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Eco-anxiety: Climate Change's Impact On Mental Health

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

Climate change can have a debilitating impact on mental and physical health - here's how to cope with it.


With increasing recognition of climate change, global health systems, have started accounting for its consequences on one’s health and well-being. Many experts now deem climate change as one of the top threats to global health in the twenty-first century. This is in light of the recent surge in people reporting feelings of fear for themselves, their families and future generations alongside feelings of loss, hopelessness and anger at the current environmental conditions. While such feelings may not be new, it is only now that they have gained traction in mental health circles and been officially termed “eco-anxiety”.


Given the concept’s novelty, eco-anxiety as a phenomenon is yet to be understood fully. The American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”; they suggest that it may lead to a range of things from mild stress to clinical disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), etc. and result in maladaptive behaviours of substance abuse and aggression. Other experts explain it as mental distress or anxiety arising from a recognition of deteriorating environmental conditions or a response to climate change, ecological crisis and/or environmental threats. Those who experience eco-anxiety are likely to experience panic attacks, adverse emotions (such as sadness, irritability, frustration, guilt, etc.), weakness, and sleeplessness, amongst other things.



The main causes attributed to eco-anxiety are lived experiences of climate change such as disasters, increased media coverage and growing awareness of the issue, and remorse over one’s contribution to exacerbating climate change. Further, certain socio-economic factors may make an individual more susceptible to eco-anxiety.


These include having a lower economic standing, being from a marginalised group, lacking sociopolitical power, and experiencing a loss of nature and consequent erosion of nature-related cultures and identities. Lastly, one’s gender and age may also determine one’s experience as women, children and the youth are more likely to experience the burden of climate change to a relatively greater degree.


As a result, eco-anxiety is reported the most by individuals from indigenous communities and socioeconomically disadvantaged communities; those living in coastal or island regions, dry areas and other areas facing a high geographical risk; people with disabilities or chronic health concerns; survivors of extreme climate-change-related events; climate scientists and activists. Despite such profiles of the experiencers, the majority of research and literature on the issue comes from Western countries. Therefore, the real extent of eco-anxiety for those most at risk remains largely unknown. Consequently, these groups often get a raw deal in terms of the help and resources needed to combat eco-anxiety.


That said, new initiatives are emerging with time to strengthen the social support systems and mental health infrastructure required for treating eco-anxiety. More research projects are being undertaken. Support groups for those with eco-anxiety are on the rise, which is also amplifying the conversation around it. Relevant institutions are coming up with new ways to help people manage eco-anxiety; for example, schools in New Zealand recently incorporated the subject into their curriculum to generate awareness early on and prepare children.


Finally, mental health practitioners are beginning to devise productive ways of dealing with it. While the aforementioned are initiatives that involve numerous parties, individuals or small groups, too, can take charge to help themselves or others deal with eco-anxiety.


Research suggests that action-oriented solutions have proven to be most helpful in alleviating the symptoms of eco-anxiety. This is because taking action or getting involved in any way helps many in gaining a sense of control and reducing feelings of uncertainty. Further, the countless ways of taking charge, from becoming politically active and advocating volunteering in any manner, give people the space to find out what works best for them.



Additionally, connecting with nature and others undergoing the same can help people cultivate a sense of belonging and connectedness. Together, these activities can help people build resilience, educate themselves and process their emotions in healthy manners instead of suppressing them. Seeking help from a mental health expert is also an option.


What is imperative to note is that eco-anxiety is a real condition that needs to be taken seriously and that there are many ways to deal with it. In the wake of climate change and both its immediate and gradual effects, we are bound to experience its effects in several spheres of our lives, including our mental health. Therefore, generating awareness around the issue and building a safe space for those dealing with eco-anxiety along with a community is essential. Put differently, it is only with hope, resiliency and thoughtful actions that we can combat climate change and our own human conditions that come our way.


References

Clayton, S. (2021). Climate Change and Mental Health. Current Environmental Health Reports, 8(1), 1–6.


Coffey, Y., Bhullar, N., Durkin, J., Islam, M. S., & Usher, K. (2021). Understanding Eco-anxiety: A Systematic Scoping Review of Current Literature and Identified Knowledge Gaps. The Journal of Climate Change and Health, 3.


Dodds, J. (2021). The psychology of climate anxiety. BJPsych Bulletin, 45(4), 222–226. https://doi.org/10.1192/bjb.2021.18


Heid, M. (2022, April 22). How to Cope With Eco-Anxiety. Everyday Health. https://www.everydayhealth.com/eco-anxiety/how-to-cope-with-eco-anxiety/


Hickman, C. (2020). We need to (find a way to) talk about . . . Eco-anxiety. Journal of Social Work Practice, 34(4), 411–424.


Huizen, J. (2019, December 19). What to know about eco-anxiety. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/327354#how-to-manage


Raypole, C. (2020, September 23). Climate Change Taking a Toll on Your Mental Health? How to Cope With ‘Eco-Anxiety.’ Healthline.


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