An increasing number of people are experiencing eco-anxiety. Also known as climate anxiety, climate change anxiety, or environmental anxiety, it is characterized by intense bouts of anxiety or worry about environmental issues. Some experience overwhelming feelings of anger, fear, and/or helplessness, coupled with debilitating stress and anxiety.
If this sounds at all familiar, you may also be experiencing eco-anxiety.
So, in this article, we’ll be exploring just why eco-anxiety might be on the rise, what it is exactly, and what those of us who suffer from it can do to cope.
Why Eco-Anxiety Is on the Rise?
According to the Guardian, many psychologists are reporting a growing number of patients expressing distress over concerns about environmental problems and the state of our planet.
This trend appears to be getting worse as the headlines surrounding climate change and our shared future on the planet become more and more alarming.
The sheer scale of the problem and the apocalyptic nature of the news surrounding climate change is also uniquely crippling, especially knowing our actions alone cannot solve the whole problem.
Coupled with the age of social media, a 24-hour news cycle, and the immediacy of the internet, it is not surprising that eco-anxiety would be on the rise.
According to France24, the current rise in eco-anxiety can also be attributed to an individual’s anticipation of a bleak future.
What is eco-anxiety?
The American Psychological Association (APA), has recognized the mental health impacts of climate change as a significant source of stress for individuals and communities, and officially defined eco-anxiety as a "chronic fear of environmental doom".
Generally, people with eco-anxiety tend to experience constant or temporarily overwhelming anxiety or fear, triggered by their concerns about the impacts of climate change, global ecological disaster or specific climate events.
While it is neither a clinical diagnosis nor a disorder, eco-anxiety can have a considerable impact on the psyche where we fear that our survival may be at risk. This makes it an existential fear which weighs heavily on the mind.
Common triggers include anything from alarming news stories to being witness to unsustainable behaviour among peers.
People who have personally experienced the consequences of extreme weather events are also vulnerable to climate anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina, almost 1 in 3 of the people surveyed showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder.
Who does eco-anxiety affect?
According to the APA, some of the most vulnerable populations to the mental health effects of climate change are:
- The elderly
- The chronically ill (including those with mental illnesses and mobility impairments)
- Women (especially pregnant and post-partum women)
Populations of lower socioeconomic status (like many minority populations, migrants, refugees and the homeless) have also been identified as disproportionately vulnerable to climate change due to disparities in infrastructure, disparities in social and economic mobility, as well as disparities in access to health resources; which will leave them more likely to develop psychiatric and psychological symptoms.
First responders to climate-related natural disasters also experience significantly higher rates of adverse psychological effects being on the front lines.
What are some examples of eco-anxiety?
Examples of eco-anxiety include episodes of fear and anxiety when sensitive or triggering topics arise, or compulsive behaviour like obsessive recycling.
Survivors of extreme weather events can also become continually fearful of the recurrence of similar events, leaving them feeling permanently unsettled.
Symptoms of eco-anxiety
The social and mental health repercussions of extreme and slow-moving weather events are well documented. These impacts can range from minimal stress and distress symptoms to clinical disorders, like depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and suicidal thoughts.
Similarly, the potential symptoms of eco-anxiety include:
- An increased sense of hopelessness
- Anger, or frustration
- Fatalistic thinking
- Obsessive thoughts
- Existential dread
- Guilt or shame related to your own ecological impact
- Post-traumatic stress
- Grief and sadness
However your eco-anxiety is manifesting itself, and many of us can totally relate, your feelings are perfectly valid and you are not alone.
Rather than being fatalistic, it's important to retain hope and focus on finding solutions. For that, dive into the next section where we’re going to explore things we might do to help manage eco-anxiety symptoms and alleviate their strain on our minds and bodies.
What helps eco-anxiety? 5 things you can do!
