Every time we open social media or turn on the television, we are bombarded by news of environmental disasters and the many other impacts climate change is having on all aspects of life on Earth. Just focusing on forests, we increasingly read about them being menaced by wildfires, drought, pollution, invasive species, and so on. In this context, it can also be difficult to resist the temptation of doomscrolling and looking for increasingly discouraging news.
This is one of the many ways in which climate change, beyond damaging our planet, is also harming our mental health. The term climate anxiety is now used to describe the negative emotions associated with climate change and other environmental issues. Natural disasters caused by climate change can have negative consequences on the mental health of the people involved in wildfires, floods, etc., but climate anxiety is associated with negative feelings caused by climate change in general and the menace of potential future disasters (Wu et. al, 2020). Young people, moreover, seem to be more susceptible to suffering climate anxiety, but there is still not enough research on the consequences of climate anxiety on young minds (ibid.).
Faced with the enormous scale assumed by the consequences of climate change, it is easy to feel helpless. It can also be very frustrating to consider the huge societal impacts of climate change and the difficulties people and organisations around the world are facing in coordinating and implementing global responses to this phenomenon.
This is particularly concerning: an elevated level of anxiety can correspond to a feeling of hopelessness and impotence, leading to a so-called eco-paralysis. In fact, when anxiety reaches particularly elevated levels, people feel blocked from taking any action (Heeren et al., 2022). This can create a vicious circle: the more people are blocked by these thoughts, the more they feel guilty for not helping to combat climate change, the more they feel paralysed, and so on.
Given that climate anxiety is connected to feelings of uncertainty and loss of control, taking some concrete action is considered the best treatment for this kind of anxiety (Collier, 2022). Online you can find many lists of things you can do in response, requiring varying levels of commitment: changing your habits, participating in environmental organisations and demonstrations, expressing your opinions on climate objectives through voting, and talking about climate-related anxiety with friends (and if necessary, mental health experts) are just some examples of actions you can take in this sense. And if this is not enough, forests can help you!
How can the forests help us? And how can we help them?
Forests themselves, especially in the Mediterranean, are harmed by climate change and other global challenges. Nonetheless, these green spaces maintain the capacity to help us in times of mental stress.
Spending time in contact with nature and forests can improve people’s physical and mental health. In this context, Green Care is a term used to describe a wide range of activities, which include forest bathing and eco-therapy, that improve people’s wellbeing. For instance, a recent study (Muro et al., 2023) has found that forest bathing and – to a lesser extent – hiking in Mediterranean forests can reduce anxiety and improve mental health.
Therefore, when we need to feel like we are doing something for the planet to deal with our climate anxiety, we should consider doing something in and for our forests and other ecosystems, for instance, by visiting these landscapes often and responsibly, buying forest-friendly and sustainably produced forest products, or advocating for policies that take into account the future of forests. And, to take action and not fall into the trap of eco-paralysis, we should always remember to take care of our mental health, with a little bit of extra help from forests and the benefits they offer us.
Sources & additional information
- Collier, S. 2022. If climate change keeps you up at night, here’s how to cope. Harvard Health.
- European Climate Pact. 2023. Anxious about climate change? Here’s what you can do about it.
- Heeren, A., Mouguiama-Daouda, C. & Contreras, A. 2022. On climate anxiety and the threat it may pose to daily life functioning and adaptation: a study among European and African French-speaking participants. Climatic Change 173 (15).
- Muro, A., Mateo, C., Parrado, E. et al. 2023. Forest bathing and hiking benefits for mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mediterranean regions. Eur J Forest Res 142, 415–426.
- Wu, J., Snell, G., & Samji, H. 2020. Climate anxiety in young people: a call to action. The Lancet Planetary Health, 4 (10).