Sacha Wright, Emily Osterloff
Publish: 01 Feb 2024, 02:56 pm
Climate change and the state of nature are taking their toll on the mental health of people around the world.
Find ways to cope with your eco-anxiety and channel it into action for the planet.
Every day we are faced with the harsh reality of our changing world through reports of the latest scientific data and stories from around the globe. Communities around the world are already experiencing the first-hand impacts of the climate crisis. For many of us, living in a time of climate change has an overwhelming impact on our emotions and the way we feel.
What is eco-anxiety?
It is nothing new to say the world is experiencing a human-caused climate crisis or that we're facing unprecedented levels of biodiversity loss due to human actions.
Watching our natural world change, sometimes combined with feeling personal guilt or witnessing climate indifference and elected powers failing to act with the pace required, can evoke a variety of emotions, from anger and frustration to dread, powerlessness and hopelessness. It can be uncomfortable, overwhelming and paralysing.
This phenomenon is known as climate anxiety or eco-anxiety, often defined as a chronic fear of environmental doom, a worry for what might happen if the world does not take action to avert disaster in time.
Eco-anxiety affects people of all ages but particularly those experiencing climate impacts first-hand and those who have the most to lose in the face of environmental catastrophe. Young people globally are experiencing sky-rocketing eco-anxiety, as they see the window to fix the planetary emergency closing, but often feel powerless to enact meaningful change.
Youth non-profit organisation Force of Nature finds that over 70% of young people feel hopeless in the face of the climate crisis and as many as 56% believe humanity is doomed. But only 26% feel that they know how to contribute to solving the problem.
Climate anxiety isn't experienced in the same way by everyone. For those living on the frontlines of climate-related disasters, facing extreme floods, wildfires and drought, for example, the distress can be magnified. A study of 10,000 people aged 16-25 revealed 92% in the Philippines feel that the future is frightening, compared to 56% in Finland.
There is also an overwhelming sense of frustration and betrayal among Gen Z at perceived inaction by those in seats of power. Almost 60% of those that feel affected by climate-related anxiety on a daily basis attribute those feelings to their national governments.
Is eco-anxiety a mental illness?
Eco-anxiety is rational. It is our 'internal alarm bells' telling us something is wrong. A response like this to the possibility of a sixth mass extinction event is more than reasonable.
Climate anxiety is not considered a diagnosable condition, but mental health experts recognise that climate change can trigger a psychological response.
The long-term effects of this anxiety aren't known, but potentially add to the many ways climate change impacts our health.
We also don't yet know the scale of eco-anxiety, though research reports that around 45% of young people feel climate-related anxiety and distress affects their daily lives and ability to function normally.
Experts are recognising that eco-anxiety is having a growing impact on people and communities. This may stem from a greater presence of the climate crisis in the news cycle and social media feeds, but also the fact that the physical effects of climate change are being felt with increasing intensity in many parts of the world.
You don't have to 'fix' eco-anxiety
Sacha Wright is a Research and Curriculum coordinator at Force of Nature, working with the organisation on their mission to empower people to turn their climate anxiety into action.
Sacha says, 'I had always learned that to make a meaningful impact in a tough world, to even scratch the surface of time-sensitive crises like environmentalism, medicine, health and development, you had to backburner your feelings and vaccinate yourself against emotional attachment.'
However, on coming across the phenomenon of eco-anxiety through an article in The Guardian, featuring Force of Nature's founder Clover Hogan, Sacha found the opposite to be true: that tuning into your discomfort is a key step in being able to take sustainable action.
She adds, 'As a society working with a rapidly shrinking timeframe, the threat even greater than the climate crisis is how powerless we feel in the face of it. Yet opening our hearts to this fear, grief and anxiety is in fact one of our greatest tools for mobilising mindsets to tackle climate change.'
How to deal with climate anxiety
Eco-anxiety is a rational response to the current state of our world, but it is important that, like with other anxieties and emotions, climate-related fears should be navigated with great care.
Sacha shares her top tips on what you can do to help manage feelings of climate anxiety and take steps toward action that will help us all secure a sustainable future.
1. Don't bury your feelings
'It is easy to fall into the trap of wanting to "fix" the difficult and often contradictory emotions that come with recognising the climate crisis,' says Sacha. 'But these should be acknowledged without judgment.'
'Instead of trying to force your feelings about climate change into submission, invite in the range of challenging emotions.'
To get started, Sacha suggests a simple activity.
'Sit down and write out all of the thoughts that bubble to the surface in relation to the climate crisis, then identify the emotions behind each one.'
