How do I cope with eco-anxiety?
(T/W This article contains reference to suicidal ideation)
This year, Mental Health Awareness Week is all about nature. We know that for lots of you, worrying about climate change has an impact on your mental health, so we spoke to the experts at Force of Nature to find out how you can cope with these feelings of eco anxiety and how you can turn worry into action. This guide was co-authored by Clover Hogan, Founding Executive Director of Force of Nature, and community member Max Offerman.
What can I do if climate change makes me anxious?
Climate change has catalysed people around the world to take to the streets, demand more of their leaders, and rethink the world we live in. But for many, climate change doesn’t inspire action – it can bring on a tsunami of difficult emotions.
Climate anxiety or eco-anxiety relates to feelings of stress, grief, panic, and even guilt toward climate change; a close cousin is eco-phobia, the feeling of powerlessness in the face of environmental catastrophe.
Now, with near-global awareness of climate change, and more communities feeling its direct impacts, eco-anxiety is on the rise – and young people seem to be some of the worst affected. In England, 57% of child psychiatrists surveyed by the NHS in 2020 reported that their patients experienced eco-anxiety. And those are just the ones seeing psychiatrists; research from 2020 showed that in the UK, 70% of 18-24 year-olds felt the same.
How do other young people feel about climate change?
“I feel constant anxiety that the climate is seriously worsening but there seems to be almost nothing you can do about it as an individual… and so many people don’t seem to care.”
– Catrina, Australia
“I have experienced eco-anxiety since I was an adolescent, and have experienced suicidal ideology as well as intense anxiety as a result.”
– Anna, USA
“I don’t want to have children because I don’t know what kind of world I’ll be bringing them into.”
– Yaashree, India
Is it normal to feel eco-anxious? Can I escape these feelings?
We humans are wired for fight or flight; this internal programming kept our ancestors alive for millions of years. However, climate change isn’t a threat we know how to fight; nor can we take flight to a new planet (yet?), so the normal response is ‘freeze’. We perform mental gymnastics to make sense of the situation, which can lead to us ‘switching off’.
By contrast, feeling eco-anxious is a sign you’re awake to the challenge, aware of the existential threat it poses. Many psychologists, such as Caroline Hickman of the Climate Psychology Alliance, affirm that feeling eco-anxious is a natural, empathetic response, and would even argue that more people should be feeling eco-anxious – especially those in a bubble of climate privilege.
While eco-anxiety can wake us up to the threat, it can also shut us down, if we don’t have a clear sense of what we can do. Feelings of anxiety, frustration and anger can grow into various forms of despair, or even denial.
This is why it’s essential we find a middle ground. But how can we use these feelings to step up, rather than shut down?
What can I do to cope with eco-anxiety?
At Force of Nature, we’ve helped young people in over 50 countries – from Tel Aviv, to Jakarta; New York, to Managua – shift from eco-anxiety to agency. Through online workshops, our mission is to mobilise mindsets to act on climate change. Here’s how we suggest you do it:
- Step into your feelings:
Connecting to our emotions is what enables action. Rather than trying to beat your anxiety, anger or frustration into submission – create space for them. Listen to them. Usually, the thing that upsets you most is where you should focus your energy and action.
- Become aware of your ‘stories’:
We all have our own stories running on repeat, that immobilise us: “I’m too small to make a difference,” “I’m not smart enough,” “The system is too broken…” These kinds of stories paralyse us, and can block those emotions we talked about from catalysing action. Ask yourself now: which ‘story’ gets in the way of you taking action? Then, decide one thing you can do to challenge it.
- Make climate change tangible:
Climate change often seems too big or abstract for anyone to solve and for that reason, focusing on “climate change” overall does us a disservice. It’s simply too intangible for us to act upon. The climate crisis is a symptom of many interconnected problems.
From food waste to fast fashion, social inequality to how we’ve divorced ourselves from nature. Every problem requires a solution; a solution delivered by a someone. Like you. Check out Project Drawdown for inspiration: it’s the most comprehensive plan to reverse global warming.
- Remember, impact comes from focus:
The problem isn’t that we care too much – it’s that we care about too many issues, and try to spread ourselves thin across all of them. Imagine trying to hold ten things in one hand versus just one. By focusing on one problem, we’ll feel less overwhelmed, and more capable of thinking about solutions.
- Visualise a future with your problem solved:
Having focused on a problem you feel strongly about, imagine what the future will look like once that problem has been solved. How did the world need to change? What do we do differently, in this future? What did you do to help make it happen? Define the future you’d like to work toward.
Is there hope?
The number of people experiencing eco-anxiety, and the severity of it, is likely to increase as the impacts of climate change escalate. Until we start thinking differently about (and acting upon) climate change, many people will find themselves anxious, depressed, or worse.
By taking steps to shift our mindsets, we may not get rid of our anxiety, but we can find ways to channel it. We’ve focused so much on what’s been lost that we’ve forgotten about what we can save.
Indeed, the future’s not set in stone – but in order for us to live differently, we must first be able to think differently.
If you’re experiencing eco-anxiety and need support
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By Holly Turner
Updated on 11-May-2021
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