What is eco-anxiety?

Posted 2 months ago

How climate change can affect our mental health

Blog originating from Health Assured.

We have all heard that spending time in nature can do wonders for our mental health, and in many cases this is true. But what do we do when it is the very collapse of nature itself that is causing poor mental health?

Climate change can have negative implications on our mental health either directly, through exposure to natural disasters such as hurricanes and wildfires, or indirectly, through media exposure, climate-induced poverty, or forced migration.

The British Medical Journal found that more than half (57%) of children and young people are distressed about the climate crisis and the state of the environment. Increasing levels of ‘eco-anxiety’ – the fear of environmental doom – are likely to be underestimated and damaging to many in the long term.

What is eco-anxiety?

It is nothing new to say the world is experiencing a human-caused climate crisis or that we're facing unprecedented levels of biodiversity loss due to human actions. Watching our natural world change, sometimes combined with feeling personal guilt or witnessing climate indifference and elected powers failing to act at the pace required, can evoke a variety of emotions, from anger and frustration to dread, powerlessness and hopelessness.

It can be uncomfortable, overwhelming, and paralysing. This phenomenon is known as climate anxiety or eco-anxiety, often defined as a chronic fear of environmental doom, a worry about what might happen if the world does not take action to avert disaster in time.

Common mental health symptoms

Following direct exposure to a climate-induced disaster, the most prominent mental health symptoms amongst those affected include post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts. For those who are indirectly exposed, many have reported debilitating levels of guilt, helplessness, fear, and anxiety.

How can the majority be optimistic about the future when humanity appears to be set on destroying this fragile world we call home?

It is critical that we consider how to support young people affected by climate change anxiety. Unlike previous generations, whose environmental awareness was largely abstract, young people today are far more aware of the results of climate change and the potential impacts on their futures. After all, this is the world they will inherit, and previous generations have left us in a grand old mess.

In a recent study of more than 10,000 young people aged 16-25 years old, living across ten countries (including the United States), more than half (59%) reported being very or extremely worried about climate change. Nearly half said that their feelings, namely sadness, anxiety, anger, and helplessness, negatively affect their daily lives. More than three-quarters find the future frightening and fear for their children’s wellbeing.

How to deal with climate anxiety?

Do you think you or someone you know might be experiencing eco-anxiety? Are you?

Eco-anxiety is a rational response to the current state of our world, but it is important that, like with other anxieties and emotions, climate-related fears should be navigated with great care.

1. Don’t bury your emotions

Emotions that arise in response to the climate crisis can be uncomfortable, overwhelming, and paralysing, but you don't need to 'fix' them. Remember, many other people will be feeling similar emotions – try writing them down in a journal and don’t be afraid to talk about them.

2. Speak up

By expressing that you care about the future of our planet, you are acting in solidarity with a global community of people inheriting a world at risk. Share what you are worried about but focus more on why you are worried about it. Anchor your anxiety or fear in the love or appreciation you feel for something the planet holds.

3. Choose activism

The climate movement is brimming with young and courageous people trying to save the world. Whether it’s a local group looking to protect your region’s wildlife, a work initiative, or a global climate project, many groups are mobilising and empowering young people to take positive action for global climate justice.

4. Spend time in nature

Spending time in nature will help psychologically to reduce your levels of anxiety and stress and will serve as a tangible reminder as to why looking after the planet was important to you in the first place.

5. Don’t lose hope

Whatever you do, don’t lose hope. With the constant barrage of disappointing news and a lack of real commitment to action on climate change, we know this can be difficult. But there is good news out there too, you just have to look for it. For example, the reforestation organisation Ecologi has planted 80 million trees worldwide since 2019, removing 3 million tonnes of CO2 from the atmosphere.