Eco-Anxiety: Friend or Foe?

This week, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new report on the state of climate science. Clocking in at nearly 4,000 pages long and citing around 14,000 studies, it paints a grim picture of what is on the horizon for humanity and our planet. 

Writing with a level of certainty generally uncharacteristic of scientists, the authors of the report state that it is “unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land.” They also argue that recent extreme weather events around the world can indeed be linked to climate change, and that these events will only become more frequent in the coming years unless carbon emissions decrease—and fast. UN Secretary-General António Guterres has called the findings “a code red for humanity.”1 In short: climate change is here, humans are responsible, and urgent action needs to be taken in order to avoid more dire consequences.

Against a backdrop of heatwaves, forest fires, and flash-floods occurring around the globe, it is becoming clear that in addition to the impact these catastrophes have on our physical health, they are also taking a large toll on our mental health. Needless to say, natural disasters have acute psychological consequences for people who experience them firsthand, including trauma, shock, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, suicide and suicidal ideation more than doubled in affected communities, over 16% of survivors met the criteria for PTSD, and nearly half of them developed an anxiety or mood disorder.2 As the frequency of extreme weather events rises, so will the prevalence of these symptoms.

More recently, however, researchers (and therapists) have also seen a rise in a different kind of climate-related anguish. Eco-anxiety, defined as chronic fear of environmental doom, is being witnessed both in people who have been directly impacted by climate change and those who are more removed, but still concerned about the current state of climate (in)action and the future of the environment.

Amidst this rise in mental distress, one open question is whether increasing levels of eco-anxiety could come with a silver lining: spurring us to take action on emissions. Researchers are currently attempting to determine whether this emotional response is advantageous or mostly harmful, and what variables can make the former outcome more likely. Although research in this field is still in its early stages, few would dispute that this topic is of the utmost importance.

The ups and downs of eco-anxiety

Eco-anxiety (also known as climate anxiety) is more prevalent than one might expect, and is becoming ever more common. According to a recent APA poll, two-thirds of US adults have at least some anxiety or worry about climate change and its effects.3

However, certain groups are affected disproportionately. People who rely on land-based activities, including Indigenous communities and farmers, are more likely to experience eco-anxiety as they are at the forefront of the climate crisis. Young people are more affected than older adults, with 47% of young adults in the US reporting that stress about climate change affects their daily lives.

Although eco-anxiety is a perfectly rational response considering the state of our natural environment, whether it could be beneficial in motivating pro-environmental behaviors is still under investigation. Researchers find that for some individuals, habitual worry about global warming may be unconstructive and part of “intrapersonal dysfunction,” while for others it may be constructive response correlated with determinants of pro-environmental behaviors, including past pro-environmental behaviors and a “green” identity.4

To tease apart these different effects, one study separated the concept of eco-anxiety into three sub-components: eco-depression, eco-anger, and eco-anxiety.5 The researchers found that eco-depression and eco-anxiety may contribute to (or at least co-occur with) poorer mental health, while eco-anger was moderately associated with lower anxiety, depression, and stress. 

Which components of eco-anxiety motivated people to act? The results showed that eco-anger and eco-depression were associated with increased engagement in collective pro-environmental action, while eco-anxiety actually predicted lower collective action. Eco-anger was also the only state significantly associated with greater personal attempts to take action. However, Dr. Ashley Cunsolo, a health geographer with a focus on determinants of Indigenous health, warns that although anger regarding climate issues is legitimate and should be supported, from her experience, it may not be sustainable and can cause exhaustion in the long term.6

Walking the tightrope: Managing eco-anxiety while tackling climate change

As we have seen, eco-anxiety can have majorly detrimental effects on our mental health. And while anger about climate change may inspire us to act, it’s not clear that it is healthy or productive to stay eco-angry forever. So, how do we foster a balance between maintaining a healthy level of concern over our planet while avoiding a worsening of the current global mental health crisis? 

First, it is important to keep in mind that moderate levels of eco-anxiety are a completely normal response to the current crisis and may sometimes be helpful in sparking action. At the same time, because of the distress caused by eco-anxiety and other climate-related psychological distress, Dr. Cunsolo suggests we need rapidly scalable solutions to address mental health challenges associated with the environment. These solutions should be integrated into health systems, along with enhanced assessment and support opportunities.7

One emerging frontier in eco-anxiety treatment is evidence-informed individual and group therapies. Many people feel isolated and ashamed of their eco-anxiety, and joining a supportive community can help alleviate these feelings. For example, the Good Grief Network offers a 10-step program to build resilience, empowerment, and foster community ties in a chaotic climate.

Dr. Cunsolo also mentions the importance of developing healthy family-oriented responses to this issue due to the degree of its impact on youth. It is also important to note that groups experiencing eco-anxiety often also have poorer access to mental health resources, which is why a health equity approach is necessary to address this issue.8

The importance of building resilience

Eco-anxiety may sometimes lead us to engage in activism and pro-environmental behaviors, but whether these things can in turn alleviate our anxieties is a topic still up for debate. Some researchers argue that symptoms of eco-anxiety can be reduced through actions that address the underlying threat, especially collective action. 

However, climate-aware psychotherapist Caroline Hickman argues using only this coping mechanism paradoxically risks making us less resilient.9 She states that jumping from distress straight to action removes the opportunity to build a tolerance for anxiety and other unpleasant eco-related emotions.10 Making time for “internal activism”—processing our emotions related to the climate crisis—is just as important as “external activism.”10 This processing can help us deal with inevitable emotional challenges and help avoid burnout while taking action.

Many emotion-processing techniques can be used to alleviate eco-anxiety, including mindfulness practices coming from Buddhism or the aforementioned group therapy practices. Dr. Jo Hamilton recommends using Emotional Methodologies (EMs), which (like mindfulness and other types of emotional processing) focus on reflexivity.10 EMs create opportunities for acknowledging and supporting painful emotions, helping people process them and recognize their capacity to take action. Hamilton’s research finds that EMs allow people to take action more deeply and sustainably.

Conclusion  

Although eco-anxiety may be helping us take action against climate change, we must be prepared to support a growing community of eco-anxious individuals and help them manage their psychological distress. Mental health systems and policy-makers must recognize that this is a growing threat, and practitioners should be ready to validate and respond to these emotions in their clients—especially individuals who come from marginalized groups most affected by climate change.

Unfortunately, too often, people feel isolated in their climate concerns and try to deal with the issue on their own. If you’re grappling with climate anxiety, know that you have many options of support available to you at various levels of care. Although it may take time to find the option that works for you, it might just be what allows you to feel optimistic and take meaningful action in this very important moment.

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