Eco-Anxiety

A mother and her son are kneeling next to their vegetable garden and are holding their freshly picked produce, next to them is a basket full of vegetables and a watering can.Eco-anxiety refers to anxiety or worry about the ecological threats facing the earth. Eco-anxiety is not considered to be a mental health concern. Rather, it is seen as a typical reaction to the growing awareness of the problems that can result from climate change and other global threats.

Understanding Eco-Anxiety

Most scientists agree the earth is facing something of a crisis, due to the effects of climate change. Awareness of this can lead people to worry about the sustainability of the earth and consider the potential effects of their own carbon footprint. Eco-anxiety became a term in order to reflect the increasing anxiety and concern many people are currently experiencing in relation to environmental changes and the outcome of these changes on humanity and the world.

In their article “The Waking Up Syndrome,” Sarah Anne Edwards and Linda Buzzell describe the process people typically go through as they become more aware of the ecological threats facing the planet today. In the first stage, denial, people avoid truly acknowledging that a problem exists. Then, as people become more consciously aware of the issue, they move on to Stage 2, semi-consciousness. Stage 3 is described as a moment of realization. Such a moment might occur when reading a compelling article or when personally experiencing the negative impacts of climate change, such as in the form of a natural disaster. Once people “wake up” to the threats that the earth is facing, and reach a so-called “point of no return,” or Stage 4, they typically experience feelings of despair, hopelessness, and guilt in Stage 5. This is followed by the final stage of acceptance and action, in which people take steps to help the environment and live a more sustainable lifestyle.

Mental and Physical Impact of Climate Change

Climate change can have both direct and indirect effects on an individual’s psychological well-being. Direct effects include those occurring as a result of one’s personal experience with an environmental stressor. People who have lived through significant storms such as Hurricane Katrina may experience posttraumatic stress symptoms, substance use issues, and depression. Climate change can have physical effects, too. Severe heat waves, for example, have been associated with increased mortality rates.

The indirect effects of climate change include the emotional responses people have when they see images of or hear stories about human suffering as a result of environmental changes. While not everybody has a strong emotional reaction to climate change, some people experience a high degree of distress. Among the noted symptoms of eco-anxiety are panic attacks, loss of appetite, irritability, obsessive thinking, and insomnia.

How Does Eco-Anxiety Differ from Anxiety?

Anxiety is a normal human experience. Most people experience anxiety to some degree, though it is not always clinically significant. Eco-anxiety is one form of anxiety, but it is generally considered normal to have fears about the future of the world, especially in light of more recent research revealing the damaging effects of climate change.

The symptoms of eco-anxiety may overlap with symptoms of other forms of anxiety, but there is no specific diagnosis for eco-anxiety included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). In some cases, eco-anxiety may be a symptom of a broader anxiety issue, and some mental health professionals have expressed skepticism. For example, it is typical for people with generalized anxiety to worry about a range of issues, and ecological threats to the planet may just be one area of worry among many.

How Can Eco-Anxiety Be Addressed in Therapy?

Ecopsychology is one treatment that is being used specifically for people who are dealing with eco-anxiety. Ecotherapy, the applied practice of ecopsychology, is another method. Ecopsychology explores the relationship between an individual’s own well-being and the planet’s well-being. It strives to help people feel more connected to nature through spending time outdoors and appreciating natural beauty.Spending time in nature and doing projects to improve the planet’s outcome, to the extent of one’s ability, may also provide significant benefit.

Another important aspect of therapy for eco-anxiety is helping people learn to accept the limits of their control. People can feel empowered when they take positive steps to lead a more sustainable lifestyle and know they are making a difference while still accepting that the future is largely out of their control.

Self-Care and Coping Methods for Eco-Anxiety

As with all types of anxiety, self-care and healthy coping skills can be effective tools for managing eco-anxiety. Self-care involves getting adequate rest, maintaining a nutritious diet, and engaging in regular physical activity. Those experiencing eco-anxiety may also find it helpful to take breaks from technology in order to pursue more nature-oriented and/or relaxing hobbies such as yoga, gardening, or meditation.

Spending time in nature and doing projects to improve the planet’s outcome, to the extent of one’s ability, may also provide significant benefit. Starting recycling projects in the home or community, learning how to compost or make worm gardens, and picking up trash in the neighborhood could all become coping methods for many people.

References:

  1. Doherty, T. J., & Clayton, S. (2011). The psychological impacts of global climate change. American Psychologist, 66(4). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/amp-66-4-265.pdf
  2. Edwards, S. A. (2010, February 21). Once awake: The waking up syndrome two years later. Retrieved from http://eco-anxiety.blogspot.com/
  3. Edwards, S. A., & Buzzell, L. (2008). The waking up syndrome. Retrieved from http://old.relocalize.net/the_waking_up_syndrome
  4. Glaser, G. (2008, February 16). Anxious about Earth’s troubles? There’s treatment. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/16/us/16therapy.html

Last Updated: 01-11-2018

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  • Shalama

    Shalama

    June 24th, 2018 at 11:56 PM

    I experienced this so became an environmental activist. Then completely burnt out. I thought I could make a change but there is far too much money to be made in unsustainable practices that you get knocked back every time you try. There’s only so much I can do now without feeling like I’ll give in to the anxiety so there’s a certain amount of ‘looking the other way’ I do to sustain my mental health. I don’t live a more sustainable lifestyle like this article claims is the ‘natural progression’ of eco-anxiety (though obviously you can’t just label a condition and have everyone go through each step in order), but the only way things are really going to improve are with social change, not a few people going ‘zero waste’ (which is impossible and unsustainable). The only way I would really be engaged in pushing social change is if more people were impassioned to make a stand. Until that point, it’s David and Goliath. But David doesn’t stand a chance.

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