Obsessive compulsive disorder - OCD treatment and therapy from NOCD

How can you cope with climate anxiety? A therapist’s perspective

By Elle Warren

Oct 17, 20238 min read minute read

Reviewed byApril Kilduff, MA, LCPC

With an issue as pressing as climate change, it can feel impossible to balance staying informed with staying hopeful and moderating anxiety. We live in a world with endless access to media and information: social media, television, op-eds, scientific reports. While this is beneficial in many ways, it does mean that we can overindulge in media, either intentionally or not. 

Perhaps you’ve heard the term doom-scrolling. It refers to the act of consuming large quantities of negative, scary information online. When we “doom-scroll,” we know it isn’t making us feel good, and at a certain point isn’t teaching us anything new, either. But it’s hard to stop—the unending “hot takes” and fresh analyses can be alluring for a few different reasons. The more we know, and the more we engage, the more we can enact change. On the other hand, we might keep scrolling in the hopes that we’ll discover new information that will provide new reason for hope. But in reality, doom-scrolling usually just has the effect of making us feel anxious and even depressed.

In college, I minored in environmental studies. I learned a lot about the environment and, specifically, the way humans impact it. As someone with a brain geared to obsessive-compulsive thinking and behavior, I took on a sense of hyper-responsibility. I felt like everything I did, every item I bought, was either environmentally positive or environmentally detrimental. Being in a family member’s home, for example, where they didn’t recycle, used paper plates, and made their coffee from K-cups would send me into a panicky spiral. I’d feel like we were doomed, though nothing had changed from the day before. I also felt animosity toward people who seemed to think they had no responsibility for the environment; it even altered the way I felt about my personal relationships. 

There were a few things I hadn’t quite realized yet: shaming or judging people for not “doing their part” is not an effective way to get them on board with what you believe, and we cannot effectively work to address pressing climate issues if we feel doomed, hopeless, or like the responsibility is ours alone. This leads to apathy, burnout, and—indeed—intense anxiety and depression. So, how can we cope with something that isn’t going away? How do we strike the balance between staying informed and staying sane?

I spoke with April Kilduff, licensed therapist specializing in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) and anxiety disorders, to get her insight on the rising phenomenon of climate anxiety.

What is climate anxiety?

Climate anxiety has seen a meteoric rise in the last few years. In a staggering figure, Google searches for “climate anxiety” increased by 565% in 2021. “Map sea level rise” saw a search increase of 1000%. “What can I do about climate change” saw a 2,600% increase. With an all-time high of 70% of Americans feeling worried about climate change as of 2021, you and I are far from alone in this overwhelming feeling of climate anxiety. 

Researchers at Yale point out the difference between healthy concern and anxiety. Concern, says Anthony Leiserowitz, who has spent more than twenty years surveying Americans’ beliefs and worries about climate change, “is a good and healthy thing because worry as an emotion is a motivator; if you worry about something, you are motivated to figure out what you can do about it.” It becomes a problem, he says, when it’s “overwhelming and debilitating, when it keeps you from living your life.”

If you have anxiety—including climate anxiety—you likely experience extreme distress about the future of the planet and all the living things on it. Like any anxiety disorder, you might also experience physical symptoms of anxiety, including a racing heart, shortness of breath, sweaty palms, and tense muscles. You might get to a point where you try to avoid talk or reminders of environment-related issues. 

You could also experience intrusive thoughts, images, worries, or feelings about future natural disasters, famines, mass extinctions, and other fallouts of climate change. If those intrusive triggers are followed by compulsive behavior or mental actions, you could be experiencing obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) with a focus on climate themes. Those compulsive behaviors or mental actions could look like:

  • Doing excessive research about climate issues, trying to find information that gives you answers or certainty about what will happen in the future
  • Repeatedly asking those around you what they think about climate change to make sure they’re aware of it and are taking action in some way
  • Repeatedly reassuring yourself, “Everything’s going to be okay” or “It’s not too late for things to get better”
  • Avoiding places or activities that might trigger your anxiety, such as restaurants (food waste, water use, disposable items) or plane travel
  • Mentally reviewing your past experiences to look for instances where you did things that were unfavorable to environmental health

Kilduff says she refers to this focus of obsession, and others that concern widespread societal issues, as “social justice OCD”—while not an “official” term, it’s more specific than scrupulosity OCD, a subtype that latches onto one’s moral, ethical, or religious code, convincing the sufferer that they’re never good enough. Kilduff’s been a practicing therapist since 2009 and notes that she’s seen significant increase over the last several years in clients who experience obsessions surrounding social and environmental issues. 