Though you might find it hard to believe, there are actually lots of simple things we can try to help alleviate the effects of eco-anxiety. Let’s start from the top:
1. Go hang out in nature!
If possible, consider spending time reconnecting with the very places you love so much and want to protect. It doesn’t even have to be your favourite hidden gem in the middle of nowhere. Spending time in green spaces in urban areas works is a great way of coping with eco-anxiety.
In fact, studies show that a simple stroll through your local park can help to lower stress and improve your mood.
Exposure to nature (even through photos) is also linked to reducing the risk of psychiatric disorders and to upticks in empathy and cooperation. So, where possible, go hang out in nature, soak up the sun, gaze up at the trees and enjoy the breeze.
2. Reduce your triggers
When it comes to anxiety in general, reducing exposure to triggers is extremely effective. Dr. Elizabeth McMahon, a clinical psychologist with over 30 years of experience in the subject matter, recommends identifying what triggers our anxiety, working to get any chemicals that can work to contribute to our anxiety out of our lives (think: overuse of drugs and alcohol), and working to reduce the stress in our lives altogether.
While treatment for eco-anxiety is still in the works, reducing your exposure to those triggering headlines or discussions may be worth a try. For the former, consider limiting your news consumption to specific days and times. For the latter, consider different discussion topics or making certain topics off-limits on certain nights or in certain places.
Dr. Elizabeth McMahon also emphasizes the importance of being as supportive, gentle and encouraging with yourself in this process as possible. Being aggressive with ourselves simply does not work. She also notes that being realistic and loving about what we expect from ourselves is necessary.
3. Conscious breathing
According to Dr. Elizabeth McMahon, when something sends a message of threat to our primitive reactive brain, it automatically pumps out adrenaline. This causes us to feel frightened or anxious and floods our minds with matching thoughts of fear and danger.
Slowing our breathing down to a low and slow rhythm using the diaphragm (also known as belly breathing) counters that by helping us get through the physiological surge of adrenaline in our system until the adrenaline gets naturally used up.
So when feeling anxious, consider belly breathing until you calm down. Rather than breathing high and tight in the chest (which is how our bodies react to stress naturally), teach yourself how to breathe from your belly. Dr. Katherine Rosa of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine recommends “the mini”, a mindful belly breathing exercise that helps to ease stress and anxiety.
You can also try other mindfulness practices like meditation which works wonders where stress management is concerned.
4. Talk to friends and family
Family and friends can be a great source of support particularly when you are feeling down. If you cannot confide in friends and family, consider looking into online support groups, or joining a virtual or physical community of like-minded people who share the same concerns as you. It will be nice to connect with others who may be able to offer the support, perspective and levity you may be looking for.
5. Take action
The thing about eco-anxiety is that it can be debilitating. What’s more, it can leave us paralyzed and unprepared. Instead, consider turning your fear and anxiety into action and making that a habit.
Whenever you feel down or fearful, turn to volunteer with your local community. Or try learning more about sustainable living, sustainable and ethical fashion, clean beauty or any other way in which you can contribute to a more sustainable planet.
You could also take the leap and start your zero waste living journey, or donate to your favourite environmental organization. And you can also listen to a podcast to feel empowered by what other people are doing to help the plant.
Dr. Ali Mattu Ph.D., clinical psychologist, and cognitive-behavioral therapist also recommends getting together an emergency kit featuring emotional elements as well, to help us cope during difficult times.
He recommends things like books, board games, or printed out photos of loved ones for a pick me up when you need it most. If there is still electricity he also recommends listening to your favourite music.
It may be a good idea to make an emergency plan with your family or other loved ones as well.
Final thoughts on Eco Anxiety
Eco-anxiety is quite difficult to deal with so don’t feel bad if you’re having a hard time. However, it is important that we remember not to lean on our fear, but to opt for action wherever possible. From a quiet moment to breathe mindfully or a walk in the park to a new sustainable living project, there’s always something constructive we can reach for when it comes to eco-anxiety.
Just because we are concerned about climate change and the future of humanity, doesn’t mean we have to be in a constant state of panic until the rest of the world comes to.