What is eco-anxiety and how to deal with it?

Eco-anxiety, or climate-anxiety, is often described as a “chronic fear of environmental doom”. It stems from humans’ destructive relationship with nature and concerns for the future with the threat of human-induced climate change and ecological breakdown.

Specific fears may relate to awareness of a rising risk of extreme weather events, loss of unique habitats and species and threats to livelihoods and housing which may result in the displacement of millions of climate refugees.  

Whilst it is not recognised as a mental health disorder in its own right, the symptoms of eco-anxiety can overlap with disorders such as generalised anxiety and depression. It can cause feelings of loss and grief, hopelessness, guilt and even physical symptoms such as insomnia and exhaustion.

This is something that and many others concerned about the environment can relate to. Sometimes I feel like my actions aren’t enough to make a difference when giant corporations continue carelessly polluting and governments fail to regulate them.

My feelings were recently cemented when I witnessed the simple act of someone littering. I broke down crying as it made me feel that everything good I was trying to do was pointless with people like that around, using the Earth as their rubbish bin.

Another way eco-anxiety can be described is through the concept of solastalgia. Coined by the philosopher Glen Albrecht in 2005, solastalgia means a kind of ‘homesickness’ for the environment the way it used to be. As we continue to lose beautiful places, animals and resources belonging to the natural world, we can feel a sense of loss for what once was.

However we choose to describe eco-anxiety, the phenomena is rising, particularly in the younger generation. A recent survey by the environmental charity Global Action Plan revealed that 77% of young people feel anxious when thinking about climate change.

I recently attended a webinar on eco-anxiety, hosted by Wiltshire Council and delivered by climate psychologist Caroline Hickman. When I asked why we had seen a rise in recent years, she said “I think eco-anxiety has not so much increased, what’s increased is it’s come into conscious awareness”. She was very clear in saying that climate strikers were not causing anxiety but were “giving voice to the anxiety that young people have been feeling for a very long time”.

But it’s not all doom and gloom! The webinar was very reassuring confirming that these feelings arising from eco-anxiety are normal responses that help us deal with some of the terrible things that are happening (and remember that a lot of good is happening too). They also allow us to empathise, connect with people who share the same concerns and even motivate us to take action. In fact Hickman says these feelings “will give us the impetus to act, nothing else will”.

Communication is key and we need to support each other. Talking to friends and family as well as people I’ve met through my course and volunteering has been really helpful for me as it provides the opportunity to share any worries and discuss individual solutions and coping mechanisms. I can also see all the effort that lots of other passionate people are making to help the environment and I feel better knowing I am part of that positive change.

Sometimes things can be overwhelming and if you are struggling to cope, please seek help but know that you are not alone and we are all in this together.

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