From wild fires and devastating hurricanes to the ongoing threat of melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels, climate change is no longer something we can ignore. The problem feels so imminent and unavoidable that our everyday mental states have become affected due to panic and worry over impending disasters. So what exactly is 'eco-anxiety' and how can you tell if you have it?
A recent report by the United Nations suggested that our planet's health was in an even more dire state than we had imagined. The New York Times summarised the report's findings as "a world of worsening food shortages and wildfires, and a mass die-off of coral reefs as soon as 2040 — a period well within the lifetime of much of the global population." The implications are horrifying, and hard to ignore. And quite understandably, there's a growing number of people who are so scared of what's to come that it's begun to affect their everyday mental state. I spoke to psychologist Honey Langcaster-James to find out more about the condition and what those struggling with overwhelming concerns about climate change can do about it.
What is eco anxiety?
According to Langcaster-James eco-anxiety is "the state of heightened anxiety some people experience relating to climate change." She adds, "An increasing number of people are reporting experiencing this as they become more aware of the impact we are having on our environment and our planet."
A recent report by the American Psychological Association took a deep dive into the phenomenon and shows that eco-anxiety can arguably be split into two overarching categories: worrying about an impending natural disaster (or surviving the effects of being involved in one) and on a larger scale, a feeling of anxiety and changing circumstances because of the state of climate change and our planet as a whole.
"The impacts of climate change on people’s physical, mental, and community health arise directly and indirectly," the report explains. "Some human health effects stem directly from natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, like floods, storms, wildfires, and heatwaves. Other effects surface more gradually from changing temperatures and rising sea levels that cause forced migration."
What are the signs you have it?
Langcaster-James details that the signs of eco-anxiety are similar to other forms of anxiety. "Some people express very high levels of stress relating to climate change and even report panic attacks, obsessive thinking, loss of appetite and even insomnia because of their concerns about climate change," she says. "It’s a chronic fear of environmental doom and impending disaster, and the underlying fear is one of total destruction and annihilation as a result of severe climate and environmental strain."
The APA's report lists a number of conditions and symptoms that result from climate change-induced eco-anxiety. These include:
"Stress and distress that can also put strains on social relationships and even have impacts on physical health such as memory loss, sleep disorders, immune suppression, and changes in digestion."
It can get worse, too: "Major chronic mental health impacts include higher rates of aggression and violence, more mental health emergencies, an increased sense of helplessness, hopelessness, or fatalism, and intense feelings of loss."
What can you do to help it?
According to Langcaster-James a combination of small actions and support from friends and family can help counter the negative effects of eco-anxiety. She also recommends using social media wisely. "While it’s really important to be aware of our impact on the environment and what we can do to play our part in taking care of our planet, the media, and the sharing of distressing and concerning material by friends on social media, can heighten the anxiety some people feel and this can lead to an overwhelming fear that may well be disproportionate," Lancaster-James comments.
She continues, "If someone is really struggling with eco-anxiety, it would be helpful to try to do something that makes you feel that you’re contributing to solving the problem, such as cycling to work or reducing your carbon footprint, but also to strengthen your support network so give you a sense of connectedness and belonging. This can help with many types of anxiety."
The APA's report also lists a number of ways you can help eco-anxiety, from having disaster plans set up in place to cultivating your own self-regulation skills to prepare for the worst.
While these suggestions are targeted more at those who worry about specific natural disasters, the report also recommends taking certain actions if you find yourself worrying about climate change as a whole all the time:
"Climate solutions are available now, are widespread, and support psychological health. Increasing adoption of active commuting, public transportation, green spaces, and clean energy are all solutions that people can choose to support and integrate into their daily lives."
Most importantly, maintaining a healthy mental state with lifestyle changes and seeking help for overwhelming anxiety are crucial.