The Rise of ‘Eco-Anxiety’ – How Its Affecting Our Mental Health

Climate change is frequently in the headlines and is weighing down the minds of many of us. There has been such a significant wave of individual and public distress that some have coined this new form of anxiety – ‘eco-anxiety’.

Is ‘eco-anxiety’ a real thing?

Although it doesn’t yet appear in our diagnostic manual (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), the American Psychological Association describes this anxiety as ‘a chronic fear of environmental doom’. The report by the APA states that sufferers of eco-anxiety ‘are deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness and frustration’. It’s not just the seriousness of the global situation but also the lack of action in responding to this threat.

Discussion within therapy rooms also echoes this evidence of eco-anxiety. Panicked individuals concerned with climate change are presenting not only with feelings of frustration and overwhelm but also with a deep sense of despair. From an individual perspective, check out this personal account on BBC Radio. Sam describes his eco-anxiety as difficulty getting to sleep, feeling powerless and even experiencing heart palpitations. If unaddressed existential anxiety without clear pathways to prevent our grim future is likely to contribute to further societal problems. We may see a link between this debilitating uncertainty about our future and binge drinking or other addictive behaviours.

Should we be worried?

Increased awareness of climate change and its consequences has opened the eyes of (almost!) everyone. Young people of today cannot escape the dire message conveyed across every channel. And how does one carry this knowledge and continue to function? In the words of Greta Thunberg, let us not be blindly hopeful. Greta suggests instead that we should be panicked and unfortunately, she is correct. The situation does call for urgent action. For many now in society, there is panic, and sadly, this does not necessarily lead us toward effectively tackling this huge problem.

But the truth is that the terror and fear associated with climate breakdown are so massive that we try to do all we can to deny it. It’s too hard to face the reality of just how severely our lives and those of our children will be impacted.

eco-anxietySo what can we do?

The climate emergency is known as the defining issue of our time. So it makes sense that all professions, psychologists included, have begun to consider what role we can play in tackling climate change as well as eco-anxiety. CEO of the Australian Psychological Society (APS), Ms Frances Mirabelli recently suggested that psychologists can ‘nudge the public’s behaviour and help policymakers communicate about climate change in the right way’. In July, Ms Mirabelli attended the European Congress of Psychology in Moscow. From this gathering, an international panel was formed with the task of producing a position paper with ‘a clear call to action’. It is understood that ‘Psychology Week’ (10-16th November) in Australia this year mirrors this project and is focused on highlighting young people’s feelings about social justice and specifically the climate crisis.

I believe the widespread communication of clear, actionable steps will have a soothing effect on the global increase of eco-anxiety. Young people of today are increasingly demanding to have their say and to be heard. We can harness this energy and urgency by empowering individuals (and policymakers) with clear, actionable steps. This is not ‘pie in the sky’ blind optimism; we actually have a ‘Roadmap Providing 36 Solutions to Cut Greenhouse Gas Emissions 50% by 2030 Worldwide’. As a society, if we can focus our energy on solution-focused problem solving rather than panic, then we will be in a far more powerful position to bring about a brighter future.

Let’s use ‘eco-anxiety’ to our advantage

Our emotional reactions to this existential threat are understandable, but it doesn’t have to cause to react negatively or prevent us from responding effectively. The first step we must take is to accept the reality of the climate change situation and face our fears head-on. Only then will we be in a position to respond appropriately and set achievable goals. In other words, rather than be overwhelmed, use these strong emotions and channel them into constructive action!

If you need help to overcome climate change anxiety, PMW is here for you. Learn how to take control of your emotions and become a force for greater good today.

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