Freaked About Climate Change? 7 Ways to Cope

With the release of the UN scientific panel's report, climate change is looking less like an inconvenient truth and more like an inescapable crisis. Wildfires, superstorms, and typhoons are the first guests to arrive, with food insecurity and vanishing coastal cities to follow. To an individual human, the prospect of such global destruction is totally overwhelming. This week, Savvy Psychologist Dr. Ellen Hendriksen offers 7 ways to combat climate change despair.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
6-minute read
Episode #222

Podcast listener Trevor from British Columbia imagined the future of our planet. Buckle your seat belt, because it wasn’t pretty. Trevor reports, “I saw the great forests I grew up around all burned. I saw superstorms and heat-stroke deaths claiming hundreds of thousands every year. I saw food shortages turning people violent and mass migrations whipping up xenophobic fervor and fascist autocracies. All I can see is destruction on the scale of what happened to the indigenous communities in North America after 1492.” 

“How,” he concluded, “can I not despair?”

After I peeled myself off the floor, I looked into the research. Then I peeled myself off the floor again. The very first study I found, in the uber-prestigious journal Nature, linked increased global temperatures to suicide. My floor and I can’t take much more of this.

Climate change is a perfect storm (no pun intended) because it hits human nature square in the gut: when faced with dire threats, we humans tend to react in one of three ways. In the first option, we deny. When prospects seem dire and hopeless, some of us cope by sticking our heads in the sand. We protect ourselves from going numb and hopeless by whistling through the superstorm.

The second option? We despair. It’s hard to find hope or feel personally effective when the speed and scale of the crisis seem so overwhelming. Indeed, who can truly comprehend the disappearance of coastal cities and not feel helpless and insignificant?

Thankfully, human nature allows us a third option: we double down. With denial or despair, our flame is snuffed out. But sometimes tough situations act as an imperative—instead of burning out, our flame burns brighter. 

I won’t pretend to solve climate change in 15 minutes or less, but this week, let’s talk about seven ways to deal with your climate change despair. 

7 Ways to Cope with Climate Change

  1. It’s okay to feel horrible.
  2. But remember that worry isn’t an action.
  3. Don’t give up on small steps, but don’t rely on them, either.
  4. Keep a lid on the zealotry.
  5. Focus on what we’ll gain.
  6. Get to know your neighbors.
  7. Remember humanity is scrappy.

Here they are in more detail. 

Tip #1: It’s okay to feel horrible.

It’s absolutely understandable to feel whipsawed and powerless. Not only that, feeling awful is actually a necessary precursor to action. As Melinda Gates, whose foundation with Bill Gates works in some of the poorest places on earth, says, “Let your heart break.” To paraphrase, when you see suffering and injustice, now or in the future, it’s hard to resist turning away. But feeling awful gets the wheels turning, she says. Shared pain builds empathy, which in turn sparks compassion, action, and eventually, change. 

Tip #2: But remember that worry isn’t an action.

It’s okay to feel bad, but let’s also talk about a phenomenon called metacognition—our thoughts about our thoughts. If you’re freaked about climate change, put your brain under audit. Often, there’s a mistaken belief that worry or anxiety equals awareness, involvement, or being ecologically woke. In other words, there’s a misguided idea that if you’re not freaking out, you don’t really care. 

There’s a misguided idea that if you’re not freaking out, you don’t really care.

But this is faulty thinking. Consider this: does worrying about your grade help you pass your exam? Or does studying—in other words, taking action—help you pass your exam? Same principle applies to mitigating climate change—freaking out is neither an action nor a virtue.

Tip #3: Don’t give up on small steps, but don’t rely on them, either.

It may feel like your efforts to remember your reuseable grocery bags and give up eating beef are too little, too late—that no matter what you do, you’re only one in eight billion. When you look at pictures of the California wildfires, recycling that yogurt cup seems laughable. 

But don’t give up on small steps. It’s true that climate change can’t be stopped just by foregoing bananas shipped from Guatemala, but just as climate change was caused bit by bit, it can be mitigated bit by bit. Insert your favorite metaphor here about the longest journey starting with a single step or Rome not being built in a day or rivers wearing through rock. Whatever you choose, it applies. 

Now let’s take it to the next level. While small steps are important, they are not sufficient. Individual behavioral change is helpful, but bigger, structural changes pack way more of a punch. Think about it this way: if you’re trying to save money, skipping the Starbucks and making coffee at home will absolutely help. However, it’s way more effective to change the system—pay off your credit card debt so you don’t waste your money on interest, auto-transfer part of your paycheck into an index fund, and sign up for your company’s retirement match. You get the idea.

Therefore, with climate change, don’t give up on the yogurt cups, but turbocharge your individual changes by leaning on the system. How? Vote. Call your representatives. Push leaders to make structural changes, from local bike lanes to international emissions reductions goals. 

Tip #4: Keep a lid on the zealotry.

Many of us who despair at climate change might focus obsessively on an individual behavior change in order to feel efficacious. But yelling at your coworkers to use less paper, bullying your friends into going vegan, or telling your kids they’re killing sea turtles whenever they throw out a Ziplock bag isn’t helpful to anyone, including your blood pressure. In addition, it’s counterproductive because it eats up all your energy, leaving little for leaning on systems like in Tip #3. 

Therefore, what to do instead? Consider...


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.