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Feel alone in your eco-anxiety? Don’t.

Feel alone in your eco-anxiety? Don’t.

Words: Teaghan Hogg, Léan O'Brien and Samantha Stanley

First appeared in The Conversation, 7 November, 2021
Main image: Evelyn Dragan / Connected Archives

Climate anxiety, or eco-anxiety, refers to worry or distress related to climate change. Climate anxiety, or eco-anxiety, refers to worry or distress related to climate change.
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There’s nothing wrong with feeling concerned about the state of the planet. The question is, can we harness that feeling for good?

Feeling anxious about the ecological crises we face is entirely understandable, given the enormity of the threats.

Eco-anxiety is sometimes described as a mental health problem. It’s not. Eco-anxiety is a rational psychological and emotional response to the overlapping ecological crises we now face.

If you feel this way, you are not alone. We have found eco-anxiety is remarkably common. Almost two-thirds of participants in our recent surveys reported feeling eco-anxiety at least “some of the time”.

“Eco-anxiety is not going to go away. That means we must learn how to cope with it – and perhaps even harness it”

The response can be triggered by media stories on environmental and climate crises as well as human efforts to combat them, such as the United Nations’ regular climate conferences.

In this age of ecological reckoning, eco-anxiety is not going to go away. That means we must learn how to cope with it – and perhaps even harness it to drive us to find solutions.

Dwelling on problems we contribute to

Our study found four key features of eco-anxiety:

  • Affective symptoms, such as feelings of anxiety and worry
  • Rumination, meaning persistent thoughts which can keep you up at night
  • Behavioural symptoms, such as difficulty sleeping, working, studying or socialising
  • Anxiety about your personal impact on the planet.

We found similar levels of eco-anxiety in our surveys of more than 1,000 people in Australia and New Zealand. This supports emerging research, which found more than half of young people surveyed across ten countries experienced climate anxiety. Feeling anxious about the state of the planet is likely to be universal. 

When we asked people how it affected them, they told us eco-anxiety affected everything from their mood to their daily routine to their relationships. It even affected their ability to concentrate, work or study.

Our study found people were also anxious about their personal contribution to the deteriorating state of the planet. Some participants noted the state of the planet made them “extremely anxious”, so much so they “find it hard to think about anything else”. 

Other research shows many people are anxious about how their personal behaviours impact the earth, such as consumerism or flying. Some young adults are choosing to have fewer children, or none at all, out of concern their children will contribute to the climate crisis or will inherit a degraded world.

These fears appeared in our study too, with one parent participant noting: 

My biggest worry is that climate change will affect my child in their lifetime, and I get very upset that I won’t be able to protect him from the effects of it.

Photo by: Inga Gezalian / Unsplash

Is eco-anxiety different to generalised anxiety?

Eco-anxiety has similarities with generalised anxiety and stress, but we found important differences, such as the focus on environmental issues and our contribution to the problem.

We also found people experience eco-anxiety independent of depression, anxiety and stress. While it is possible to experience eco-anxiety as someone who is otherwise mentally well, many people experience it on top of existing mental health issues

What we need to do now is understand what eco-anxiety means for individual (and planetary) wellbeing, and provide support to people with varying degrees of this anxiety.

Four ways to cope with your eco-anxiety

Eco-anxiety is not going to go away as an issue, given the range of environmental issues the world is confronting. To stop these feelings becoming overwhelming or debilitating, there are a range of behavioural, cognitive and emotional strategies people can use to cope.

Here are four techniques: 

  1. Validation
    One part of managing your own anxiety is to validate it, by acknowledging it makes sense to feel anxious and distressed
  2. Time out
    Another technique is to take mental breaks and avoid your 24/7 news feed to give yourself time to restore a sense of balance 
  3. Seek hope
    Cultivating a realistic sense of hope about the future can also reduce anxiety emerging from our awareness of ecological threats. That means appreciating the complexity of the problem, while also searching for alternative visions of the future and trusting that we, as a collective, will eventually resolve the crisis before it’s too late 
  4. Take action
    Many of us struggle with a sense of overwhelming powerlessness in the face of a deteriorating climate. This can be self-reinforcing. To combat this, you can try action – whether changing your own behaviour or getting involved in campaigns.
    As climate campaigner Greta Thunberg has said, “no one is too small to make a difference”.

“Being concerned about environmental crises does not need to come at the cost of your health and wellbeing”

As climate campaigner Greta Thunberg has said, “no one is too small to make a difference”. 

Climate change has been described as the greatest collective action problem we have ever faced. That means the necessary changes will have to come from the collective action of all individuals, industries and governments. We all must act together now, just as we have in combating the Covid pandemic. 

Eco-anxiety is increasingly common. But being concerned about environmental crises does not need to come at the cost of your health and wellbeing. 

After all, psychological, emotional and behavioural burnout is not helpful for you – or the planet.

Teaghan Hogg is a PhD student in clinical psychology at the University of Canberra. Léan O’Brien is a lecturer at the University of Canberra. Samantha Stanley is a research fellow in psychology at the Australian National University.

This article first appeared in The Conversation

The Conversation is an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community and delivered direct to the public.

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