Eco-Grief: Mental Health Support for the Emotional Impact of Climate Change

Gain a better understanding of what eco-grief is and how to manage your mental health related to the climate change crisis.

Grief over the loss of a loved one or a treasured possession is a familiar, and generally challenging, emotion for most people. Every culture has rituals for dealing with the grief caused by literal or emotional loss. Funerary rites, the burning of effigies, and even cathartic nights out after a breakup help humans deal with the inevitable pain of loss. As the effects of climate change impact more and more people, the losses are not just, say, a home destroyed in a wildfire or flood, but the loss of the health of the planet and the stability of our ecological future. 

To learn more about ecological grief (eco-grief) and how it impacts our mental health, we spoke with Cassandra Cornacchia, a Registered Therapist and member of the Inkblot practitioner network.

What is eco-grief?

Eco-grief describes the impact of climate change on mental health: experiencing feelings such as overwhelm, despair, fear, hopelessness, frustration, and sadness, which Cornacchia says "are natural and empathetic responses to the devastation of our world." Eco-grief is a reaction to more than the changes in our physical world. It also encompasses the sadness wrought by the loss of environmental knowledge and the anxiety about anticipated future losses. "Eco-grief," says Cornachia, "can be thought of as pain for the loss of our shared home."

Addressing the intersection of climate change and mental health is relatively new in the therapeutic landscape. For that reason, eco-grief is not a disease recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V). Eco-grief is the therapeutic community's name for an experience observed in patients. "It's becoming recognized as something that's increasingly impacting people around the world," Cornacchia says. "It's quite clear that the world as we know it now is really unwell."

What are the symptoms of eco-grief?

Because eco-grief is not an official diagnosis, there is no standard set of symptoms. Eco-grief can coexist and share symptoms with mental health diagnoses such as anxiety and depression. Cornacchia specifies that eco-grief is characterized by feelings of despair, sadness, a sense of loss, fear, anxiety, and hopelessness that derive specifically from recognizing what is happening to our world. 

“You are feeling the impacts of the harms that are being inflicted on our planet.” For some, anxiety about climate change comes from a sense of powerlessness being an individual in the face of a global problem. In an attempt to soothe that discomfort, people afflicted by eco-grief may choose a maladaptive coping mechanism (e.g. numbing themselves, dissociating, suppressing their emotions, distracting themselves). Many behaviours point toward eco-grief, not just ones that ignore the upsetting news. Over-consuming news about climate change or pushing activism to the point of burnout can also manifest grief about the devastating realities of climate change. As well as a sense of chronic uncertainty regarding the future and the challenges that may be faced. According to Cornacchia,“ eco-grief manifests differently in each person depending on their relationship to the natural world.” 

3 ways to manage feelings related to eco-grief

Coping with eco-grief depends on the specific symptoms you are experiencing. Broadly, the symptoms are either feelings or behaviours, each of which is best treated with a different strategy. Cornacchia recommends a few ways to manage feelings related to eco-grief. 

1. Recognize and validate

“Feeling pain for the world is natural and meaningful because it demonstrates that you truly care about the destruction taking place,” reminds Cornacchia. It is not wrong or strange to have strong feelings about climate change. “Grief and love can be approached as two sides of the same coin.” In this way, the negative emotions that are often suppressed can be conceptualized as positive indicators of the great love we have for our world. Feelings like hopelessness, despair, anger, frustration, and uncertainty are often layered and entangled, with one more prominent than the others; usually the emotion we are most comfortable expressing. Anger may mask despair, and frustration may mask hopelessness or uncertainty. This masking serves a social function, but all too often, we are not even aware of the feelings underneath the feelings. The first step in managing eco-grief is identifying and accepting the emotions it sparks in you.

2. Express, don’t repress 

Once identified, our feelings may still seem overwhelming. It is crucial, says Cornacchia, that you express your emotions. “The problem isn’t the pain — it’s the repression of it.” In order to express your feelings, Cornacchia suggests inviting tools and practices into your life that allow your authentic emotions to surface. These will be different for everyone, but some possibilities are making art (e.g. journaling, painting, singing, etc.), talking with sympathetic friends or a counsellor, or meditation. The key to dealing with them is “finding your path to being with and expressing your pain in a supportive way.”

3. Seek connection

Avoid isolation by reaching out to friends, family, co-workers, or community groups to feel less alone, overwhelmed and isolated. If you're experiencing stress and anxiety related to climate change, you may consider joining or contributing to environmental causes that are significant to you. For example, starting a garden with community members, helping with a local beach clean-up, tree planting, habitat restoration etc. "It is possible for the pain of eco-grief to evolve into compassionate action for our world." However, it's important to be mindful of overextending yourself in this space. Be sure to check in with how it makes you feel as you participate.

How to manage behaviours related to eco-grief

In an attempt to escape from the pain of eco-grief, many people engage in coping mechanisms that ultimately prolong and increase distress. If you are numbing, distracting yourself, or dissociating, try one of the following:

  • Tend to your body’s needs. According to Cornacchia, “caring for the body is a significant foundation for carrying the mind.” Tending to your body’s needs for food, water, and rest can help you fortify yourself in order to begin processing your eco-grief. 
  • Slow down. Accept that the current pace of your life, including how you consume media and information about climate change, could exacerbate your distress. For some people, podcasts and inspiring books or films may soothe feelings of eco-grief, while for others, they may worsen the issue. Take time to observe your relationship to the media you consume.
  • Breathe. Cornacchia suggests breathing in for four counts and exhaling for six as a way to soothe the sympathetic nervous system (which activates the fight, flight, freeze, or fawn response) and engage the calming parasympathetic nervous system.
  • Connect to a natural environment. Regularly spending time in a natural environment can help you find joy in what is still here. Practicing gratitude for the land, particularly by learning and acknowledging the Indigenous history of the land you live on, can help alleviate feelings of dissociation from our shared habitat. 

Inkblot therapy can help support your mental health journey

Everyone needs support at one time or another during their life, which is why accessible and effective therapy matters. Our unique matching survey is one of the many ways Inkblot Therapy offers folks mental health solutions. We'll connect you with providers best suited to your needs by answering questions about your particular concerns. You can match based on your symptoms, stressors, language, religion and much more.

Inkblot Therapy

Cassandra Cornacchia