There are certainly a lot of things to feel anxious about these days, and now climate anxiety is a new phenomenon that has joined the lineup. Since 2021, there has been a 565% increase in Google searches for the phrase. We don’t need to immediately experience its impacts, or even believe in its existence, for it to have negative mental health effects —such as anger, anxiousness, hopelessness and depression. Yet, little is known about the neurocognitive systems underlying climate change psychology.
Psychology Professors Joshua Carlson and Lin Fang, director and co-director of NMU’s Cognitive x Affective Behavior & Integrative Neuroscience (CABIN) Lab, and a team of students, have been studying this global angst, focusing on the emotional components of climate change, and looking for solutions of how we may not only alleviate the negative impacts, but turn them into positives.
Understandably, what they have found is that the more exposure one has to information about climate change, the more concerned and worried they are. Furthermore, the more anxious someone is, the more they tend to exhibit pro-environmental actions, such as signing petitions, going to rallies and supporting individuals and organizations seeking solutions. There is a tipping point, though, as the highest levels of climate anxiety can lead to “eco-paralysis” or burnout.
“Our current understanding is that 10-27% of individuals experience climate anxiety and 84% are at least moderately worried,” said Carlson. “Younger individuals, females, and those with lower economic status are generally more anxious about climate change.”
With study subjects in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, the CABIN team measured the magnetic properties of blood oxygenation (more oxygen = more brain activity) during a resting state, as well as structural measurements in brain tissues— gray matter and white matter—and cerebral spinal fluid.
The neural correlates of climate anxiety showed up mostly in the midcingulate cortex—which is located along the midline/center of the brain, responsible for salience—threat awareness and response. But they were also present in areas of the brain overseeing emotion, and those affected by other affective disorders such as PTSD or depression.
While they did find some commonality between general anxiety and climate anxiety, there were also marked differences. “Anxiety disorders are typically based on an irrational threat, and treatments challenge the rationality of one’s fears (such as of snakes, spiders or events unlikely to occur).
"But climate anxiety is based on a rational threat. Part of the anxiety comes from the fact that it is so huge, and we are just one person. An individual making an impact is hard to see," Carlson said. “But recent findings suggest that being part of a group seems to be part of the equation. The best way to combat climate change anxiety is still up in the air, but involvement in collective action efforts may help. Because positive stimuli, positive emotions and actions often lead to more of the same.”
Carlson plans to further the study (as does Jon Barch—see previous article) with new equipment the department is acquiring with a $413,000 National Science Foundation award. Two high-density EEG systems with 256 electrodes each (four times as many as their current “head net” equipment) will not only record emitted electrical activity but can also stimulate the brain. NMU will be only one of two universities in the world with this equipment. Carlson plans to look at how neural stimulation or other interventions could lead to pro-environmental behavior. He has also created a database of climate images ranked by evoking positive responses that can be used to more effectively communicate and drive action.