Introduction to Eco-Anxiety
We’re living in a time where our actions on tackling climate change and preserving the environment have never felt more important. Extreme weather events such as droughts, floods and heatwaves are becoming increasingly frequent in the news, and on July 22nd 2022, the UK recorded the highest daily maximum temperature on record of 40.3 degrees Celsius (104.5 degrees Fahrenheit). Additional environmental issues such as mass deforestation, water shortages and loss of habitats also threaten the world as we know it.
As a result, it’s no surprise that this is having a significant impact on the mental health of many people – in particular those aged 15-25. Research shows that almost half of young people feel ‘distressed or anxious’ about climate change to the point where it’s having a detrimental effect on their daily lives.
In this blog, we look at the symptoms of eco-anxiety, what is fuelling it and ways you can manage the symptoms for your own mental health.
What is Eco-Anxiety?
Eco-anxiety has been defined by the American Psychiatric Association (APA) as a “chronic fear of environmental doom” and whilst not formally considered a diagnosable condition, its recognition is on the rise.
Another term used for eco-anxiety is climate anxiety, yet some like to separate the two, citing climate change with climate anxiety only and eco-anxiety to include additional issues such as deforestation, rising sea levels, food and water security and impact to wildlife.
These are key drivers of eco-anxiety and can have a lasting effect on mental health. Eco-anxiety may manifest itself as:
- Feelings of anxiousness when hearing or thinking about the environment
- General anxiety symptoms including tightness of chest and dizziness
- Existential dread
- Anger and frustration – particularly aimed at the older generation or those who do not acknowledge climate change
- Sleeping issues
- Feelings of helplessness
- Guilt relating to your own carbon footprint
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
With these symptoms, in particular stress, there is an additional risk to health including increased chances of heart disease and high blood pressure.
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Who is affected by Eco-Anxiety?
Eco-anxiety can impact everyone; however, it doesn’t affect everyone equally. Those who are either more aware of the environment or in locations where environmental devastation has already been felt are more likely to feel eco-anxiety stronger (e.g., PTSD from a previous or ongoing environmental event).
Those from lesser developed countries are often more reliant on the environment for their livelihoods for example, fishing, tourism and agriculture and so changes in the environment will impact their way of life. Further, people in countries such as India and Bangladesh where the concentration of manufacturing factories is high, see environmental issues first-hand such as water and air pollution affecting public health and waterways.
Of 10,000 surveyed aged 16-25 years old, those in the Philippines (84%), India (68%) and Brazil (67%) made up the highest proportion of those who felt ‘very worried’ or ‘extremely worried’ by climate change.
These places, like many other places across the world are more susceptible to extreme weather events and environmental degradation including coastal areas, those lying on tectonic plates and islands. According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2021, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, The Bahamas and Japan were among the top 4 countries most affected by climate change in 2019.
Societal groups that are most likely to be affected by eco-anxiety more include:
- People who have been previously affected by extreme adverse weather including emergency services workers
- Those that live in areas of degradation environmentally or culturally (e.g. the Amazon)
- Those working within environmental-related careers
- Young adults
- People with pre-existing medical conditions
What is fuelling Eco-Anxiety?
The prevalence of eco-anxiety is increasing, however there are a number of reasons for why this is. In this section, we look at what is fuelling eco-anxiety beyond the fear of environmental “doom”.
1. Access to information
We’re living in a digital age where access to news and information has never been easier. Whilst this is fantastic in connecting the world together, it also highlights the severity of environmental and socio-political issues across the world. It is now becoming increasingly common to hear about events such as wildfires, droughts or landslides on the news in countries other than our own. Further, social and societal issues such as wars, famine and habitation loss can evoke feelings of being overwhelmed and panicked for the world around us, resulting in heightened feelings of anxiety.
2. Feeling powerless
According to a report by CDP in 2017, just 100 companies are the source of 71% of the global greenhouse gases produced since 1988. Those with eco-anxiety often feel powerless against large corporations and governments when it comes to making effective change. In particular, eco-anxiety is made worse in younger generations, who feel as if they do not have a voice when it comes to making decisions on the environment due to their age and lack of representation.
3. Feelings of guilt
As we look inwards towards our own consumption and carbon footprint, this can often be met with feelings of guilt or shame. Our use of plastics, energy use or high meat diets may cause reason for these emotions, which help drive eco-anxiety concerns and our individual impact on the planet.
How can Eco-Anxiety be managed?
Whilst it is understood that changes are required on a global scale to reduce climate change and harm to the environment, there are steps to manage eco-anxiety on an individual level. Similarly to other anxiety disorders, techniques like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be used to reduce the symptoms of eco-anxiety.
1. Changing your perspective
When we become anxious, understanding to our thoughts, behaviours and feelings is a helpful tool to calm us down and internalise the thoughts we may be having. Reframing our negative thoughts into a more positive way also helps with gaining perspective and building resiliency against anxiety symptoms such as nervousness or tightness within your chest. For example, instead of thinking about the negative impacts of climate change, think about the fact that there are people working around the clock to solve the issue and many people who do care and are making a difference.
Access to education is also a key step in managing eco-anxiety on a local and global level. Accurate and relevant information about the environment can help empower countries and communities prepare fully in the event of a crisis e.g., making changes to infrastructure. The topic of environmental protection is also being more widely taught in schools, with Italy making it a compulsory taught subject – the first European country to do so. This helps foster a generation who are more understanding and committed to solving environmental issues in the future.
3. Focus on what you can control
It can sometimes feel overwhelming when we think about how complex the issue of climate change is. Every business, government and individual holds a level of responsibility so remember to focus on what you can control and try not to worry about what is out of your hands. This could be reducing your own carbon emissions by walking instead of driving, reducing meat consumption or boycotting large industries engaging in environmental malpractice. Whatever it is, understand that you alone cannot save the world and by doing your part, you are contributing to the best of your ability.
4. Connect with others
It can sometimes feel like you are the only one with eco-anxiety however there are many people out there who feel the same way! Why not connect with others in the environmental space to help remind you that you aren’t alone in the fight. If there isn’t already, why not set up a green/environmental society at school or college to raise awareness and help educate and influence others.
5. Take some time out
We can often feel bombarded with negative information through outlets like the news, social media and politics. Over time, feelings of stress and anxiety can build up without us realising and we can become overwhelmed by what is happening. Try to take some time out from this by either limiting social media use or engagement with the news. Dedicating some time to self-care is also important to help recharge and maintain emotional and physical wellbeing. If you aren’t sure what this could be, here are some self-care ideas.
6. Speak to someone about it
If eco-anxiety is impeding on your daily life, be sure to share your concerns with a loved one, friend or professional. Your concerns over the environment are valid and sometimes speaking them through with someone can help alleviate feelings of stress and anxiety. A list of useful contacts and helplines can be found here.
Whilst still an undiagnosable condition, eco-anxiety is a very real issue which is becoming increasingly prevalent in the world today. The availability of the news and feeling powerless against large businesses and governments continues to fuel eco-anxiety, especially within the younger demographic however there are ways to manage and mitigate the symptoms such as speaking to someone and building resilience through CBT.