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

Tip #5: Focus on what we’ll gain.

A study out of Cardiff University in Wales found that with some exceptions, framing climate change messages as a gain as opposed to a loss made people feel more positively about climate change mitigation. For example, rather than a loss-framed message of “Urgent: donate now or we lose the polar bears,” a gain-framed message of “Take action: together we can save the polar bears” was more effective. 

Furthermore, gain-framed messaging made people perceive the climate crisis to be more severe, a counterintuitive finding. Why do gain-framed messages work? Perhaps because people can hear them with less fear and more hope.

Therefore, when you talk about climate change, whether to others or as a pep-talk to yourself, think of it as mobilization. It’s tempting to resort to scare tactics and easy to degenerate into nihilism, but to be effective, lean toward hope, community, and gains. 

Tip #6: Get to know your neighbors.

We usually think of disaster preparedness as stocking up on batteries and water. But a more effective strategy may be to build strong connections with your neighbors. Why? Aside from all sorts of physical and mental health benefits conferred by a sense of community and belonging, in a natural disaster, true first responders aren’t necessarily official agencies, but your neighbors.

For example, a study published in the journal Social Science and Medicine examined how communities in the Tohoku region of Japan dealt with the March 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and subsequent meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Researchers found that in communities plagued by low trust and high crime before the crisis, more people died than in neighborhoods with high social cohesion. Essentially, communities with closer ties and higher trust knew ahead of time who was sick, elderly, or otherwise needed a hand, and were able to act quickly in a time of crisis.

Likewise, for residents of Futaba, a town in Fukushima where everyone was evacuated due to radioactive contamination, better mental health after the disaster hung together with high levels of social capital, which was measured by participation in volunteer work and social events after displacement.

Tip #7: Remember humanity is scrappy.

We started the episode with the human tendencies to deny, despair, or double down in times of crisis. Now, let’s take another look at human nature. The bad news is that humans are wired to pay attention to the present, not the future. For all the pleas to think about our children and our grandchildren, climate change won’t get our full attention until it’s in our face. Think how hard it is just to get people to save for retirement, much less save the planet. 

But once a problem is immediate, humanity pays attention. Fortunately or unfortunately, once climate change affects individuals directly, voices become louder and the call for change becomes more insistent.

Finally, a last bit about human nature. Let’s take Hurricane Katrina, one of the first storms that started whispers about the role of climate change. Studies have shown that the storm took a huge toll on mental health, and that even years later, people still struggle with post-traumatic stress, anxiety, and depression. 

But other studies have found remarkable resilience and even something called post-traumatic growth, where the vast majority of respondents indicated that their experiences with Katrina helped them develop a deeper sense of meaning and purpose, led them to realize the extent of their inner strength, and stoked a strong faith in their ability to rebuild their lives. 

To wrap it up, it’s human nature to despair in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. But you don’t have to suffer, toil, or peel yourself off your floor in isolation. When people join together, before, during, and after crisis, despair turns into action.


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 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.