While it’s helpful to have language for our experiences, don’t get too caught up in the exact categorization for your climate anxiety and/or obsession. The same kind of treatment will be effective for both, and a licensed therapist can help you parse through the nuances of your experience.

Should you seek help for climate anxiety?

Kilduff boils the decision down to two words: impairment and distress. If you find that your daily life and functioning is hindered by climate anxiety or OCD symptoms, it’s time to seek help. Is it keeping you up at night? Is it the first thing you think of, with terror, in the morning? Do you avoid activities with loved ones that may be less than ideal for the environment? Are your relationships becoming strained because of how often you bring up climate change or because you are constantly thinking about it rather than being present with people? Are you experiencing feelings of hopelessness, apathy, intense distress, shame, isolation, or other challenging emotions related to climate change? Do you conduct hours of research, trying to “get to the bottom” of or find “the answer” for your fears? 

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, keep reading to learn where you can turn for treatment.

How can you cope with climate anxiety?

Because accepting uncertainty is so crucial to dealing with anxiety about the climate—none of us, including scientists, can predict the future with complete certainty—a type of therapy called exposure and response prevention (ERP) is particularly useful in the treatment of climate anxiety or OCD focused on the climate.

You may wonder: how do therapists approach treatment for someone who is focused on an issue with such magnitude? Kilduff reminds me that although this issue is, indeed, widespread, everyone with OCD and anxiety disorders, experiences these worries as if their magnitude is astronomical. The symptoms always feel pressing and overwhelming. Therefore, climate anxiety, or “social justice OCD,” is treated no differently than other anxieties or obsessions. No matter what, ERP is about learning to accept uncertainty and tolerate discomfort and doubt, allowing you to regain better control of your life.

ERP consists first of planning a hierarchy of exposures, meaning you’ll start small and work your way up to what brings you the most discomfort or distress. You and your ERP-trained therapist will work together to develop a plan that gradually exposes you to your feared triggers. In the other essential component of ERP—response prevention—you’ll practice resisting compulsions or avoidance before, during, and after the exposure. Examples of exposures, according to Kilduff, might include looking at photos of natural disasters, reading articles about climate change, or writing “the world is warming” over and over. You’ll learn tools to help you resist engaging in excessive research, ruminating on your fears, or mentally reviewing anything you’ve ever done to look for areas of “fault,” for example.

It’s important to note with this topic specifically that the goal is not to get you to care less about the climate. Rather, the goal is to promote your ability to cope with it and live a healthy life in accordance with your values. Doing so requires building acceptance and tolerance of uncertainty. This will actually better enable you to care about the climate long-term, rather than becoming burnt out, depressed, or apathetic.

While I still experience climate anxiety from time to time, I’m now able to live with persistent hope and resolve, acknowledging the fact that I cannot know what will happen, nor can I alone control what will happen. I can, however, vote in a way that supports my values, make choices that reduce my negative impact on the environment, write to my local, state, and national officials about changing policy, support organizations and activists who fight against climate change, and educate others in my life about the issues that matter most to me. 

In one of my environmental studies classes in college, we had to read a book called Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re In With Unexpected Resilience & Creative Power by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone. I’d recommend this for anyone experiencing climate anxiety—especially as a complement to treatment with an expert in OCD or anxiety disorders. I’d also recommend staying informed of the positive action being taken against climate change—the “This Week’s Good Climate News” page from the Environmental Defense Fund is a great source. 

Where to turn for help

If you think you may need some help dealing with your climate anxiety, whether it’s related to anxiety or OCD, I recommend that you learn more about ERP therapy with NOCD. NOCD Therapists have been specialty-trained in treating OCD and related conditions like anxiety, and you can access live support groups, support tools between therapy sessions, and track your progress closely as you learn to accept uncertainty, focus on your values, and use your very real concerns to make real change, without feelings over-burdened with anxiety.

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