As much of the world is going through the hottest summer in recorded history, it’s easy to feel pessimistic about the climate. Heck, out of the hundreds of climate articles we’ve written at ZME Science, most have a pretty gloomy tone — because let’s face it, things aren’t really going in the right direction.
It’s not just the climate, either. There’s pollution, ocean acidification, ecosystem degradation, extinction, and oh so much more damage that we are causing on the planet. It’s normal to feel worried — it’s almost abnormal not to. But while fully understandable, we shouldn’t let this eco-anxiety overrun us. Instead, we should focus on the solutions.
A tangible problem
In 2017, the American Psychological Association (APA) gave a name to something many were feeling already. They defined eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. Although the psychological impacts of climate change may not be obvious, the APA explains, they are “no less serious because they can lead to disorders, such as depression, antisocial behavior, and suicide. Therefore, these disorders must be considered impacts of climate change as are disease, hunger, and other physical health consequences.” In other words, the APA takes eco-anxiety very seriously — and judging on recent surveys, it should.
A couple of 2018 surveys in the United States found that between 21% and 29% of Americans are “very worried” about climate change — a figure that has been swiftly on the rise since surveys began in 2005.
The problem seems especially pressing among children and young adults. A recent study found that many students place a high emphasis on nature connection in terms of mental health and psychological resilience, and threats to nature can be perceived as threats to their own wellbeing. In some universities, up to 70% of students self-described themselves as suffering from eco-anxiety.
Eco-anxiety tends to manifest in somewhat similar ways to other anxiety disorders. Symptoms associated with it include panic attacks, insomnia, and obsessive thinking, and these may also manifest indirectly, compounding with existing stress and pressure.
“Climate anxiety can be a problem if it is so intense that a person may come paralyzed, but climate anxiety is not primarily a disease,” the EU’s climate anxiety page reads. “Instead it is an understandable reaction to the magnitude of the environmental problems that surround us.”
The understandable part in that quote should be emphasized. We know that we’re putting unsustainable pressure on the environment. Just take the current climate situation. We’re already one degree Celsius over the normal temperatures, and scientific projections have already been clear: if we don’t keep global warming within two degrees Celsius, we’re headed for a climate disaster.
We’re not even close to that. Even the current international pledges (which we’re not following) wouldn’t do enough.
So there’s a genuine reason to be concerned. But not all worries are eco-anxiety.
Eco-anxiety and climate anxiety have been somewhat in the focus in the past few years, and the media also seems to be paying more attention. However, researchers don’t really agree on how these conditions should be defined.
With little available data, the prevalence of eco-anxiety is hard to quantify, although there are indications that young people are especially affected. Also, few attempts have been made to investigate the short-term and long-term effects of climate anxiety on the mental health of youth.
“Measuring the magnitude of the effects of climate anxiety on youth mental health, identifying which groups are most affected, and partnering with youth to develop approaches to mitigate the mental health effects is a pressing priority,” notes a Lancet study.
“Valid and reliable tools for measuring climate anxiety should be developed and implemented, and standardisation in the field promoted to enable comparisons among and within populations. Few tools have been published in peer-reviewed research and, concerningly, even fewer measure climate anxiety in young people”
So plainly put, there’s no clear definition of eco-anxiety, but we know it’s happening more and more, and researchers are working to find the tools to quantify the problem.
It’s also important to emphasize the role media plays in influencing public opinion, and in planting the seeds of anxiety in the minds of people. Too often (and this is something we have also been guilty of at times), the environmental coverage is very ‘doom and gloom’. Sure, there’s a good reason for that — things often are pretty doom and gloomy — but placing added emphasis on the problem won’t help anyone.
“[The media] should also provide recommendations for students, universities, organizations, and psychologists on how to best integrate a greater focus on mental health and wellbeing as we move forward with the fight against climate change,” an above-mentioned study reads
Dealing with eco anxiety — and using it as a source of power
Instead of focusing on the negatives, several studies tentatively suggest, we can instead use eco-anxiety as a resource.
Eco-anxiety suggests a level of awareness and of caring for the environment. Instead of letting it take us down a torturous path, we can use it to get people working together and taking action to reduce environmental degradation.
“Climate anxiety can often be an important resource as well, but this entails that a person finds, along with others, a) enough time and space to deal with their emotions and b) enough constructive activity to help mitigate climate change,” writes the EU report.
The APA recommends the following
- Build belief in one’s own resilience.
- Foster optimism.
- Cultivate active coping and self-regulation skills.
- Maintain practices that help to provide a sense of meaning.
- Promote connectedness to family, place, culture, and community.
Of course, this is all easier said than done. The ecological crisis, including the climate crisis, understandably causes feelings of uncertainty, unpredictability, and uncontrollability — all of which are “classic ingredients in anxiety”, the APA notes. Indeed, we all feel powerless against global challenges such as climate change or plastic pollution.
However, researchers have noted that eco-anxiety, despite having elements of existential anxiety, tends to manifest in “practical anxiety” — in other words, it tends to drive people to problem-solving attitudes. The key here is empowerment: instead of letting people feel powerless, it’s important to find common-minded people and foster inclusive communities.
“At home and in the community, people can take actions in their everyday lives to buffer against some of the projected impacts, and these actions can also provide a greater sense of individual security and control,” the APA adds.
Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with feeling anxious about our planet’s future. If anything, it’s normal. But don’t let it consume you more than necessary — if anything, use it as a motivator. If we are to take decisive action against climate change, pollution, and all the other major environmental problems, we’ll need people and communities to push things in the right direction. One can imagine, many of those people will also be familiar with eco-anxiety.