Climate protest on the Zuiderdiep Photo by Mark Vletter, Flickr

Students struggle with eco-anxiety

Depressed by the climate

Climate protest on the Zuiderdiep Photo by Mark Vletter, Flickr
Frustration, stress, guilt: quite a few students are worried about global warming and the lack of action being taken against it. ‘It was like I’d discovered a monster in the dark that other people either couldn’t or refused to see.’
3 May om 9:50 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 15 May 2023
om 9:50 uur.
May 3 at 9:50 AM.
Last modified on May 15, 2023
at 9:50 AM.
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Door Feeke Rensen

3 May om 9:50 uur.
Laatst gewijzigd op 15 May 2023
om 9:50 uur.
Avatar photo

By Feeke Rensen

May 3 at 9:50 AM.
Last modified on May 15, 2023
at 9:50 AM.
Avatar photo

Feeke Rensen

Pavlo Dordiichuk was fifteen years old when he learned about the climate problems at school. During his geography and biology classes, teachers told him about global warming and the decline of biodiversity. ‘I found out how big these problems are and that we have to solve them if we want the earth to remain habitable.’

But in the years after, he realised how hopeless the situation is. ‘It’s not that the problems in the world became bigger, but I started to understand them better. My future started looking bleak.’

Pavlo would spend hours in his room being angry and stressed, frustrated and not comprehending why no one was doing anything. For him, the worst part was that there was no way politicians didn’t know what was going on. So why weren’t they doing something about the situation? It frightened him. ‘It was like I’d discovered a monster in the dark that other people either couldn’t or refused to see.’

The feelings the master student of science and communication was experiencing are called eco-anxiety. According to the American Psychology Association, it’s ‘the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future and that of next generations’. 

It may not be quite the official diagnosis, but many students know exactly what it is. They feel this anxiety every day, and it leads to stress and occasionally insomnia. 


Floor van der Marck, student of global responsibility and leadership, is also worried about the future of our planet. She’s very focused on her role in society and how she can contribute to a more sustainable world. That is not always easy. ‘It really feels like I’m being backed into a corner. All I can think about is how terrible everything is.’

I’ve cancelled fun activities because they weren’t in line with how I wanted to live

She’s constantly struggling with feelings of guilt about her lifestyle and the choices she’s making: should she take a plane to go on holiday or not? ‘I’ve regularly cancelled fun activities because I felt they weren’t in line with how I wanted to live. But at the same time, I also want to enjoy things; it’s important to find a balance.’ 

But the stress is also caused by other things, such as the news or sources she looks into for her studies. ‘The more you know, the more you can get upset at them.’ 

There is one thing that truly confused Pavlo: ‘Society doesn’t seem interested in solving the climate problems. It’s like we’re on The Truman Show. Everything is fake, like we’re living on the set of a television series’, he says. ‘In the meantime, we’re ignoring this monster that’s going to cause problems for all of us, whether we like it or not.’


Valentina Gallo recognises the students’ feelings. As associate professor of epidemiology and sustainably health at Campus Fryslân, she regularly has discussions with students about the climate. During her classes, she talks about the health of both people and the planet. She does this in an effort to raise awareness, but she was shocked to find out it had other consequences, too. ‘I realised students sort of reached a dead end, where they had no hope and saw no way forward’, she says. ‘They just felt doomed.’

That’s the opposite of what she was trying to do. ‘I wanted my students to get angry and get involved, not make them depressed.’

Gallo struggles with these feelings herself sometimes, too, but she manages to deal with them because she feels her research and teaching are a positive force. She realises many students are still trying to figure out how exactly they can make a difference.

There is an intergenerational conflict, she says. Students feel, not unjustly, that they’re made to solve the problems earlier generations have caused. ‘But we can’t get stuck on that. If we keep blaming each other, we all lose.’


Floor eco-anxiety mainly made her feel lonely. Especially when she was just discovering, all at once, everything that was wrong with her world. ‘I didn’t really know how to take action, because I felt like I was the only one who was even willing to do anything’, she says. 

If we keep blaming each other, we all lose

Pavlo knows the feeling. He kept getting into arguments with a good friend of his. While he kept bringing up scientific arguments to get him to understand the situation, his friend ultimately concluded that ‘we can’t know for sure that climate change is happening, and even if it were, we can’t do anything about it anyway’.

But both the students and Gallo say this isn’t true. You can actually take action and take steps to change things, just as you can find ways to deal with your feelings. Gallo tries to actively help her students with this so they can transform their anxiety and confusion into anger, engagement, and activism. 

One time, she introduced her students to a group of twelve-year-olds who’d formed a climate club at their school. The children held a presentation for the students, after which they discussed the future of the planet. ‘That was a real eye-opener for my students’, Gallo says. ‘They realised the important role they could play in educating the younger generation.’


It is important to be aware of the emotional effects of taking action, she says, because coming into contact with a bunch of people who don’t seem to care can be really frustrating. ‘You have to make a choice: is it worth it? You can put in 100 percent and burn out, or you could put in 40 and still have it be a positive experience.’ 

Floor created a safe space where she and her fellow students could discuss their eco-anxiety. They used plants and crafting materials to turn a bare classroom into a place where they could vent their feelings before moving on with their days. ‘It was okay to feel things and share them, but it was also okay to just drop by to get inspired’, says fellow student Joris, who participated in the session. 

Drawing is a great way to express my feelings

There was also room to get creative. ‘I used to draw a lot, but stopped doing it so often because I was busy doing other things. Now, I realise it’s a great way to express my feelings’, says Floor.

Two of her fellow global responsibility and leadership students, Judith Meurs and Quinten Harskamp, created the group chat Eco-hope, organising weekly sessions. Each week, the students discuss a different theme. Occasionally, they invite a psychologist to talk about grieving and loss. ‘That’s different for everyone. That also applies to eco-anxiety’, says Joris. 

‘Just like when you’re grieving, feelings of sadness and joy alternate’, Judith adds. ‘Feeling joy can feel really wrong, but it’s normal to have that mix of feelings.’

Like-minded people

Pavlo found his own way to deal with his anxiety. He’s convinced that change can only be effected by those in charge and doesn’t see any sense in always being stressed out. ‘But I gladly make my voice heard at protests and I always sign petitions.’ 

Floor looks to like-minded people to process her feelings. ‘It gives me the clarity I need to continue with my life.’ She also takes heart in the fact that her choice of study programme means she’ll be able to have more of an impact. 

Gallo has plenty of ideas to tackle her students’ eco-anxiety. However, the minor she wanted to set up to help with this wasn’t approved by the University Committee for Education. It’s frustrating, she says. ‘The UG has acknowledged how important it is for students to learn about the issue, and they know how enthusiastic they are, but then they don’t give lecturers the opportunity to do any teaching on the subject.’