The effects of climate change have become a lot more real in recent years and a lot of us are either personally being impacted by this or know people who are affected or are generally aware and sensitive to these changes occurring. This can affect our worldview and how we choose to live our life. It causes a turbulent effect for many too.
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What is eco-anxiety?
The term eco-anxiety has emerged recently with a growing number of people starting to notice the effects of climate change around us. Eco-anxiety and climate anxiety are usually used as synonyms of each other.
When the term was first coined, eco-anxiety was described as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. The American Psychology Association (APA) has defined it as “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”. Though it is not officially considered a mental health disorder yet, the psychological impact of eco-anxiety is being recognised and studied by mental health professionals and researchers.
In a large-scale 2021 study on climate anxiety in children and young people, nearly 60% of youth between 16 and 25 years from all over the world said they felt “very worried” about climate change. They also associated negative emotions such as sadness, anxiety, anger, fear, and powerlessness with climate change. Over 45% said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning. Around 75% said that they thought that the future was frightening and 83% felt that people had failed to take care of the planet.
This might be an indication of how widely prevalent eco-anxiety is today because of evident climate change, increasing news coverage of global warming and our changing climate, as well as growing awareness among younger people.
Causes of eco-anxiety
Eco-anxiety does not affect everyone equally but is seen more in children and young people as compared to other age groups. Several factors can contribute to eco-anxiety. These include:
- Experiencing a natural disaster
- Constantly watching the news of climate change and doomscrolling
- Being overly obsessed with your carbon footprint
- Being close to an area or people affected by climate change
People directly affected by climate change, such as those living in areas that have experienced extreme weather events such as wildfires or hurricanes are at an increased risk of mental health issues. People who directly work with environmental agencies and NGOs may also find themselves more prone to eco-anxiety. In the long run, rising temperatures can aggravate mood and anxiety disorders, schizophrenia and vascular dementia, and contribute to suicide rates.
What are the mental and physical symptoms of eco-anxiety?
Worrying about the changing climate and its negative impact on our environment is quite natural. There are a few symptoms that you might see in yourself or someone else experiencing eco-anxiety. The most common mental health effects of eco-anxiety are feeling anxious and fearful about changes in the climate, temperature and weather and their impact on the environment, humans, and animals.
Eco-anxiety can also make people feel guilty and ashamed about their carbon footprint and create a sense of hopelessness. Some others feel traumatised seeing the effects of climate change around them, which also causes anger towards people who may not be taking this change seriously. They might find themselves obsessing over thoughts of the climate crisis. This might give rise to feelings of sadness or ecological grief which is felt in response to “experienced or anticipated losses in the natural world”. These symptoms may cause sleep and dietary changes and drastically impact the mood of a person.
A 2022 study found a link between eco-anxiety and negative mental health outcomes, such as depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia, lower self-rated mental health and functional impairment, especially in women, poorer countries, young people and climate-concerned populations.
When a person’s day-to-day life is impacted and they are not able to concentrate or look after themselves, it could be a sign that they need to seek help from a mental health professional.
Tips on how to deal with eco-anxiety
Much of eco-anxiety comes from a lack of control because we can’t single-handedly change the condition of the planet. Here are a few things we can do to cope with eco-anxiety.
Look after your mental and physical health
Cultivating an optimistic mindset and looking for solutions rather than just focusing on the problem helps lower our levels of anxiety. The mental health platform Wysa offers different self-care exercises that can help with eco-anxiety, such as the ‘manage anxiety’ and ‘beat stress’ tool packs. These evidence-based tools are an excellent way to get extra support on this journey and will help create a safe space for you to feel more in control of your emotions. It is equally important to stay physically active as exercise can help regulate our mood.
See a mental health professional
Seeking help from a professional to help you manage your anxiety if it is severe may be useful and help you build emotional resilience.
Be mindful of the type of news you consume
Take breaks and reduce the time you spend on social media and doomscrolling as it can aggravate your feelings of despair and helplessness. Researching information and getting facts can help us take a holistic view of the situation rather than being influenced by false information.
Even though we may not be able to make a huge difference at an individual level, we can start to be more aware in small ways and make conscious decisions that can help the environment. A 2022 study found that eco-anxiety was also linked to pro-environmental behaviour and climate activism, which may lead to feelings of fulfilment and buffer its impact on Major Depressive Disorder symptoms.
Start adopting sustainable habits and lifestyle changes
Introducing sustainable habits in our daily life can help reduce anxiety and bring a sense of control. This can include steps to reduce your personal carbon footprint such as shifting to renewable energy, using public transport, eating less meat, taking fewer flights, and decreasing food waste.
Reconnect with nature
Spending time in natural and green spaces can improve your overall sense of well-being and reduce feelings of anxiety. This could be in the form of walks, gardening, forest bathing or planting trees and flowers.
Talk to like-minded people
Building a community to help support your cause will bring down the loneliness that you might be feeling. You can consider joining local groups or organisations working on climate change in your region as it can improve your resilience. You can also take the lead in starting a community event or initiative or simply spreading public awareness about climate change among your family, friends and neighbours.
It is also important for adults to support children, adolescents and younger people in their families, by listening to their concerns, educating themselves and coming up with different ways to create sustainable lifestyle changes which can positively impact future generations.
Environmental changes due to the harm done to our natural surroundings are part of our reality today and they have a psychological impact on each one of us. If we all take responsibility for climate change and try to make a difference in small and big ways, we can make positive changes around us. Eco-anxiety is something we can learn to manage and help each other create more awareness about, along with its impact on our physical and mental health.
Commonly asked questions about eco-anxiety
Is eco-anxiety normal?
Researchers say that while climate anxiety is painful, it is a rational and normal response and does not imply mental illness. Anxiety usually alerts us to danger and drives us to seek more information and find solutions. However, since the climate crisis is so complex, eco-anxiety can feel overwhelming.
Who suffers from eco-anxiety?
Anyone and everyone is starting to feel concerned about the climate crisis and the impact it is already having on our health and quality of life. There are specific cohorts like children, younger people, indigenous peoples, those connected to the natural world and those with disabilities that are more vulnerable to eco-anxiety. Parents are concerned about the dark unhealthy world their children will grow up in. According to experts, the climate crisis is impacting the mental health of children and young people as they are worried about their health and future in a world where people in influence are not prioritising the climate crisis.
How does eco-anxiety feel? Can a therapist help you in dealing with eco-anxiety?
Eco-anxiety is real and triggered by real triggers and not imagined ones. It can cause a sense of panic and bring up traumatic memories for those impacted by natural calamities. It also makes people feel isolated, threatened and anxious as there are still many others who seem to be going about their everyday lives as usual. Therapy can help with learning effective and helpful coping skills to cope with eco-anxiety and its psychological impacts. These include relaxation and breathing exercises, and grounding exercises to manage distressing signs and symptoms of anxiety in moments when you feel anxious.
Therapy can also help you value what you have in your life at present and the kind of life you have lived so far. It can also help you identify where your locus of control lies and take concrete steps to manage what you can do to lower the intensity of your anxiety. It will also help you appreciate positive stories of change and realise that there is still hope.
Photo by Liza Summer
Photo by Yan Krukau