Eco-Anxiety: how much should we be worrying about climate change?
Written by Chloe Marshall
It's so easy to feel like the world is spiralling out of control. And in so many ways, it is. 2020 showed how easily healthcare, economic, and social structures can fracture, permeating our sense of community and security with doubt. We chucked COVID onto the growing pile (or mountain) of existential threats, along with all of those associated with climate change. Recently, the direct link between the emergence of new viruses and our distortion of the natural environment has crossed geographical and discursive borders: climate change can no longer be contained within spheres of ecological study or the left-wing media, and is becoming a multi-disciplinary concern which, hopefully, triggers universal recognition of its fundamentally personal impact.
It's not unusual to express concern or even fear about our ecological future - as if that's something separate from our future job, house, or family - but, how much should we be worrying, considering the degree of control we can exert on an individual level?
There is a term for this environmental worrying: 'eco-anxiety'. It describes pretty much what it says on the tin: feelings of anxiety and other symptoms of poor mental health in regard to climate change. It's not technically recognised as a psychological diagnosis, but falls under the general branch of 'ecopsychology', which deals with human psychological response to the environment. The most substantial report on eco-anxiety is a 2017 study by the American Psychological Association, identifying a variety of symptoms such as depression, PTSD, feelings of helplessness and fatalism, anxiety, and even complicated grief. They write that our "ability to process information and make decisions without being disabled by extreme emotional responses is threatened by climate change", as such a planetary-wide existential threat can seem unmanageable from an individual perspective. In particular, feelings of resignation are prohibiting us to even imagine better solutions and take action, on an individual and collective level.
Eco-anxiety is complicated, because its symptoms are arguably reasonable responses to an incredibly real threat, that of an irreversible and total destruction of a habitable planet. We’re evolutionarily hard-wired to get anxious in order to combat threats which we can deal with in everyday life, as it causes a psychological pressure to act to resolve the threat.
However, climate change is something which has resulted from decades, even centuries, of environmental abuse, and no single individual is likely to be able to reverse this damage. It makes sense, therefore, that we might feel helpless, or anxious: with so much news coverage - or not enough - of natural disasters and the degradation of animal and human habitats popping up on our screens every day. It makes sense, that as we see towns and cities overcome by wildfires too big to control, or as communities are forced to evacuate due to floodwater dismantling their homes, that we should feel desperation. We belong to the world and are a vital part of its ecosystems - it's so easy to see ourselves as separate from the natural world, but such psychological distancing facilitates ignorance of how interconnected we are with our planet. For many people suffering eco-anxiety, climate change and all that comes with it therefore seems like a kind of self-harm on a planetary scale.
Eco-anxiety is more likely to affect people if their environment is in immediate danger; for example, people whose lives rely directly upon natural resources from their surroundings in rural communities can suffer intense feelings of existential threat. However, it's is something which can be felt by anyone - even if you haven't suffered the direct and physical impact of climate change, it can still be debilitating due to the anticipatory dread it can induce.
Eco-anxiety is particularly prevalent amongst young adults, as the generation on the threshold of adulthood with the prospect of responsibility for preventative or reparational action dealing with climate change. With adulthood comes an increased awareness of global issues and the political choices our country makes (or doesn't make) to address the magnitude of the problem.
The reality is, the most damage being done to the planet is the fault, and overwhelming responsibility of big corporations who are still ignoring the negative impact their profit-driven business models are having upon the planet. The functioning of an economy based on exponential accumulation of capital is inherently unsustainable, and it is becoming clearer than ever that the price we are paying for that is intrinsically destructive. Unless the global mindset on accountability changes, it is unlikely that we can slow the rate at which we are burning fossil fuels, or depleting our forests, or toxifying our environment.
So, at the risk of being glib (great word), if the fast-approaching apocalypse is getting you down, how on earth do you tackle it?
- Take action.
This can mean a variety of things - signing up as a volunteer for environmental charities or joining protest movements such as Extinction Rebellion can be great to combat feelings of helplessness, especially to target political awareness, but taking action can work on a day-to-day level too. Small changes can really change your mindset and alleviate any misplaced personal guilt (climate change definitely isn't your fault):
- Research your local recycling recommendations and be more conscious about what you throw away
- Reduce food waste
- Eat sustainably (local, seasonal produce or a vegetarian/vegan diet)
- Avoid buying from big corporations such as Amazon and instead research local options
- Use less single-use plastic
- Replace everyday products with more sustainable options (I recently made the change to a bamboo razor instead of disposable plastic ones)
- Buy less fast-fashion and reconsider the clothes you already have!
- Get educated.
Check the statistics to make sure you're not misinformed by sensationalist articles - there is good news, but it doesn’t sell as well, and the bad news is better clickbait. Alternatively, if the constant, anxiety-inducing news notifications are stressing you out, turn them off. You don't need to keep a 24/7 availability with your news app.
- A cliché, but - reach out.
Your family and friends are a vital support network if you're feeling anxious. They might not be experts but talking to someone about your worries can be surprisingly helpful, and you can either try to discuss your concerns, or find some light relief by distracting yourself. If you feel like you're not coping well with daily life, and your eco-anxiety (however it manifests itself) is becoming overwhelming, seek professional help. Remember that your concerns are totally legitimate, but your emotional response to them might be overcompensating.
- Another cliché - work on a positive mindset.
Obviously, this is easier said than done, but optimism is actually a vital tool for managing psychological health, and planetary health. Research suggests that "negative emotions need to be paired with a sense of hope or excitement about the future" - negative emotions such as anxiety can propel us to act, but they need to be balanced with hope which allows us to believe action can be taken. Optimism needs to be practised not just as a coping mechanism, but as an instrument for real change. Rutger Bregman, a Dutch historian, has written about the need to redefine what it means to be a realist. Often we can see 'being realistic' as an inherently negative attitude, when in fact the 'reality' of things can be very positive - here's an article by the Independent about all the positive climate news for 2020. Focusing on what humanity can do as opposed to what we can't, researching what we can start doing instead of what we need to stop doing, is an important approach to climate change, on both an individual and global scale.
- Finally - go on a walk.
Reminding yourself why you're so worried about the planet can be exactly the place to start managing your anxiety. Going somewhere which reminds you that you are part of the natural world, and not just a visitor to it, can be a really healing, grounding experience, especially when life feels alienating and out of control.