Research Snapshot: Negative emotions about climate change are related to insomnia and mental health

What you need to know

The climate crisis is expected to have negative effects on the mental health of people around the world as climate change awareness, extreme weather and large-scale climatic events increase. In this study, researchers examined how negative climate-related emotions (such as psychological distress, anxiety and worry) relate to sleep and mental health using samples of people living in 25 countries as well as a Norwegian nationally representative sample. The findings show that negative emotions related to climate change were associated with insomnia symptoms and poorer self-rated mental health. The findings stress the need for cross-disciplinary research to understand how negative emotional responses to climate change uniquely affect mental health.

What is this research about?

Climate change anxiety, also known as eco-anxiety, is a chronic fear of ecological doom. It is becoming more common as people are increasingly exposed to the realities of climate change.

Researchers suggest that there will be an increase in negative emotions related to climate change. This is expected to occur even among people who are not directly exposed to climatic events as a result of increased media coverage and public awareness.

Although climate change anxiety is not classified as a mental health disorder, researchers believe that negative emotional responses to environmental problems can significantly affect health and psychological functioning. Researchers also anticipate that such negative emotions may cause problems with sleep, which itself is both a common cause and a symptom of various mental health disorders.

Researchers conducted this study to clarify the relationship between negative climate-related emotions, mental health and sleep in countries around the world.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers conducted two large cross-sectional surveys:

  1. In autumn 2019, a diverse sample of residents of 25 countries in all the inhabited continents were recruited from university research participant pools using opportunity sampling. In non-English speaking countries, the questionnaire was translated into local languages by bilingual speakers using the translation-back-translation method.
  2. In spring 2020, a representative sample of residents of Norway were recruited through a commercial research panel provider.

Survey items measured negative climate-related emotions, insomnia symptoms and self-rated mental health.

The researchers measured negative emotions using a seven-item index based on the state anxiety component of the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory. Participants used a five-point scale to rate how they felt about climate change while filling out the survey (e.g., calm, tense, relaxed, anxious, peaceful, worried and terrified).

Insomnia symptoms were measured with the Bergen Insomnia Scale, which includes questions such as:

Self-rated mental health was measured with a single-item scale adopted from the mental health supplement of the Ontario Health Survey. Participants were instructed to rate their overall mental health on a five-point scale.

To compare Western and non-Western countries, the researchers used the following classification:

What did the researchers find?

In most countries, there was a link between negative climate-related emotions and having insomnia symptoms (72% of the countries). There was also a link between negative climate-related emotions and poorer self-rated mental health (84% of the countries). This suggests that negative emotions about climate change impact mental health at a global level and are linked to poor sleep, a key component of healthy psychological functioning and wellbeing.

Participants from the same country were more likely to have similar insomnia symptoms and self-rated mental health scores than participants from different countries. The link between negative climate-related emotions and insomnia symptoms was similar in Western countries and non-Western countries.

However, the link between negative climate-related emotions and poorer self-rated mental health was slightly stronger in Western countries than non-Western countries.

Females had higher levels of insomnia symptoms and poorer mental health. On the other hand, older respondents had better mental health.

This study is the first to examine the relationship between climate change-related emotions and mental health with cross-national data that looked at a broad range of cultural backgrounds. The findings reinforce an understanding that climate change affects mental health, not only through direct exposure but also through the psychological stressors arising from awareness of the current and future threat.

How can you use this research?

Subjective understanding of what mental health means differs across cultural groups. The researchers suggest that sleep disturbance or insomnia symptoms should be considered a viable and unambiguous cross-culturally diagnostic index for assessing how negative emotional responses to climate change affect mental health.

There is a need for more research to establish how and to what degree negative emotional responses to climate change are affecting people’s mental health across broad cultural and geographical scales.

Research involving experimental and longitudinal designs is needed to understand the direction of this relationship. There is also a continuing need for cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural research on the unique burden of disease that can be attributed to negative climate-related emotions.

About the researchers

Charles Adedayo Ogunbode1,2, Ståle Pallesen3, Gisela Böhm3,4, et al.                                  

  1. School of Psychology, University of Nottingham, University Park Campus, Psychology, Nottingham NG7 2RD, United Kingdom
  2. School of Applied Social Sciences, De Montfort University, Hawthorn Building, The Gateway, Leicester LE1 9BH, United Kingdom
  3. Department of Psychosocial Science, Faculty of Psychology, University of Bergen, Bergen, Norway
  4. Department of Psychology, Inland University of Applied Sciences, Lillehammer, Norway

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