Supporting pupils with eco-anxiety

How can we help pupils with feelings of worry, helplessness, and fear of climate change and what lies ahead? Lisa Griffin discusses ways to build resilience and turn anxiety into action

Author details

Lisa Griffin is content lead at Optimus Education, focusing on leadership and governance. 

Eco-anxiety has been defined by the American Psychological Association as ‘a chronic fear of environmental doom’. It may come with ‘feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration’, as sufferers feel they are unable to stop the climate crisis.

Although not a diagnosable condition, levels of eco-anxiety are growing, particularly among children and young people. Like other types of anxiety disorders, the feelings of unease, worry or fear can be mild or severe.

Why do we feel eco-anxiety?

  • Constantly reading or watching media related to the climate crisis.
  • Experiencing an ecological event, like a drought or a flood.
  • Living in a climate-affected area.
  • Being told that your personal carbon footprint is responsible for the climate crisis.

Everyone has feelings of anxiety at some point in their life and the feelings of unease and anxiety about the dangers of the climate crisis are a natural human reaction to an uncertain future. These feelings are a sign that we are aware of the crisis, and that we care. 

Talk to your pupils

Ask your pupils what they are feeling. You’ll need to understand their worries, concerns and anxieties before you can address them and help pupils deal with them.

Be honest with young people about the facts around climate change and offer them the emotional support and tools to deal with this information. Don’t just talk doom and gloom, make space for children and young people to talk about how these issues make them feel.

If a child asks questions about climate change, first find out what they have learned about the topic. This will help determine if they have been reading sensationalised headlines, listening to others’ conversations, or focusing on something at school. Tell your pupil it’s a great question and the feelings of unease are a natural reaction to caring about the planet and its future. 

It isn’t up to you to solve the climate crisis and your pupils aren’t expecting that. But you can reframe challenges in a positive and proactive way, help students recognise and manage their feelings, and build their optimism for what lies ahead.

Build resilience

We want to help nurture a generation of healthy, happy young people ready to take on the challenges of life and work in the modern world. To do this, they will need to be emotionally resilient.

Encourage pupils to recognise and express how they are feeling. Emotional literacy can help students improve their self-awareness, build resilience, and provide a foundation for emotional regulation. Below are some suggestions for supporting resilience in the classroom.

  • Realise that not all pupils will have the same level of resilience.
  • Build emotional resilience by encouraging your learners to recognise their achievements, no matter how small.
  • Include mindful, presence-bringing activities into your lesson. Help pupils notice when they feel good, what that feels like, when they don’t and provide tools for them to help themselves.
  • Allow pupils to experience and learn from failures in a safe environment.
  • Provide high quality feedback that focuses on strategies and next steps.

Turn anxiety into action

Anxiety can be a great motivator for action. Finding ways to participate in problem-solving in relation to the climate crisis can help to alleviate distress by looking at the positive side of things, rather than the negative.

One of the symptoms of eco-anxiety is the feeling of helplessness that no matter what we do we can’t make enough of a difference. Every time we take action we fight against the feeling of powerlessness.

Collective action is recommended as well as individual action, to avoid pupils feeling helpless by the limits of what they can do alone. Help pupils:

  • source the best and most reliable information on climate mitigation and adaptation
  • access information on how they can connect more strongly with nature
  • contribute to greener choices at an individual level
  • join forces with like-minded communities and groups.

Some of the reasons for feeling eco anxiety, such as living in an area impacted by climate change, are beyond our control and must be seen in that way. Others, however, can improve if we make climate-friendly choices.

Give pupils a sense of perspective and talk to them about what they already do or could easily start doing to help the planet, such as the below.

  • Eat less meat and animal products.
  • Walk or cycle where possible.
  • Wash clothes on a lower temperature and fill the machine.
  • Use refillable bottles.
  • Recycle and reuse everything you can.
  • Upcycle before buying.

Focus on the good

The connection between climate change and mental health and the feelings of nervousness and anxiety about the unknown are a perfectly natural human reaction and we must learn to deal with them the best we can. Address these feelings with children and young people and help them find a balance between acknowledging the climate crisis without letting it become overwhelming.

Encourage them to focus on the good things being done in the world and the positive actions they can take to make a change. Turning anxiety into positive action will not only help them deal with stresses caused by the climate crisis, but also future stresses that will come their way throughout their lives.

Last Updated: 
14 Mar 2023