What Is Eco Anxiety & How Can You Manage It

If you’re anxious about climate change, you are not alone. The climate crisis is having an impact on our daily lives as well as our mental health. In this article we examine eco-anxiety and what we can do to deal with it — from how it feels like to those affected. 

Eco anxiety is a very real and very unsettling fear of environmental damage and disaster. It’s no surprise, in a world where we are growing more conscious of the state of the environment and damage caused by humans, that we would feel worried.

Eco anxiety can take various different forms. We may worry about our home and the risk of flooding, or worry about future generations and the world they will inherit. We may feel anxious that we are powerless and helpless in the face of global organisations, or there may be a different focus for our concerns.

Anxiety disorders vary in severity, and according to The Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing in England, 1 in every 6 people aged 16 and up had symptoms of a common mental health problem, such as depression or anxiety.

Even though there are no statistics on the prevalence of eco-anxiety, some experts have noticed an increase in public concern about climate change. Susan Clayton, a psychology and environmental studies professor at the College of Wooster in Ohio, co-wrote a 2017 report titled Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance which states “We can say with certainty that a significant proportion of people are experiencing stress and worry about the potential impacts of climate change…”.

However strong your concerns for the environment might feel just know that you’re not alone in worrying and you’re totally justified to do so. In this article we’ll be covering several topics of ‘eco anxiety’ from how to define it to how to cope moving forward.

What Is Eco Anxiety?

Before we come onto how to deal with eco anxiety, we first need to fully understand it and its origins, as well as how it differs from other forms of anxiety.

The American Psychiatric Association (APA) has described eco anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. It is the ongoing sense of worry that defines it as a problem. It is normal for us all to feel waves of worry regarding the environment, especially if we have educated ourselves about the problem. When that becomes anxiety that dominates much of how you think, it becomes chronic and more of a problem.

Given how new it is as a concept, it’s no surprise that eco anxiety isn’t yet a diagnosable condition. However, this doesn’t mean it isn’t serious and it doesn’t negatively impact the lives of those with it. As many with mental health problems and as many professionals in the field will testify, there is a huge link between nature and mental health. It stands to reason that fear over the ecosystems around us, and our natural world, will hit us hard.

Is Anxiety Normal?

Anxiety is a normal, and often healthy, emotion. However, when a person experiences disproportionate levels of anxiety on a regular basis, it may develop into a medical disorder.

Anxiety develops when your body’s fight-flight-freeze survival instinct responds to perceived threats. We frequently think of perceived threats as being rooted in irrational, far-fetched fears.

In this context, eco anxiety can be viewed as a rare example of anxiety acting as it should. It serves as a survival motivator, a one-of-a-kind emotional response that drives humanity to seek solutions to climate change.

It is completely normal for a person to feel upset, angry, frustrated, or helpless about things over which they have no control and it is easy to be discouraged by bad environmental news. Eco anxiety has no medical definition. If a person is concerned that their environmental worries are interfering with their daily life, ability to work, or ability to care for themselves, they should consult a mental health professional.

A growing number of therapists and other mental health professionals are being trained to detect and manage fears related to the environment and climate.

Who Is Affected By Eco Anxiety:

Eco-anxiety can affect anyone, but multiple statistics appear to show that it is especially prevalent amongst younger people.

According to this global survey of 10,000 people aged 16 to 25, nearly 60% are ‘very worried about climate change.’

A study published in The Lancet, showed that more than 45% of young people across 10 countries said their feelings about climate change “negatively affected their daily life and functioning.” The researchers concluded that climate anxiety and distress were significantly related to “perceived inadequate government response and associated feelings of betrayal.”

What Does Eco Anxiety Feel Like:

If the thought of permanent changes in temperature, climate, and animal and human habitats makes you nervous, you are not alone. After all you, like many others, are deeply traumatised by the damage that has already been done to some natural habitats and species.

Other possible symptoms are as follows:

1) Rage or frustration, especially toward those who deny climate change

2) Thinking that is fatalistic

3) Existential dread, guilt, or shame over your own carbon footprint

4) Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following exposure to the impacts of climate change

5) Depression, anxiety or panic grief and sadness caused by the loss of environments and wildlife populations

6) Obsessive thoughts about the environment

These emotions can contribute to secondary issues such as:

7) Sleeping difficulties

8) Changes in appetite

9) Difficulty concentrating

10) Causing conflict in relationships with friends, partners or family members, particularly if you don’t share the same views on climate change.

