What Is Eco-Anxiety?
Do you find yourself feeling frustrated, anxious, or depressed when thinking about climate change? Do you feel your heart begin to race or your body tense when reading about environmental damage? If this sounds familiar to you, you may have eco-anxiety.
Eco-anxiety is a “chronic fear of environmental doom” that stems from watching or reading about the impact of climate change (Clayton et al., 2017). Some individuals also experience anxiety due to environmental disasters caused by climate change, including extreme weather that affects people’s livelihoods.
Nearly 70% of people in the US are concerned about climate change, and around 51% feel helpless to affect it (Huizen, 2019). Studies have shown serious impacts of climate change and environmental disasters on mental well-being, with some people reporting significant feelings of anxiety or depression. Eco-anxiety is prevalent among college students, who see the effects of climate change but feel powerless to stop it. It’s time to shine a spotlight on eco-anxiety, open up a discussion, and talk about ways to cope.
Signs & Symptoms
Eco-anxiety shares many similarities with generalized anxiety. The biggest difference between the two is that eco-anxiety originates from the fear of negative environmental impacts, while generalized anxiety involves constant and excessive worry about everyday occurrences that are usually unrealistic or irrational. Anxiety related to climate change differs from other classifications of anxiety, in that the threat that people worry about is real and cannot be dismissed as simply blowing things out of proportion. In fact, the more people come to understand the impacts of climate change, the greater the possibility becomes for feeling anxious and for sensing a lack of control.
Additionally, generalized anxiety disorder is recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.; American Psychiatric Association, 2013), while eco-anxiety is not. If you experience generalized anxiety, you may not experience eco-anxiety. And if you experience eco-anxiety, you may not experience generalized anxiety. However, it is also possible to experience both at the same time or other mental health issues alongside each.
Here are a few symptoms that you may experience with eco-anxiety:
- Feelings of uncertainty about the future, in regard to climate change
- Feelings of guilt, involving your impact on the planet
- Feeling helpless to have a positive impact on climate change
- Ruminating about climate change
- Feeling agitated or restless
- Feeling depressed
- Feeling less in control
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating, negatively affecting performance at school or work
- Avoiding reading or talking about the environment
How Does Eco-Anxiety Affect Me?
Research has found that there are three main ways that people respond to eco-anxiety (Ojala, 2018).
De-emphasis: To make the situation less frightening, you may find yourself de-emphasizing, or downplaying, the importance of the negative impacts of climate change. You may choose to look at the present and think that things are okay for now, so they will be in the future. It’s not denial, but rather, a more focused perspective on the current situation than on concern for the future.
Avoidance: In this response, you find yourself avoiding anything to do with climate change. You skip reading articles about climate change or environmental impact when looking at the news. You may zone out or walk away from a group in which they’re discussing the environment.
Action: This particular way of responding to eco-anxiety is most common among solution-oriented people. You may feel that you want to take control of the situation, to lessen your anxiety, by doing what you can to reduce environmental harm. This can include small steps, such as recycling, or bigger steps, including volunteering for or joining political advocacy groups.
Why Do I Feel This Way?
Eco-anxiety is your response to a very real problem that currently is affecting the world and leaves the future uncertain. In a way, eco-anxiety is a positive thing, as it shows that we want to preserve our planet for future generations. However, that doesn’t change the fact that experiencing eco-anxiety is uncomfortable, and at its worst, can affect your daily life.
You may be feeling overwhelmed by the media’s coverage of negative environmental impacts and extreme weather events brought about by climate change. The feeling of chronic worry stems from being unable to control the problems that are occurring. You may be thinking that you’re only one person and what difference can you make? These types of thoughts feed the anxiety.
Another experience of eco-anxiety is feeling guilty about your own impact on the environment. You may find yourself feeling a sense of shame or guilt for using a plastic straw or for purchasing products online rather than in-store. Knowing there’s not a lot that you can control, you feel guilty for making a choice that you know will have a negative impact on the environment.
