MINNEAPOLIS/ST. PAUL (4/18/2024) — Hazy skies, flooding and the effects of other extreme weather events can negatively impact our mental health and well-being. According to the World Health Organization, climate change provokes both immediate mental health issues — like anxiety and post-traumatic stress — and long-term disorders caused by factors like displacement.

Kristi White, PhD, ABPP with the University of Minnesota Medical School and M Health Fairview speaks about the mental health impacts of climate change, common triggers and how to cope with this type of anxiety.

Q: How does climate change impact our mental health?

Dr. White: The mental health impacts of climate change vary widely across individuals and depend on our history, context and lived experiences. It is also important to know that feeling stressed about climate change is appropriate. We are supposed to feel distressed when something distressing is happening, and the severity of the reaction can range from mild to impairing. Other impacts can include symptoms of anxiety, depression, trauma/PTSD, helplessness, difficulty with making future-oriented decisions and sleep disruption. Some people may experience a sense of existential distress and grief — sometimes called solastalgia — with a loss of the surrounding environment, land or habitats that they are deeply connected to. Others may experience psychological distress associated with forced displacement or feelings of burnout associated with persistent, unrelenting exposure to ecological decline. 

Q: What are some drivers for this anxiety?

Dr. White: There are many potential triggers for climate or eco-anxiety. For people with certain medical conditions, an extreme weather event can be very anxiety-provoking. Last summer in Minnesota, I saw many patients who were experiencing eco-anxiety because it was not safe for them to spend time outside because of heat waves or wildfire smoke due to their health conditions. Experiencing any environmental or climate-related event with direct impact — from forced displacement to witnessing the loss of biodiversity and habitats — can trigger eco-anxiety. Increased awareness of the climate crisis and overconsumption of media that frames climate change with hopelessness can be major triggers, even for people who have not directly experienced climate change's impacts.

Q: Are certain communities more vulnerable?

Dr. White: Yes, those of us in the climate and health space often think about three factors that disproportionately impact certain communities and make them more vulnerable to climate change-related health risks: 

  • Exposure. For example, living in a neighborhood that has a freeway built through it, exposing residents to carcinogens and pollutants more frequently.
  • Sensitivity. This includes those with health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease and lung conditions, that make them more prone to experiencing the impacts of the exposures.
  • Adaptive capacity. Being able to access resources that allow you to adjust to environmental changes plays a role in vulnerability. 

Discriminatory and unjust policies and practices, systemic racism and economic inequality have put Black, Indigenous, some Communities of Color and low income communities at greater risk of the mental and physical health impacts of climate change. Some of these policies and practices have also placed children, older adults and those with physical and mental health conditions at greater risk.

Q: How can people cope with climate-related distress?

Dr. White: Ultimately, this comes down to caring for ourselves and each other. One of the most important things we can do to cope with climate-related distress is build community and engage in collective action toward environmental stewardship. We are more resilient together, and our chances of adapting and surviving are greater when we are connected. It is also important to learn how to face difficult emotions and manage them effectively. While avoidance and denial can feel tempting, avoidance-based coping can make things worse, and certainly won’t help us address climate change. Other self-care habits like healthy eating, movement, getting sufficient sleep and setting healthy limits on media consumption can help us manage climate distress. If you are struggling, reach out for mental health support and consider psychotherapy. Seek emergency care immediately if you are experiencing a mental health crisis. 

Q: How has research on climate change and health impacted your practice? 

Dr. White: My academic training focused on the stress-health relationship, and this guides my work as a clinical health psychologist. There is very clear research about the health consequences of climate change, with climate change viewed as a very specific type of stressor, so I work to incorporate this science into what I call “climate aware clinical practice.” There are lots of ways this can come into play in my work with patients, and I focus on tailoring treatment to each person’s unique needs. For example, sometimes I help patients find ways of connecting with nature to manage their stress because research has shown that contact with pleasant natural environments has mental and physical health benefits. I might also help patients with diabetes manage their stress by helping them prepare for an upcoming heatwave to avoid the increased risk of heat-related illness associated with their medical condition. 


Dr. Kristi White is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota Medical School and a board certified clinical health psychologist with M Health Fairview. Her research interests include the health impacts of climate change, stress-reducing and health-promoting effects of restorative natural environments and the role of environmental sustainability in human well-being. 


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