Emotions for inspiration
Interested, helpless, afraid, outraged, angry, hopeful, ashamed, guilty, courageous, frustrated, disappointed, concerned, anxious, sad, disconnected, engaged, lonely, betrayed, exhausted, cynical, inspired, thankful, loving.
2. Speak up
A photo of a cafe at the Natural History Museum, London, with an illustration overlayed depicting a Force of Nature Climate Cafe
In November 2022, Force of Nature ran a series of Climate Cafés at the Museum to foster open discussion about feelings around the climate crisis.
Try not to internalise your eco-anxiety. It's important to surround yourself with a community you can share your feelings with.
If you're worried about how your friends and family might respond, Sacha shares this advice, 'I often worry that if I bring up my eco-anxiety around my peers, I will be the "downer" but sharing your fears, concerns and hopes is a powerful way to break down the shame and stigma around engagement in environmentalism.'
'By expressing that you care about the future of our planet, you are acting in solidarity with a global community of people inheriting a world at risk. Share what you are worried about but focus more on why you are worried about it. Anchor your anxiety or fear in the love or appreciation you feel for something the planet holds.'
3. Language is important
A group of young climate activists in discussion at a community event
Young climate activists, including Kristy Drutman, Leah Thomas and Jerome Foster, share their climate-related emotions at Force of Nature's community event at COP26 in Glasgow. © Force of Nature
'How we express ourselves is almost as important as what we say,' Sacha explains.
'It is easy to get bogged down in "doomsday" science and blunt, shocking data points. It can often feel like we're being told to "play audience" to narratives about the climate and our role within it, with little recognition of our own lived experiences.'
'It is essential to identify the stories that serve us versus the stories that hinder us. This doesn't mean relying on naïve optimism or ignoring difficult information. Rather, it is about carefully choosing the words we use when facing the problem.'
'Some of the best examples of resilience come from stories of communities on the front lines of the climate crisis. The language that we use must put the people who fight year-round for the wellbeing of their communities and our planet at the centre, and reject detachment or resignation.'
4. Find your superpower
We can all play a part in solving the climate crisis. It can often be easiest to start small and work towards larger, long-term goals. Here's how to start doing your bit for the planet.
You alone are not responsible for solving the climate crisis - we need to work together. But you are an important piece of the puzzle, with unique skills and capabilities.
Sacha says, 'When facing an enormous challenge like climate change, it's difficult to know where to start. Figuring out what your contribution looks like can help break it down into manageable, bite-size pieces, and make us realise we don't have to do everything all at once.'
'Climate activism doesn't have one particular look. Find the issue that lights a fire in your belly and put your mind to tackling it.'
5. Choose 'do'
Break the cycle by turning your climate anxiety into action.
Sacha explains, 'Every time we act, we make both external and internal changes that disrupt the self-fulfilling prophecy of powerlessness. If we believe we are powerless, why would we act? But if we believe we have power, why wouldn't we act?'
'Agency is like a muscle: it must be exercised, each day. When you feel helpless, focus on what is within your control, then take small steps in the right direction. Often, motivation follows action, rather than the other way around. The more you do, the more you see that you can do.'
Sacha suggests creating a list of intentions that range in scale - from a small step like signing an online petition to a long-term decision to follow a career in environmental science or join an ocean justice organisation, for example.
She adds, 'This demonstrates how your actions, rather than being tokenistic or superficial, are an important starting point for building agency and confidence.'
How to turn climate anxiety into action
It is essential to remember that the climate and ecological crises we face aren't one person's or one generation's problem to fix - they are complex, global issues.
Events such as November's UN Climate change conference COP27 and December's biodiversity conference COP15 play important roles. At these summits, governments from around the world declare their plans to negotiate the planetary emergency.
As individuals and communities, we have a responsibility to continue to strive for a sustainable future, each bringing our own set of unique skills to the table. Find like-minded people, speak up, take positive action and hold to account those with the power to make change.
However, Sacha notes that it is important to remember that 'corporations and incumbent power systems that profit from environmental degradation benefit from the narrative that individual action is the only tool in tackling the planetary emergency'.
But we must work collectively to advocate for change.
Climate activist and Force of Nature CEO Clover Hogan and Climate Psychology Researcher Caroline Hickman discuss eco-anxiety and how to turn ecological grief into the determination to help create a sustainable future.
Sacha says, 'We are part of a global community and our eco-anxiety must be reflected in our solidarity with those experiencing the climate crisis first-hand, for whom eco-anxiety is a lived reality.'
'Let's find strength from empathy and connectedness and fight for a world where we take care of ourselves, one another and our shared home.'
[This Article is written by economist Sacha Wright and Emily Osterloff, and was published in 'Natural-History_Museum' website]
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