While most of us are familiar with the concept of anxiety, you may be less acquainted with the term “eco-anxiety.” Also called climate anxiety, eco-anxiety has arisen out of the field of climate psychology. In some cases, eco-anxiety can actually be an adaptive response, but in others, it can lead to dysfunctional behavior that significantly interferes with daily life.
What is eco-anxiety?
The American Psychological Association (APA) has described eco-anxiety as arising when a person experiences chronic fear related to the state of the environment. In some cases, the fear is mild and doesn’t cause much distress, but in other cases, a person may develop clinical depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder in response to climate anxiety. Furthermore, in extreme cases, eco-anxiety can increase the risk of suicide, domestic violence, and substance misuse.
Climate anxiety occurs when people experience distress related to dangerous changes in the environmental system. Some experts argue that eco-anxiety is an appropriate, adaptive response, given threats like global warming. Psychology scholars have even described the concept of “practical eco-anxiety,” which occurs when people feel a sense of unease about a difficult decision, and therefore are motivated to act in a way that minimizes risk. When a person shows practical eco-anxiety, they are likely to be motivated to take steps to protect the planet.
On the other hand, maladaptive forms of eco-anxiety can be quite debilitating and are not associated with proactive behavior. A person who is struggling with a severe or maladaptive form of eco-anxiety is likely to experience the following symptoms:
- Obsessive worry about health risks associated with environmental changes
- Chronic fear related to environmental doom
- Experiencing negative emotions, like irritability, sadness, anger, and depression
- Feeling numb or hopeless
- Suffering from panic attacks
- Having trouble sleeping
The bottom line is that eco-anxiety isn’t all bad; in some cases, reasonable anxiety related to climate change can prompt positive actions, like activism. However, if eco-anxiety is severe, it can significantly disrupt daily functioning and take a negative toll on mental health.
Causes of Eco-Anxiety
Concerns over climate change and global warming are certainly drivers of eco-anxiety, but some of the causes of this phenomenon are a little more nuanced. For instance, with constant access to social media and news outlets, we are able to quickly learn about tropical storms, wildfires, and other natural disasters happening across the country, which can cause eco-anxiety to develop, even when it doesn’t directly impact us. People who do not live through an event like a wildfire or a hurricane can witness the event unfolding online, which can cause distress and lead to eco-anxiety symptoms.
Who is likely to be affected?
Eco-anxiety can affect anyone, but some groups are more likely to be affected than others. Research suggests that the following populations are especially susceptible to eco-anxiety:
- Older adults
- Individuals with chronic illnesses
- Individuals with mental health disorders
- Those with impaired mobility
- People from low socioeconomic groups
- First responders in natural disasters
- Scientists and activists in the climate change arena
The above groups may need additional support to help them overcome the negative emotions surrounding climate anxiety. Individuals from low socioeconomic groups are especially vulnerable, given that they are more likely to live in areas with low quality housing and poor infrastructure, and they lack access to healthcare and other services.
Tips for Coping with Eco-Anxiety
While eco-anxiety doesn’t have to be all bad, the truth is that for some people, especially those who belong to high-risk groups, it can create extreme fear, distress, and paranoia. People who develop distress over natural disasters and climate change can become obsessive, struggle with panic, and have difficulty sleeping.
If you’re finding that climate-related anxiety is making it difficult for you to function, you may benefit from practicing the following coping strategies:
- Take action: Participating in advocacy and activism can alleviate some of the worry that you have related to the state of the environment. Some people avoid getting involved, because they believe that they cannot make a difference, but if everyone who was concerned for the environment took action, the impact would be significant. You can take action by donating to activist organizations, writing your state and national legislators to express your support of environmentally friendly policies, and changing your own habits to be more environmentally friendly.
- Take a break from the news: Constant exposure to the news will only serve to increase your anxiety. When headlines and news reporters talk about major events, like wildfires, hurricanes, or floors, you’re likely to feel as if these events are everywhere. This can lead to fear, panic, and a sense of impending doom. Turn off the TV or take a break from social media to engage in a hobby you enjoy or to practice self-care. You might even consider heading outside to explore a local park or nature preserve to remind yourself that it isn’t all bad news.
- Practice self-compassion: When you’re caught up in eco-anxiety, you can quickly get into a cycle of being too hard on yourself. This may look like beating yourself up for eating too much meat or for using too many paper products, or being overly critical of yourself for not “doing enough” when it comes to preserving the environment. Remind yourself that every step you take to protect the environment is meaningful, and you don’t have to do more than you can handle. It’s also beneficial to remember that you’re allowed to feel negative emotions, including anxiety.
- Reach out. If eco-anxiety is persistent or severe, it may be time to reach out and talk to someone. Sharing concerns with a close friend or trusted family member can ease some of your stress. When you find that climate anxiety is beginning to interfere with daily functioning, it may be time to seek the help of a professional, like a counselor or therapist, who can help you to process some of your emotions and learn healthy coping skills. If you’re withdrawing from friends and family because of your anxiety, having a hard time caring for yourself, or finding that you are not productive at work, it may be time to reach out for help.
If you’re experiencing depression symptoms, and you haven’t found relief with medication and/or therapy, you may be a candidate for TMS. This is a non-invasive treatment modality that uses a device placed over the forehead to stimulate areas of the brain associated with mood. Pulse TMS offers this service in the Los Angeles community. Contact us today to determine if you’re a candidate for TMS.