Concerns about climate change may become so overwhelming that you seek distractions to avoid them, which in the long-term is not healthy for your mind or body.

What Can Parents, Carers and Guardians Do To Support Young People:

It’s natural for children to have questions and concerns, especially since younger generations will be the ones most affected by these major environmental issues. So how can you help your loved ones?

1) Listening, respecting and validating children and young people’s feelings

2) Explaining to them that their emotions make sense and are a sign that they care

3) Spending time outside as a family, such as planting seeds or going for a walk

4) Calculate your family’s carbon footprint and brainstorm ways to reduce it together

5) Giving them practical opportunities to make a difference

6) Reminding your child that many people are working on solutions to make the world a happier, healthier and safer place

How To Deal With Eco Anxiety:

Different people can experience eco anxiety to different degrees. Some of these tips will help some more than others. However, all are worth a try.

1) Understand where your fears come from:

The media has a reputation for being sensationalist. It can be very difficult to remain calm and composed when hit with headline after headline about climate-related extreme weather, such as recent wildfires and flooding or predictions for the future.

It can be helpful to limit or control your own news consumption. Choose reputable sources for reading about environmental concerns and limit how much information you consume if it is causing undue fears for you.

2) Control what you can control:

Anxiety often builds when you feel limited in terms of what you can do about what you are worrying about. When we feel we are doing something we can instantly begin to feel better.

There are a number of things within the control of the individual regarding environmentalism. You can shop consciously, such as with Wearth, knowing that our values match your values and we’ve done the hard work sourcing goods for you. You can join pressure groups, lobby politicians, or undertake litter picking to name just a few actions you can take.

3) Define your values and your priorities:

We can’t lie – there’s a lot of work to be done to help our planet recover and thrive in the future. However, it’s impossible for one individual to do it all.

Therefore, cut yourself some slack by identifying which values mean the most to you. Do some reading about different issues. It’s a recipe for anxiety if you try to go vegan, plastic-free, organic, zero-waste and stop unfair trade all in one fell swoop. Break things down into manageable pieces and focus on the issues which are most important to you first.

Then be proud of what you are doing, and refuse to feel ashamed for what you’re not able to do yet. It’s better to do something rather than nothing at all.

4) Get accurate information:

In the world of the internet, it’s easy to be swamped with information. However, it won’t all be accurate. Dig out reliable sources and stick to these for your information and for educating yourself.

5) Build your resilience:

Resilience is your armour against anxiety and you can take steps to build it. If you believe you have the strength to manage your anxiety, then you’re already part-way there.

There are many ways that mental health professionals recommend building your resilience. Mind recommends such things as taking steps to improve your physical health such as getting enough sleep and exercise, practising assertiveness, learning and adopting relaxation techniques, taking up hobbies and interests, and building a support network.

6) Focus on optimism:

It’s easy to get sucked into the doom and gloom regarding our planet’s health. However, it’s vital to remain optimistic. There are things we can do to make a difference and there are growing numbers of people getting on board.

If this means you sometimes need to disengage, that’s fine.

7) Get out into nature:

As we’ve already said, there is a huge benefit to our mental health of getting out into nature.

So, use that knowledge as an excuse to get out into the local nature around you and connect with your environment. Even in city centres you can find parks where local ecosystems abound. Being active in nature is even better. What’s more, if you walk, run or cycle instead of taking the car or bus, it’s better for the environment too.

8) Get help:

It’s important to recognise when you need to do more than take the above steps. If your anxiety feels overwhelming or isn’t responding to these steps, then you may need to get further help.

As it’s not a recognised condition (yet), doctors may not know how to deal with eco anxiety. But they do know how to deal with anxiety in general, and they should be able to help. They may be able to recommend professional help. If you choose talking therapies, then try to find a counsellor or therapist who shares your values. Climate Psychology Alliance offers specific help and guidance for those with eco anxiety.

If you think you may be suffering from eco anxiety, don’t let worries about that add to your load. As psychotherapist Caroline Hickman explains, this anxiety is an “emotionally mature state” showing a willingness to acknowledge the situation that our planet is in. Your feelings are reasonable and understandable.

Take small and manageable steps, connect with like-minded others, and you’ll find that your eco anxiety can be used for good, and managed in the process.

If you would like to learn more ways about managing your eco anxiety, be on the lookout for our upcoming post on natural remedies to help with anxiety! We discuss holistic and alternative methods of helping you alleviate your anxiety.