Writer: Leonie Hellwich
Editor: Sheetal Jindal
Artist: Amaranta Chavez
While discussing the long-term effects of climate change has raised awareness and encouraged action on a larger scale, it has also inspired individuals to implement changes in their everyday routine, ranging from biodegradable alternatives for household items to using more ecologically friendly means of transport. However, there are downsides to the constant exposure to the media coverage of environmental disasters. A survey by Bath University from September finds that young people specifically experience high levels of distress in regards to climate change, with almost 50% expressing that their everyday lives are affected by climate-related worries. The study reveals further tendencies: 40% of those questioned are uncertain about having children out of concern about what life for the next generations will look like. More than half agreed that the future is frightening, with some even stating the human race is irrevocably doomed. This study demonstrates a phenomenon referred to as “Eco-anxiety,” a term that has been used since 2005.
So what does eco-anxiety actually look like? Symptoms may include: guilt about one’s negative impact on the environment, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after experiencing effects of climate change, depression, anxiety, obsessive thoughts about climate change, existential panic, and environmental grief. Affected individuals may also harbour resentment towards people who deny climate change, are reluctant to take action, or have contributed to climate change in the past.
Health geographer Ashlee Cunsolo affirms the significant impact of environmental change on mental health by explaining its connection to personal identity: “People have a sense of identity in relation to nature and the natural world, much like their cultural identity or their gender identity or their ethnic identity.” She explains that when something we value is threatened–in this case, our connection with nature–we feel grief and anxiety; hence it is simply a natural reaction.
Eco-anxiety being a relatively new phenomenon, its definition and impact on mental health are still unclear. As of yet, eco-anxiety is not officially included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) which comprises all currently diagnosable mental health conditions. Nevertheless, the American Psychological Association (APA) recognizes various ways in which climate change can impact mental health. These include depression, PTSD, and feelings of helplessness. The sudden increase in globally experienced concern about the planet’s future and the next generations comes with many challenges. Research suggests that it leaves many therapists worried about lacking sufficient resources and preparation. However, it is likely that the integration of climate change-specific practices into training will become increasingly common with growing demand.
Fortunately, there are promising strategies with which to tackle eco-anxiety. Eco-therapists recommend reconnecting with nature to alleviate feelings of anxiety and discomfort. Spending time outdoors as well as practicing mindfulness has been proven to lower stress, anxiety, and fatigue. Adopting ecologically friendly habits such as recycling or using public transport is also encouraged by experts as it can help decrease feelings of shame and guilt. Making such changes, however small they are, can be beneficial to mental health and have a calming effect. Cunsolo emphasizes that dealing with eco-anxiety is largely about adopting a different mindset; she highlights how young people and their climate activism can be inspiring in that way: “This is a normal response to losing things we love in this world… the planet is suffering and of course we’re going to suffer and that’s normal and healthy and we’ve got to be motivated by it.”