“Empowering action is the antidote to these horrific, overwhelming emotions (of climate change)” – Lise van Susteren
We are all familiar with the potential impacts of climate change due to the rise in reporting of extreme weather events, droughts, the ice caps melting, flooding, and impacts on agriculture and infrastructure. However, we may not be so familiar with the impact that climate change is having on mental health. In the past year, psychologists have reported that greater numbers of people are experiencing acute distress over climate change, commonly labeled as Eco-Anxiety.
There is a wealth of research on how natural disasters, including heatwaves, wildfires, hurricanes, and floods, can lead to direct psychological issues. However, the indirect, long-term psychological effects of climate change are not as well understood. The mental health issues that are created by this indirect situation are referred to as eco-anxiety, climate distress, climate change anxiety, or climate anxiety.
The American Psychological Association (APA) describes eco-anxiety as a “chronic fear of environmental doom.” Although “eco-anxiety” is not recognized as an official condition in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it is an emerging psychological condition that needs addressing due to the current climate situation.
There is substantial research which has evidenced the negative impacts of exposure to extreme weather events on physical and mental health as well as social relations. More than 40% of Americans felt “disgusted” or “helpless” about the effects of climate change, according to a 2020 survey published by researchers at Yale University.
A 2018 report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts irreversible damage by 2040 with mass drought, food shortages, flooding, wildfires, and mass die-off of coral reefs. This report is only one of many evidencing similar results.
There is also an increase in both direct and indirect experiences of climate change, caused by living through natural disasters or by witnessing the devastating scenes across the world on the news. As a result, psychological distress has soared, with people experiencing nightmares, depression, anxiety, loss of general wellbeing, and socio-ethical paralysis.
Eco-Anxiety stems from a feeling of helplessness. Our existential fears are brought to the forefront, and anxieties increase alongside the belief that we can do little to prevent environmental catastrophe.
- Panic Attacks
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Obsessive thoughts
- Feelings of helplessness, fear, and fatalism
- Loss of a sense of control and autonomy
- Interpersonal issues, including elevated hostility, interpersonal and intergroup aggression, and loss of social identity and cohesion
These affects have a long-term effect on a person’s sense of well being and can lead to stress-related problems such as substance abuse, anxiety disorders, and depression as well as physical effects such as a weakened immune system and chronic pain.
A 2020 study found that the development of eco-anxiety revealed four factors: cognitive-emotional impairment, functional impairment, behavioral engagement, and experience. The effects of cognitive-emotional impairment were found to have the most detrimental consequences on a person’s mental health. This increases the susceptibility of young people to developing eco-anxiety, as the adolescent brain is at a crucial stage of development with many marked structural changes occurring.
Youth & Eco-Anxiety
- Youth might be more likely than adults to experience the effects associated with climate change. They will have diverse fears ranging from growing old on a decaying planet to concerns over raising a child in this negative situation.
- They are more likely to experience the psychological effects as they are at a vulnerable and crucial point in their physical and psychological development..
We understand that chronic stress during these developmental years might result in permanent alterations within the structure of the brain and increase the likelihood of psychopathologies in later life.
Therefore, youths’ climate concerns and subsequent stress during a developmental period of life must be fully understood so that we can provide appropriate help. It is essential for parents and teachers to acknowledge young people’s fears, listen to and discuss their concerns, and encourage them to take positive action so that they gain strength from being proactive.
Treatment for Eco-Anxiety
As we have discovered, the development of eco-anxiety is largely centered on the notion of “helplessness.” It is most beneficial for psychologists to encourage their clients to discover feelings of empowerment so that they can rid themselves of the learned helplessness that leads to feelings of despair and hopelessness.
Mindfulness, meditation, and bodywork such as yoga can help reduce anxiety and allow people to ground themselves in order to experience positive emotions. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a successful treatment as it allows patients to sit with and listen to their anxiety and find ways to transform it into something proactive. People who are suffering with climate anxiety will likely find comfort through making behavioral changes such as:
- Joining conservation and preservation groups
- Becoming conscious of the reality of their surroundings
- Making an effort to “do their part” in such ways as reducing plastics
- Having an environmentally friendly diet
These small steps can remove the feeling of guilt that is often associated with eco-anxiety and replace it with confidence and a sense of purpose.
Being concerned with climate change and conservation is integral to the preservation of our planet and is an important and worthwhile activity. However, if your eco-anxiety is negatively impacting your life it is best to seek help from a professional.
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