Paths to Action: Acknowledging and Addressing Eco-Anxiety in the Classroom

By Megan Litke, Angela Geosits, and Erika Hart

“Eco-anxiety” or “climate anxiety” are increasingly common buzzwords when we discuss sustainability and climate action. Across the United States and at American University, young people are worried about climate change and environmental issues and their impact on their future. The Sine Institute found that a healthy environment is the number one thing young Americans think elected leaders should focus on, with 75% of respondents saying it should be one of the top priorities or a high priority (Sine Institute, 2022). A survey conducted by the Office of Sustainability in Fall 2023 showed that 81% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that they have a responsibility to live sustainably, but only 66% agreed or strongly agreed that their actions have an impact on campus.

This disconnect between knowing something needs to be done but feeling unempowered is a factor in developing eco-anxiety.

A recent New York Times article about climate anxiety covered how therapists are navigating this topic with patients and across the field. The article pointed out that the feelings are completely valid, rooted in science, and are not a pathology, but with society pushing for us to ignore the elephant in the room, individuals often feel isolated and helpless (Jarvis, 2023). The Yale Program on Climate Change Communications confirms this perception of isolation with data that shows that 65% of American adults are worried about global warming but only 35% of adults discuss global warming at least occasionally (Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2021 – Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 2023).

A growing body of research suggests that climate action, any activity that aims to reduce climate change and its effects, is an antidote to climate anxiety and that it is more effective when climate action is taken in community rather than as an individual (Kristoffersen, 2022). Apathy and avoidance as responses to climate change stem from helplessness and fear. As educators, we can use the classroom to combat both by providing information and paths for action. Classroom discussions that embrace the complex nature of the problem, inform participants of solutions that exist, and empower students to seek opportunities to engage beyond the classroom can help students navigate and transform their own anxieties while also giving faculty the platform to manage our own anxieties.

Empowering Action from the Classroom

In Angela Geosits’s complex problems seminar titled “Clothed In-Justice,” she navigates the intersection of fast fashion, environmental justice, and consumer awareness with her students. As she discusses this expansive and complex problem, she offers her students information about how they can address these issues to avoid allowing the complexity to lead to apathy. Students learn the role of advocacy in systemic change and also learn about the doors that learning to mend our clothes can open to bring our own creativity into solutions. She has received verbal appreciation and sees significant active participation when actionable solutions are brought into the discussion.

Providing paths to action and potential solutions in our classes helps to build our students’ confidence in their own and in our collective ability to solve big problems.

Psychology Professor Erica Hart empowers students in her Social Psychology class to identify ways to use psychological theories to create solutions to combat climate change. After discussing how researchers approach attitude change, she has students identify a specific behavior to target that could impact their community, and collaboratively brainstorm ways to create attitude and behavioral change. This project demonstrates ways students can make a difference by putting social psychology concepts into practice through a persuasive messaging campaign.  Students creatively propose small changes as well as ambitious projects that could be implemented on campus.

Hart knows the climate crisis is overwhelming. As a therapist, she works with many clients who are anxious about what is happening to the planet. “It is often challenging because I share many of these worries. It is easy to feel a lack of optimism about the future of our world, but we need to cultivate hope and a sense of agency to continue to work on these issues. My aim is to help clients find their resilience and take actionable steps in their community and within the political system to slow down the progression of climate destruction. Similarly, in class, I hope students learn the many real-world applications of course content and appreciate ways they can use these to make positive changes. By doing this, we can maintain hope and continue to be better stewards of our environment.”

Emotions that Lead to Learning

Our classrooms provide a unique opportunity to demonstrate to students that they are not alone in their feelings and that collectively we can take action, make progress, and build community. Geosits says there is “Power in the classroom space to collectively work through issues that touch deep emotions.”

We know the classroom cannot be for therapy, but we can acknowledge emotion in that space and that can lead to deeper learning.

We invite instructors at AU to look for more ways to leverage the complex emotions of climate anxiety to enable deep learning and inspire climate action.

Suggestions for Further Reading

Jarvis, B. (2023, October 21). Climate Change is Keeping Therapists Up at Night. The New York Times Magazine. Retrieved October 31, 2023, from

Kristoffersen, M. (2022, March 2). Collective action helps young adults deal with climate change anxiety. Yale School of Public Health.

Sine Institute. (2022). Polling project. American University.

Yale Climate Opinion Maps 2021 – Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. (2023, May 18). Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.


Megan Litke is Director of Sustainability at American University.

Angela Geosits is a Professorial Lecturer in the Writing Studies Program.

Erica Hart is a Professional Lecturer in the Department of Psychology and also practices psychotherapy.