What is Eco Anxiety?
As we hear more worrying news daily about our planet’s environment – polar ice caps melting, species becoming extinct, the Amazon rainforests burning – there has been a steady increase in people being diagnosed with a condition known as Eco Anxiety, an extreme form of worry or depression related to the negative effects of climate change. Although the condition has become more prevalent in recent years, at present it is not recognised as a mental disorder and does not feature in the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders – the U.S. guide for diagnosing psychological illness – but has been described by Psychology Today as being “a fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis”.
One apparent reason for its absence from the canon of clinical mental disorders is that Eco Anxiety has similarities to other clinical anxiety disorders, but differs in that it has a ‘rational’ cause.
Caroline Hickman, a teaching fellow at Bath University, and a member of The Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA), a group of psychologists who are committing their specialist knowledge to focus on climate change says, “The symptoms are the same [as clinical anxiety], the feelings are the same, but the cause is different.” She goes on to clarify this by stating “The fear is of environmental doom – that we’re all going to die.”
News about freaky global weather disasters or scary ecological predictions can trigger this particular form of anxiety, but for some, even simple things like seeing car fumes being emitted, or becoming overwhelmed by plastic packaging in a supermarket aisle, can bring on symptoms such as hyper ventilation or panic attacks, though for many it is simply uncontrollable worry and sleepless nights that are the problem. Sam, who suffers with Eco Anxiety and features in Radio 1 and 1Xtra’s “Me And My Eco Anxiety” podcast explains it like this: “When you go to sleep… you start thinking about everything…the state of the planet really, and the potential future of it, knowing that there’s only so much you can do as one person”
The science is even more alarming. Last year’s report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was intractable in its call for urgent curbs on carbon emissions by 2030 as a bare minimum if we intend to harbour any hope of halting global warming, whilst a paper that went viral by Professor Jem Bendall entitled Deep Adaptation: A Map For Navigating Climate Tragedy and published in the same year, was even more gloomy in its conclusions, stating that we need to prepare for the possibility of complete societal collapse as a result of climate change. With a daily barrage of bad news in the media about the planet’s future it is inevitable that a lot of people have become deeply concerned, and in some individual cases this has developed in to something more traumatic.
Eco Anxiety is especially prevalent in young people who feel that their future is uncertain – yet see very little action being taken by their governments and those who should be in a position to tackle what they perceive as an emergency. Alice, who features in the BBC’s Costing The Earth podcast on Eco Anxiety, and is a member of Birth Strike, a group of young people so fearful of the future they are refusing to have children, says that “it’s almost the norm to speak about this level of hopelessness” amongst young people in her circle. It is this very inability to be able to do anything, or to influence those who could, that leads to a feeling of helplessness, and inevitably, acute frustration and anxiety. But this is also the key to dealing with Eco Anxiety as Dr Lorin Lindner, an American clinical psychologist who uses nature and eco-psychological methods to treat her patients told us. She declares that we must “stop allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by the news of these fateful events (and) take action. Do one thing to help your local community garden, support a group doing work in the trenches, do one little thing to make our climate better.”
Making small changes in your own life such as using less plastic, cycling to work, joining and contributing to environmental pressure groups, or using eco-friendly products can all help combat the feeling of powerlessness which is often at the root of Eco Anxiety. In other words, start taking action in whatever way you can. Small changes cannot combat the global issues at stake, but they can make you feel like you are helping to make a difference. As Dr Lindner says “The antidote to despair and anxiety is Action, otherwise we feel helpless and hopeless to enact the change we know is necessary.”
Another form of treatment that can help with Eco Anxiety is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, or CBD. This is essentially the notion to replace negative thought patterns with more logical and healthy ones by inducing the patient to engage with possibilities that can be ‘coped’ with instead of focusing only on scenarios that are devastating.
Dr Lindner adds that getting back in to nature itself is also beneficial to our wellbeing and can be a way to stave off the effects of Eco Anxiety
“Get out in Nature – put your feet in the dirt, build a sand castle, breathe in the forest air – research shows that depression and anxiety are impacted significantly by being outdoors, around animals, or in a natural setting.”
Dr. Daniel Maughan says in the Costing The Earth podcast, as climate change is such an acute issue and will affect us all in the near future, action must increase within our society itself, and this will inevitably affect the sense of impotence that lies at the root of our Eco Anxiety.
“…if the government makes some changes, if we as a society can start responding in a positive way to this potential catastrophe, then that might help alleviate this learned helplessness”.
Written by Chris Knowles
Images courtesy of Getty