Climate change is a reality and a threat to the future of life on earth. This fact can cause psychological impacts on people, a phenomenon we now describe as “eco-anxiety” - the chronic fear of environmental doom.
The American Psychology Association describes eco-anxiety 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.”
As natural disasters have become increasingly extreme and frequent, such as the recent intense heatwave in China or the flooding of Pakistan, it has caused many people to suffer from eco-anxiety without even knowing what it is.
Although eco-anxiety is not yet considered a diagnosable condition, recognition of the condition and its psychological effects is increasing, as is the “disproportionate” impact on children and young people.
In an article featured in the British Medical Journal, a 2020 survey of child psychiatrists in England stated that more than half (57%) are seeing children and young people distressed about the climate crisis and the state of the planet.
SO, WHAT IS THE CAUSE OF ECO-ANXIETY?
Well, the proliferation of extreme weather events (heat waves, fires, cyclones, typhoons, earthquakes, tidal waves etc), the increase in pollution and its impact on health, the overexploitation of natural resources, the loss of biodiversity, water stress and water shortages, deforestation, and rising sea levels, among others….All of these are major noticeable environmental problems associated with climate change.
This is understandably a LOT for people to take in, and experts say that as climate issues grow, so will the number of those who experience eco-anxiety. In fact, one of the pioneering reports on the psychological impact of climate change already warned that public concern was growing.
What may intensify this anxiety for some, is the feeling that nobody is doing anything to solve the problem at hand. It may feel like no one cares or that you’re ‘talking to a brick wall’ when urging people to use a metal straw or join you in the climate march. It can be an isolating feeling, being the only one in your social circle who is anxious & fighting for change. But, you aren’t a party pooper, the party is over - And if you are experiencing eco-anxiety, YOU ARE NOT ALONE in this feeling.
HOW DOES ECO-ANXIETY AFFECT PEOPLE?
Anxiety about climate change does not affect everyone equally, in fact, it tends to be more prevalent among people who are more aware and involved in the protection of the environment - which I’m guessing, as you have clicked on this blog, may include you!
The symptoms include slight cases of anxiety, nervousness, stress, sleep disturbances etc. In more severe cases, eco-anxiety can cause a sensation of suffocation or even depression. It is also common for people to experience a strong sense of guilt about the state of the planet, which can be heightened among those who have children when thinking of their future.
If you are deeply concerned about the state of your planet, to the extent that your anxieties are affecting your life, you have plenty of company. Recent surveys of young people have found that 45% say negative feelings about climate change are impacting their daily life or functioning.
The leading researcher in eco-anxiety and climate psychology Dr Caroline Hickman has had much experience helping people cope with all forms of eco-anxiety. She and others state there are several helpful ways to lessen the burden of climate-related stress so that people can move forward with their lives and contribute in positive ways to help fight climate change.
We are happy to share her tips with you today!
THERE ARE SOLUTIONS FOR OVERCOMING ECO-ANXIETY!
When it comes to general anxiety disorders, a person’s fear or worry is often far greater than the actual threat, however, when it comes to eco-anxiety, these rules don’t apply as easily.
“In other types of anxiety, the anxiety response is seen as disproportionate to the situation,” says Liza Jachens, PhD, a psychologist and lecturer at Webster University in Geneva, Switzerland. “But for eco-anxiety, it may be argued to be a normal and rational response to a real climate emergency.”
Hickman agrees. “We’re not going to reduce a person’s anxiety by telling them this isn’t terrifying, because that’s a lie,” she says.
Rather than attempting to minimise someone’s feelings or concerns, Hickman states that it’s more helpful to embrace these emotions in a way that makes them less disruptive and more manageable. Practising mindfulness is perfect for this; meditating, journaling, focusing on the breath and allowing yourself to feel these emotions in order to move forward in a positive way.
As a society, we once consumed world news a few times a day at most: maybe via reading the morning paper or watching the evening news. Yet now, with the prevalence of social media, we are receiving distressing news updates all day long.
Of course, it is understandable to want to stay updated, however, if the news is making you anxious, we highly recommend setting limits for news consumption. This could look like unfollowing news outlets on social media, and/or setting time out each day to check in on the news.
The trouble is that once you find yourself going down a News’ rabbit hole, it can be difficult to break away. Some people find it helpful to set a timer to regulate the amount of intake.
Consider taking helpful steps like disabling or removing the news alerts on your phone. If you’re interested in the news, you’ll check the latest stories regardless of whether you receive a notification.
And if you “love” receiving breaking news notifications, ask yourself why. Unless you’re a journalist or a politician, it’s unlikely that you need to constantly be alerted of breaking news.
Anxiety is often closely wrapped up with feelings of uncertainty or a lack of control. Getting involved in the fight against climate change is a great way to alleviate these emotions. Many people find it helpful to take action — to be a part of the change that needs to happen.
Hickman endorses this advice. “Don’t just passively accept the situation,” she says. “Channelling anxiety into action can have a transformational effect.”
Getting involved could mean becoming politically active, or volunteering in local efforts to combat climate change. You could also find work with nonprofits that are working against global warming. Any of these endeavours could be helpful in removing the feelings of helplessness that fuel eco-anxiety, she says.
Even taking action from home by committing to responsible consumption, recycling, reducing your plastic usage, setting up a garden, composting, consuming sustainable food and taking public transport wherever possible are all great ways to be a part of the solution.
Interacting with like-minded people — people like you who are deeply upset about climate change or human inaction — can reduce feelings of loneliness or isolation, which can be therapeutic.
An adjunct professor of environmental theology at the University of Helsinki in Finland, Dr Pihkala, seconds this advice. “You’re not alone,” Dr Pihkala says. “Don’t remain alone.” Online or in-person meetups, sometimes called “climate cafes,” can be helpful. Check out the Climate Psychology Alliance’s Climate Café Online list to locate a gathering you can take part in. These gatherings can allow you to take action as a group rather than on your own. We’re stronger together!
Getting out and being with the thing you’re worried about — that is, the natural world — can also be therapeutic. “Interventions focused on connecting with nature are helpful in the healing process,” says Liza Jachens, a psychologist and lecturer at Webster University in Geneva, Switzerland.
Some research has found that going for walks in nature (without technology), or meditating in nature, can be beneficial for people with eco-anxiety. Gardening, planting trees, or other activities that foster a sense of connectedness with the natural world can also be helpful.
TO KEEP IN MIND!
The big takeaway here is that there are ways to manage your eco-anxiety, channel it in positive directions and most of all, take action to combat climate change!
“Out of trauma there’s this transformational possibility, where you live your life more fully and you don’t passively accept the situation,” Hickman says.
We hope this blog has empowered you to not let the worries of the world take over your mind, and given you the tools to take back your peace by acting against climate change, on your own level. Remember : Every small act can have a big impact! It’s worth it.