With multiple councils and governments across the globe declaring a climate emergency, the worsening environmental situation can often feel overwhelming.
It’s unsurprising that more people are growing seriously concerned over the lasting effects of humans on our planet, and it can lead to a feeling of helplessness. So much so, that experts in mental health and psychology are recognising an increasing wave of individuals struggling with what has been dubbed ‘eco-anxiety’.
What is eco-anxiety?
The American Psychological Association first defined eco-anxiety back in 2017 as ‘a chronic fear of environmental doom’. As climate protests, heatwaves and a torrent of natural disasters have pushed climate up the news agenda, eco-anxiety has erupted across the world. Mental health studies from reveal a swell of people reporting stress or depression about the climate and the future of our planet.
When it comes to talking about climate change concerns, and how psychology can help us understand human behaviour in the face of the crisis, eco-anxiety as a term can be a useful starting point.
‘Eco anxiety is not a mental health problem that needs to be fixed or cured, rather it is a healthy response to the situation we are facing. Anxiety, whilst uncomfortable, is at least an awareness of the reality of the situation that we face. And the good news (if we can call it that), is that once aware you can then at least do something about it. Or start to face the difficult, uncomfortable truths of what the future looks like.’ – Psychotherapist and lecturer Caroline Hickman for Friends of the Earth.
What causes eco-anxiety?
Anxiety about environmental issues can originate from experiencing, being at risk of, or having loved ones at risk of climate-related issues, such as extreme weather, including; hurricanes, floods, droughts, and wildfires.
Another big factor which contributes to eco-anxiety in individuals is overwhelming, frightening media coverage of environmental destruction, as evidence for humans’ negative impact on the environment increases.
However, the impacts of climate on mental health are not simply partnered with disasters alone. There are also significant mental health impacts from longer-term climate change – extreme weather events have sparked civil wars, protests, affected people’s homes, and destroyed wildlife habitats.
Our tips for dealing with eco-anxiety
Firstly, it’s important that we forgive ourselves for getting into this situation and for our consumption patterns of the last 40 years. Huge amounts of money and resources have gone into convincing us to consume in this way, purposefully playing to our insecurities and pairing success with materialism.
Secondly, remember that no single event or person can create change alone. Real change builds up, it’s messy, it’s slow, sometimes we take a step backwards and we can rarely appreciate or feel it happening in real-time.
At the moment it just feels like a lot of noise, some positive signals, some negative. But the general momentum is forward and any action you can add to help build that wave is productive and meaningful.
So change whatever you can manage, from making a meal with only the ingredients already in your fridge to turning your tv off standby, eating more plants and reading up on new developments or perspectives in the space.
Most importantly, allow yourself to feel empowered and impactful in doing these things and don’t give yourself a hard time if you slip up.