Climate change affects the anxiety levels of the earth's inhabitants, experts say. In a joint report from the American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica, psychologists, scientists, and environmental activists alike discuss the long-term effects climate change will have on the population. Their evidence was based on statistics from other natural disasters.

A close examination of the psychological health of people who lost something in a natural disaster reveals disturbing data. In a 2009 study, participants' mental health concerns (panic attacks, low motivation, difficulty sleeping, and obsessive behavior) did not decrease when the flood waters went away.

"Our motivation is to get people to think about climate change in a way they aren't," said study co-author and professor of psychology at the College of Wooster, Susan Clayton. "We're not presenting something new so much as something people have not been paying attention to."

Along with laying out the statistics concerning mental health and climate change, the authors of this report make suggestions on how to soothe public panic as the effects of climate change increase.

The Report

The authors of this report compiled information from much of the existing data pertaining to mental health and climate change. These individual studies all added up to one conclusion concerning anxiety after a natural disaster. “The initial acute trauma of the disaster is often replaced with a set of long-term psychological stressors," said the authors of the study. In other words, the trauma of a natural disaster often causes increased anxiety disorders in those affected. An increase in anxiety disorders will accompany an increase in natural disasters caused by climate change.

But anxiety is not the only mental health problem that accompanies natural disasters caused by climate change. Other concerns include:

  • Shock
  • Depression
  • Complicated grief
  • PTSD
  • Major depressive disorder
  • Substance abuse
  • Sense of loss
  • Resignation, hopelessness, and fatalism
  • Loss of autonomy
  • Loss of personal and occupational identity

Some groups are more vulnerable to these effects than others. For example, children and older adults are more dependent on others for care, so they are more vulnerable to the psychological impacts of a disaster. Women, too, are at greater risk for mental health concerns, including anxiety disorders like PTSD.

Violence also increases during and after natural disasters. One 2008 study found that domestic violence increases after many natural disasters. Other forms of violence also increase due to competition for resources, looser restraints on crime, and increased temperatures (which increase aggression).

How to Help

Other than making small changes to slow down climate change (taking short showers, recycling, and composting to name a few), the authors include several tips to strengthen communities as they respond to climate change:

  1. Strengthen community networks
  2. Involve and inform the community
  3. Encourage the community to incorporate mental health into disaster preparedness efforts
  4. Develop trusted and action-focused warning systems
  5. Pay extra attention to vulnerable populations
  6. Work towards creating a sense of safety, calm, and hope
  7. Foster optimism
  8. Be sensitive to the needs of displaced people
  9. Boost the infrastructure to mediate psychological effects

Though a natural disaster might not occur in your area for some time, climate change is happening right now. It's important to prepare yourself mentally as well as physically for a disaster so the effects are not long-lasting.

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Susan Clayton, Christie Manning, and Caroline Hodge. Beyond Storms & Droughts: The Psychological Impacts of Climate Change. American Psychological Association and ecoAmerica, 2014.

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