Dealing with climate change distress

The reality of climate change is actually very frightening.  The projected environmental impacts of altered global climate patterns will substantially change the natural environments - and the nature and quality of human-made environments - in which most people live everywhere on the globe.  These strong feelings might result from direct fears about climate related weather events affecting us, or vicarious distress about future threats, or about climate change impacts in other places, or even distress in response to the existential threats to civilisation as we know it. 

The following resources contain strategies for looking after yourself when dealing with complex and weighty subject matter like climate change.

Australian Conservation Foundation (2015).  How to cope with stress and distress of climate change.  Audio recording of Susie Burke (APS) and Bronwyn Wauchope (Psychology for a Safe Climate) Dealing with climate change distress.

ACF and APS (2015). Coping with climate change distress tip sheet.

ACF and APS (2015). Dealing with burnout tip sheet.

Albrecht, G. (2012).  The age of solastalgia. The Conversation, August 2012.

Climate of emotion - despair and hope (podcast)  NEW

Cox, L.  (2011). How do we keep going? Activist burnout and personal sustainability in social movements.

Doherty, Thomas.  APS Gold Coast 2015 conference presentation on Psychology and Climate Change, and Thomas Doherty speaking on personal sustainability

Harre, N. (2011). Psychology for a Better World: Strategies to Inspire Sustainability. Book available at:

Macy, Joanna. Active hope: How to face the mess we are in without going crazy, New World Library, 2012.

Macy, J. & C. Johnstone (2012). Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We're in Without Going Crazy. Navato, CA: New World Library.

Moser, S. (2012). Getting real about it: Navigating the psychological and social demands of a world in distress. In: Sage Handbook on Environmental Leadership, Rigling Gallagher, Deborah, Richard N. L. Andrews, and Norman L. Christensen eds.

Murphy, S. (2013). Minding the earth, mending the world. Picador, Sydney.

Neff, K. (2011). Self-Compassion. William Morrow.

Pipher, M. (2013). The Green Boat: Reviving Ourselves in Our Capsized Culture. New York: Riverhead Books.

Plan to Thrive: Collaborative blog project to encourage and support the health and wellbeing of people and groups engaged in working for social and ecological justice.

Randell, R (2009). Loss and climate change: The cost of parallel narratives, Ecopsychology, 1, 3, 118–129.

Randell, R. (2012). Questioning behavioural, cognitive and social psychology approaches to understanding the response to climate change, Engaging with Climate Change: Psychoanalytic and Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Ed. S. Weitrobe, Routledge.

Roberts, D. (2013). Hope and fellowship. Grist Magazine, blog, 30 Aug 2013. Available at:

Seligman, M. (2011).  Flourish.  Simon & Schuster.

Sivilli, T.I. & Pace, W.W. (2014).  The Human Dimensions of Resilience: A Theory of Contemplative Practices and Resilience. The Garrison Institute, Inc.

Stoknes, P. (2015a).  The Coming Climate Disruptions: Are You Hopeful? Psychology Today, April 6, 2015.


Adaptation and coping

Psychologists and other social scientists have contributed to a crucial body of work on how people are coping and psychologically adapting to climate change. Psychological adaptation includes: how people perceive and understand the problems (see section on ‘how the public understands climate change’), how they react emotionally, how they decide what to do, and how they behave in response to the problems.

There’s quite a bit of research around in the social science world into climate change coping strategies.  These studies start from the view that climate change is an environmental stressor.  Unlike other stressors which are often personal, (like illness, or an accident, or unemployment), climate change is more universally experienced, chronic, in many ways intangible, but still quite an extreme stressor.  

Alongside physical and structural adjustment to environmental changes, adaptation also includes a range of coping actions that individuals and communities may take in response to environmental threats, as well as psychological processes that both precede and follow behavioural responses.

Climate change coping strategies have been conceptualised in multiple ways, loosely grouped below into adaptive and maladaptive strategies: 


  • mitigation behaviours (taking environmentally responsible actions is a potent way to manage and reduce the anxiety)
  • adopting a problem-solving attitude
  • (positive) cognitive re-structuring or reframing
  • social support-seeking
  • becoming more attentive to the issue
  • accepting climate change as a threat
  • shifting values to a more “pro-environmental” position
  • expressive coping


  • avoidance/denial (e.g. restrict exposure to information)
  • diversionary tactics
  • unrealistic optimism
  • wishful thinking
  • resignation


Bradley, G.L., Reser, J.P., Glendon, AI. (2014) Distress and coping response to climate change. In K. Kaniasty, K.A. Moore, S. Howard, & P. Buchwald (Eds) Stress and anxiety: Applications to social and environmental threats, psychological well-being, occupational challenges, and developmental psychology climate change (pp 33-42). Berlin, Germany: Logos Verlag.

Building resilience in rural communities toolkit. This toolkit provides ideas and information that can in new or existing social programs or workshops to enhance people's resilience.

Reser, J.P., Swim, J.K. (2011). Adapting to and coping with the threat and impacts of climate change. American Psychologist, 66, 4, 277-289.

Reser, J.P., Bradley, G.L. & Ellul, M.C. (2012) Coping with climate change: Bringing psychology in from the cold. In B. Molinelli & V. Grimaldo (Eds) Handbook of the psychology of coping (pp 1-34). New York: Nova Science Publishers.

Reser, J.P., Morrissey, S.A. & Ellul, M. (2011) The threat of climate change: Psychological response, adaptation, and impacts. In I. Weissbecker (2011) (Ed) Climate change and human well being (pp 19-42). International and Cultural Psychology Series. New York: Springer Publications.

Eckersley, R. (2008). Nihilism, fundamentalism, or activism: Three responses to fears of the apocalypse. The Futurist, 42,1, 35-39.

Is This How You Feel?

"Is this how you feel?" is a project curated by science communicator Joe Duggan.  He asked climate scientists and others to write hand-written letters saying how they feel about climate change.  Since the beginning of his project, hundreds of other people have also written letters decribing their feelings about climate change.

Is This How You Feel project.

A selection of ITHYF letters written by psychologists and their colleagues were shown during the APS annual conference at the Gold Coast in October 2015. Talking about how we feel about climate change is an important part of being able to properly accept the reality of the threat and then be able to do something about it.