Feeling anxious about climate change is awful. But for those of us with kids, thinking about the climate crisis is especially intolerable. It doesn’t take much math for me to figure out that my toddler is going to be incredibly impacted by climate change. A recent study showed that the average 6-year-old will live through roughly three times as many climate disasters as their grandparents. Unicef reported that nearly every child in the world is at risk from at least one climate hazard.

If you’re a parent and you’re reading this, you’re probably feeling some tightness in your chest right now. Maybe your pulse is getting faster and your breathing is getting shallow. Elizabeth Bechard, author of Parenting in a Changing Climate, explains her reaction to dire climate news like this: “My body tends to sort of tense up and I feel that ‘I’m gonna grow up’ feeling.”

Why Climate Anxiety Is Especially Bad for Parents

Our brains are biologically adapted to get very, very stressed when we sense that our children’s safety is threatened. Instantly after we sense a potential danger, our body draws resources away from functions that aren’t needed for survival (like our digestive system) and puts those resources toward survival functions. Our pupils dilate so we can see more clearly, our heart rate and blood flow increases so we can run faster, and the part of our brain that handles our survival—the amygdala—takes control while the part of our brain responsible for thinking and logic and reasoning—our neocortex —takes the back seat.

If you were staring at a car barreling toward your child, all of this would be good. Your brain and body would be primed to pull your child to safety, before you even were consciously aware of the threat. Then, once the threat was resolved, you would eventually return to a regulated state and be able to think clearly again. But if you’re staring at a screen reading a scary headline about climate change, or lying in bed at night wondering about your child’s future, this animalistic stress response isn’t so helpful. In her book, Bechard describes her first experiences with climate anxiety as “a flood of anxiety and grief that I couldn’t shake, and couldn’t look away from. Panicked, dread-filled visions of future apocalypse looped on repeat in my mind.” Our biological stress response is also meant to be instantaneous, to help us through a moment in time, not ongoing for days, months, or years. In fact, when we’re in a continuous state of stress arousal, we start to suffer physically and mentally.

Part of what makes the stress response so effective—the switching on of the survival brain and switching off of the thinking brain—is also what makes it so counterproductive when it comes to thinking about climate change. Because while the climate emergency might feel a lot like a car barreling toward your child, it’s actually quite different. It’s an enormous problem, full of things that our survival brain isn’t great at processing, like future risk, complex variables that are out of our control, and the scientific uncertainty of what we can and should do about it. And since our stress response happens very fast—so fast that we often aren’t aware of what we’re doing until after—it makes it extra challenging to show up to the climate crisis with the thoughtful, calm mindset that such a complex issue requires.

This is probably a good time to note that parents are also really, really overwhelmed people. They’re often sleep deprived, emotionally stressed, hormonally imbalanced, and totally overstimulated. As Bechard points out, “Climate change is an overwhelming existential threat that can’t be easily put on your to-do list, which is already full anyways.” It’s no wonder that most parents grapple either with ongoing anxiety like the type Bechard experienced or a kind of cognitive denial wherein their nervous systems and brains are like, la la la it’s probably not that bad, I’ll read about it when my kid is in college.