Is the future of our planet making you nervous? If so, you might be suffering from “eco-anxiety.” The term has gained a lot of traction recently with the escalating climate crisis and in an existential challenge that many folks around the world, not just the climate activists, are dealing with. So what is it, and how can we address it?
Do you find yourself bringing your arsenal of reusables everywhere you go but are left feeling it’s not enough? Or do you feel guilty flying knowing that it would take a tree forty years to offset the carbon emitted by that one flight you took? Or maybe you’ve joined Miley; let’s not have kids? If you can relate, maybe you have eco-anxiety… and if you do, here’s the article you need to read.
On a recent episode of the HBO hit drama ‘Big Little Lies’, 9-year-old Amabella Klein was taught about climate change at school. Following the lesson, she was found hiding in the closet of her classroom with her metallic boots poking out. Following the episode, many Twitter users took to the platform to collectively nod in recognition. And we can’t help but feel the same, too.
So what exactly is eco-anxiety?
We had (and continue to have) a hard enough time proving to people that anxiety itself exists. And now we have something called climate change anxiety to explain? Yikes.
Let’s break it down. The American Psychological Association (APA) says that people can develop real mental health problems from “watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations.” Some people, the APA writes, “are deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change.” The APA officially describes eco-anxiety as the “chronic fear of environmental doom.” Does this sound like something you worry about?
Thankfully, the APA is facing it head-on. At present, eco-anxiety isn’t yet listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the handbook for diagnosing mental illnesses). That said, since seeing that there is potential for the climate crisis to be psychologically destabilising, they are urging to recognise the connection between mental health and climate change.
(Side note: while we shouldn’t impose a model of illness on the issue, the term “eco-anxiety” describes a phenomenon that is real and growing. Until we find a more appropriate term for it, let’s stick with “eco-anxiety”.)
Who is it affecting?
Millennials (it’s always the millennials, isn’t it?). The reason shouldn’t be surprising. Millennials have grown up in the digital age and are deeply engaged in social media. With that comes an almost-constant stream of information about the ongoing climate catastrophe. With that comes the everyday failures of the political and economic systems that are unable to sufficiently level the problem. Thus, millennials grew up acutely aware of the links between human actions and the degrading environment.
But what does it actually look like? Aside from the aforementioned effects such as feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration, eco-anxiety also involves a lot of guilt. It’s worth noting how eco-anxiety is grouped with other chronic impacts on mental health like helplessness, depression, fear, fatalism, and resignation.
Eco-anxiety also manifests in different ways: strained relationships, aggression, violence, and even crime. Sometimes it’s more subtle like getting a panic attack out of nowhere. Or other times so extreme that you might find yourself so paralysed by guilt and helplessness that you end up not doing anything at all.
A quick note: the darker side of eco-anxiety
Things can always get worse – let’s explore the darker end of the spectrum. The APA published a 70-page report on mental health and climate change. In it, they discuss in-depth how the mental health and climate change interact in places that deeply experience the effects of the climate crisis. Major acute mental health impacts like trauma, shock, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, substance abuse, and depression can arise from experiencing extreme weather, polluted air, damaged resources, etc. Consequently, these can also affect personal relationships and even whole communities. Unfortunately, these are more likely to be experienced by impoverished communities. Or, more accurately, the not-rich.
With dry spells and droughts widespread across India, not only is the suicide rate among farmers increasing, but residents of villages are also increasingly struggling for water as taps run dry. Even more recently, drought-ravaged towns in Australia are having to pay $1 million a month for water, just to stay alive.
You and I exist in a very privileged space. We are blessed with the ability to understand the perils of climate change without actually experiencing the devastating effects of it. Unlike a lot of others around the world, many of you reading this article right now probably could set these feelings aside and continue on with your daily life without worrying about actual impending doom — at least not in the short-term.
But that also doesn’t mean that your eco-anxiety is any less legitimate of an issue. It’s just that we need to provide some context and perspective to the type of eco-anxiety we are feeling.
The importance of acknowledging eco-anxiety
They say the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging the existence of it. True, in this case. Except that we’re not exactly looking to solve it. How does one “cure” eco-anxiety if it’s being caused by the larger-than-life problem of climate change and the inadequate response from our collective humanity?
Caroline Hickman, Teaching Fellow at the University of Bath and a member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, recently penned an article for The Conversation about this. “Climate psychology” is a different kind of psychology, she writes. Our feelings are not to be “fixed” or “cured” but rather seen as “healthy understandable responses.” Hickman adds that there “is also value in understanding how grief, loss and mourning can shape our responses to climate change. For if we block out our emotions, then we are unable to connect with the urgency of the crisis — which may be one reason why we have so far failed to act sufficiently quickly.” So according to Hickman, we should engage with our distress. But then what?
What do we do?
Knowing what coming to terms with eco-anxiety could do is one thing. Taking steps to address it is another. Science writer and journalist Owen Gaffney told BBC Three that “eco-anxiety is the right response to the scale of the challenge”, acknowledging that individual actions can feel insignificant. Writer and data journalist Duncan Geere echoed this sentiment, adding that “political leaders and big businesses bear the bulk of the responsibility.”
They also both agreed that it’s important for individuals to simply take action. Psychologist Honey Langcester-James confirmed that it “would be helpful to try to do something that makes you feel that you’re contributing to solving the problem.” Make even the smallest lifestyle changes. Try opting for more greener forms of transport, going more plant-based, attend a beach clean-up, participate in a clothes swap, etc. We know this isn’t going to change the world. These incremental individual shifts are just not going to move mountains. But the point, in this case, is to feel like you are at least doing something. Besides, doing something is better than doing nothing.
But if that’s not enough, take bigger action. If you can, get involved with your local activist group. Demand that politicians and companies to do better. Meet with influential people if you can, and make your demands heard. Talk about climate change to your community, friends, family, etc. You don’t have to be an influencer to have influence. Look around you: there are many people with whom you could engage in a conversation with about climate change.
When action is not enough
Ironically, trying to do something productive may turn out to be counter-productive. Such is the case with everyday problems in life, where people find themselves constantly obsessing over what could have been done. Sometimes, taking action isn’t the ideal solution to tackle eco-anxiety. Fortunately, there are still steps you can take…
Find a community. Alone, people are often stuck going around in circles. But when you find someone who resonates with your beliefs, everything changes. You might not feel so isolated anymore and feel like you have someone that you can depend on. Bonus: it can even help you feel more productive because talking to others can help you refine your ideas, or even come up with new ways to act. Again, though, the point of finding a community is not always to ultimately do something. Instead, think of it as primarily for emotional support and solidarity.
How do you find a community? If you’re lucky, there are usually online groups of people who are concerned about climate change. Look out for local meet-ups, or just go to events and get connected. If you’re not so lucky, then you’ve got some (exceedingly rewarding) work cut out for you. Build your own community. Voice out your concerns, and find people who have the same concerns as you. Try organising eco-events, and build a community from those who show up. Don’t underestimate your ability to seek people out and create a community.
Oh, and an extra-friendly reminder that Green Is The New Black is your community too. Come celebrate the good with us at our upcoming Conscious Festival and Wedge events. Not only can you take your mind off the doom and gloom for a while, but you can also learn a lot about some incredibly powerful and productive ways to act.
Image credit: Fernando Cabral on Unsplash