If you’re feeling the effects of eco-anxiety, you’re not alone. Eco-anxiety is prevalent in many countries across the globe. A 2021 study (Marks et al., 2021) surveyed 10,000 people, between the ages of 16 and 25, in 10 different countries, and found the following:
- 59% of participants expressed extreme worry regarding climate change.
- Over 50% experienced sadness, anger, powerlessness, helplessness, and guilt.
- Over 45% said that their feelings about the environment had a negative impact on their daily functioning.
6 Wellbeing Strategies For Coping With Eco-Anxiety
Although it is important to show concern for the state of the environment, there needs to be a balance of hope and worry to prevent anxiety that interferes with day-to-day functioning. The good news is that there are several things that you can try in order to reduce your eco-anxiety.
#1: Acknowledge Your Feelings: The first step is to accept and acknowledge your feelings regarding the planet. When negative feelings emerge in regard to climate change, take a moment and acknowledge and label your feelings. Not only does this move you toward accepting them, but it also helps you to maintain some distance from them, temporarily, so that you can decide how you’d like to respond.
#2: Find Hope: When you’re “doom-scrolling,” or continually scrolling through your phone to keep up with what’s happening in the world, and all that you see is story after story discussing our negative impact on the planet, you may feel hopeless that the situation will get better. One of the best ways to combat eco-anxiety, and the hopelessness that comes with it, is to find hope. Search for stories that discuss the positive steps that people are taking to help the planet. You can find this information on websites for environmental nonprofits or charities and in online communities. Each positive story gives you a chance to experience hope.
#3: Take a Break: So you’re back to doom-scrolling and you’re suddenly feeling overwhelmed, anxious, angry, and hopeless. It might be time to take a break and distract yourself. Put the news away, and do something that you enjoy. Go have fun with friends, or relax with a book. Those stories on your phone will be there waiting for you when you’re in a better headspace.
#4: Make a Plan: Another great way to cope with eco-anxiety is to find out what is within your control when it comes to the environment. Look up ways that you can help to make positive changes, and determine what you would like to do. Sometimes, due to disability or necessity, we need to take certain actions or purchase items that are not necessarily considered eco-friendly. So when you’re making a plan, consider what you can reasonably do, whether that is writing a letter to your government representative or looking into upcycling old items around your apartment.
#5: Find a Community: Finding a community of like-minded individuals who are doing what they can to help the planet can feel very validating and empowering. You’ll find multiple communities of people, all across social media, who are doing their part to help the environment. Check at your campus for any environmental communities you can join. By joining these communities, you not only gain hope for the future, but you also have people with whom you can share your concerns.
#6: Talk To a Mental Health Professional: If you believe that your anxiety is out of control and that it’s affecting your day-to-day life, consider seeking professional help. A therapist can help you to talk through your feelings, teach you coping techniques, and promote your mental wellbeing.
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Clayton, S., Manning, C., Krygsman, K., & Speiser, M. (2017, March). Mental health and our changing climate: Impacts, implications, and guidance. American Psychology Association, Climate for Health, & ecoAmerica. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2017/03/mental-health-climate.pdf
Hogg, T., O’brien, L., & Stanley, S. (2021, November 8). Feel alone in your eco-anxiety? Don’t – it’s remarkably common to feel dread about environmental decline. Phys Org. https://phys.org/news/2021-11-eco-anxiety-dont-remarkably-common-dread.html
Huizen, J. (2019, December 19). What to know about eco-anxiety. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/327354
Marks, E., Hickman, C., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, E. R., Mayall, E. E., Wray, B., Mellor, C., & Susteren, L. (2021). Young people’s voices on climate anxiety, government betrayal and moral injury: A global phenomenon. The Lancet. http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3918955
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Ojala, M. (2018). ECO-ANXIETY. Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, 164(4), 10-15. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26798430?read-now=1&seq=2
Pihkala, P. (2020). Anxiety and the ecological crisis: An analysis of eco-anxiety and climate anxiety. Sustainability, 12(19): 7836. https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/12/19/7836
Pihkala, P. (2020). Eco-anxiety and environmental education. Sustainability, 12(23): 10149. https://doi.org/10.3390/su122310149