope. Informed by this approach,  my experience of PP and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy and in consultation with my colleague, PP Practitioner and Climate Activist, Alice Graves, I offer the following suggestions.

  1. Witness and honour the pain of the world. Confront the reality we are facing rather than denying the pain. ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) expansion techniques can be used to foster willingness to sit with the difficult emotions associated with our self-destruction. Compassion skills can support this process. Recognise that pain is the flip side of the things you care about (values). Harness the messages and energy of negative emotions such as anger to help you move to action (see below).
  2. Connect with yourself, others, the world and your values. Recognise the radical systemic interconnectedness of the wellbeing of our whole world and our embeddedness within this network across place and time. Understand your values. Think about how your values might relate to the idea of being a “good ancestor”. What would you like your descendants to say about how you showed up and what you stood for at this point in history (whatever the outcome)? Foster connection and love with other people and groups who share your concerns as a balance to pain, isolation and helplessness. We are actually all in this together. Systemic thinking suggests sustainability occurs when local systems each negotiate their self-interest with the greater system. Thus, we need to stop waiting for a purely top-down solution to the climate crisis but work at local levels and watch the ripples expand. This does not negate the responsibility of governments and businesses to take action, but acknowledges the value of both top-down and bottom-up approaches to addressing the issues and helps us take responsibility and engage in solution-oriented behaviour.
  3. Foster a sense of gratitude and awe for the beauty of our natural world through immersive mindful savouring activities. Boosting positive emotions helps promote broadened, more creative thinking which we need to solve the challenges we face, but also further helps us build resilience, connect with our values and remember what we are striving for and why. It is a beautiful world, we are an intimate part of it and it is worth saving.
  4. Take hopeful action to move forward. Envisage a hopeful future and adopt a growth mindset. What would it look like if a miracle happened and the tide turned on climate change? If you knew you couldn’t fail, what pathways might you take to make this happen? What is the first step on this road? Taking action, however small, helps build hope, and the act of living authentically in line with our values provides the motivation for further action. Connecting your actions with others amplifies the impact and helps you build resilience and find resources to overcome obstacles to change.

Much more detail on the strategies outlined above can be found through the following websites, many of which offer online courses to support people in dealing with eco-anxiety.

If you are a coach working with these issues is a wonderful network. If you are working to effect change at an organisational level is a useful contact.



Climate anxiety is both something we need and something we must manage to facilitate the change our world needs to survive the climate crisis. PP has a potentially influential role to play in this process. In addition to the resources mentioned above, my colleague Alice Graves and I will be offering in-person and virtual workshops from 2023, incorporating training in the techniques described above. If you want to know more visit our LinkedIn page Climate Anxiety Management.


Frumkin, H.  (2022) Hope, health and the climate crisis. The Journal of Climate Change and Health, 5, 100115,

Macy, J. & Johnstone, C. (2022) Active Hope: How to face the mess we’re in with unexpected resilience and creative power. New World Library

Read more about Sarah Monk and her other articles HERE


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