• Anxiety NZ Trust

What is eco-anxiety?

Updated: May 11

It is now widely accepted that the world is experiencing a pervasive ecological crisis [1]. Whilst humans are the cause of this wide spread environmental degradation, we are also suffering because of it and, in recent years, the health effects on humans caused by the ecological crisis have been documented [2]. These include direct and indirect health impacts caused by experiencing climate related natural disasters and their knock-on effects such as disease, lost livelihoods and species extinction.


But even people who are not experiencing environmental degradation first hand, are experiencing serious mental health issues as a consequence of their awareness of this escalating crisis [3]. The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has provided an empowering example of a young person engaging with the ecological crisis, but it is important to note that even her story began with a debilitating period of mental health issues, caused by her awareness of the ecological crisis [4].



Eco-anxiety has come to refer to any form of anxiety related to the ecological crisis such as climate change, deforestation, species extinction and pollution [5]. It has been defined as “the generalised sense that the ecological foundations of existence are in the process of collapse” [6], or by the American Psychological Association (APA), as “a chronic fear of environmental doom” [7]. A survey conducted by the APA in 2020, found that approximately two thirds of participants experienced at least a small amount of eco-anxiety. Witnessing environmental degradation is a persistent source of stress that will not abate in the near future, but will only worsen. Learning to cope with this source of stress is therefore an important part of maintaining our health and wellbeing.


Feeling anxious or worried about the climate and ecological crisis is a normal and rational response to a huge and very real threat. However, when this worry starts to impact how we function and actually prevents us for taking action towards living a meaningful life, it has become maladaptive and needs to be addressed. Maladaptive eco-anxiety can affect people even if they have no direct negative experience of ecological crisis. It can impair a person’s ability to flourish, maintain any hope for a positive future, and seriously reduce their quality of life. Ironically, this often leads to an inability to take positive action towards mitigating the causes of ecological degradation. Eco-anxiety might be best described as an existential crisis, due to its all-encompassing nature, and can include symptoms of trauma, stress or grief, as well as anxiety.


There are lots of ways to help yourself cope with increasing anxiety in response to ecological crisis such as building your personal and community resilience, developing good emotion regulation techniques, cultivating active hope and joining a group of like-minded people either in person or online.


We’ll explore these approaches in more detail in next week’s blog post.


References

[1] https://www.ipcc.ch

[2] N. Watts, et. al., “The Lancet Countdown: tracking progress on health and climate change.” The Lancet, 389(10074), 1151-1164, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1016/s0140-6736(16)32124-9

[3], [7] S. Clayton, et al., “Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance.” Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, and ecoAmerica, 2017.

[4], [5] P. Pihkala, “Anxiety and the Ecological Crisis: An Analysis of Eco-Anxiety and Climate Anxiety,” Sustainability, 12(19), 2020, https://doi.org/10.3390/su12197836

[6] G. Albrecht, “Psychoterratic conditions in a scientific and technological world.” In P. H. Kahn & P. H. Hasbach (Eds.), Ecopsychology: Science, Totems, and the Technological Species (pp. 241–264). MIT Press: Cambridge, UK, 2012

[8] S. Clayton, “Climate anxiety: Psychological responses to climate change.” J Anxiety Disord, 74, 2020, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2020.102263

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