What is Eco-Anxiety?
What is Eco-Anxiety?
If you’re worried about the impacts of climate change, global ecological disaster or a specific extreme weather event, if such worries and fears are either constant or temporarily overwhelming, if they affect your daily life so much that, for example, you have difficulty sleeping, or you have panic attacks, or you’re unable to focus on other important things like your relationships or your schoolwork, then you might be suffering from eco-anxiety. If you worry or feel guilty about the environmental impact of most actions you take, or if your great concern for the environment is matched by a huge sense of helplessness that there’s nothing you can do, and if this tends to immobilise you, that also sounds like eco-anxiety. Over the last two to three years, reported cases of eco-anxiety have risen dramatically across the world, especially as the threat of climate change and its environmental impacts have become more regularly reported in the media and online.
Eco-anxiety can also be related to one or more specific ecological disasters which occur close to home. After a tsunami for example, people can become continually fearful of another tsunami, and their lives can be permanently unsettled. Eco-anxiety isn’t a recognised medical condition. But general anxiety is, and eco-anxiety has many of the same characteristics. Most people are a little eco-anxious, but some people are more eco-anxious than others. In parallel to eco-anxiety, there’s a growing interest in the study of ‘eco-psychology’ which explores our psychological relationship with the natural world.
What is Ecological Grief?
Another term similar to eco-anxiety, is ‘ecological grief’. Ecological grief refers to the feeling of sorrow and mourning at the current and projected future loss of our natural environment and the impacts of climate change. It implies a level of acceptance that such losses have become inevitable. By emphasising grief and sorrow, this term implies that what has gone can’t be recovered, and that we’re coming to terms with the loss. It implies a stage towards becoming less anxious and more at peace with ourselves. Other terms with similar connotations are ‘climate grief’ and ‘solastalgia’.
Ecological grief, like other kinds of grief, is said to progress through five stages. 1) Denial: arguing that it can’t be true, that other factors are at play. 2) Anger: asking why didn’t I and others realise this was happening earlier, finding the culprits, highlighting the causes and handing out blame. 3) Bargaining: looking for solutions, hoping to reverse the situation, and trying to convince others to take radical remedial action. 4) Depression: realising that remedial action isn’t working, internalising fears, and lost for a solution. 5) Accepting the reality of loss, and making plans for a new way forward, based on less or different resources.
We may experience ecological grief quite rapidly if our local environments are harmed, as a result of a disaster. For example many people, families and communities in Australia probably feel ecological grief when they think of the bush fires which have ravished some parts of the country. The fires not only destroyed forests and homes, they also killed hundreds of thousands of animals such as koalas, kangaroos and others.
Ecological grief and eco-anxiety are different. Eco-anxiety can still spur us into preventive action, and preventive action may even be a remedy for eco-anxiety, but ecological grief is a process of accepting that something has gone, and new ways forward must be found. Combattive action isn’t emphasised in the five stages of ecological grief (above). There’s no reason to say that someone experiencing grief should instead be experiencing anxiety, or that someone experiencing anxiety should be experiencing grief – one isn’t right and the other wrong. We’re each entitled to feel and react to environmental challenges in the way our inner voices tell us. Both eco-anxiety and ecological grief are valid responses to current global environmental and climate challenges.
Is Eco-Anxiety Rational?
Yes, it is. Everyone feels anxious sometimes, and some people get more anxious than others about different things. Anxiety is a normal, rational reaction to things around us which may disturb our comfort or security, or which may be dangerous. We’ve evolved to have this reaction, to keep ourselves safe. Given the environmental and climate challenges in today’s world, eco-anxiety is perfectly rational because these challenges are threats to our long-term security. In fact, it would be strange not to worry about these challenges! Some people also consider human beings to be an integral part of the global ecosystem, not superior to it. In that way of thinking, threats to the global ecosystem are direct threats to ourselves, because we’re members of the ecosystem. Our anxiety can be an active force, leading us to take action against perceived threats.
Is Eco-Anxiety a Medical Condition?
Not usually. It isn’t an officially recognised physical or mental disorder, so it can’t be diagnosed as one. Eco-anxiety is on a spectrum, with some people more effected than others. Reasonable levels of eco-anxiety are rational, so they can’t be considered as a ‘disorder’. But eco-anxiety could sometimes be excessive, and it could combine with and exacerbate other pre-existing medical conditions.
As a normal rational fear, eco-anxiety is different from some other types of anxiety which require medical treatment. For example, Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) involves a disruption of the brain signals which identify danger and which trigger avoidance actions. With GAD, danger signals can be experienced when there’s no danger. This can lead to excessive worry, distress, and problems at school or at work, and in relationships. Distress can be accompanied by headaches, pains, nausea, shaking or sweating.
If symptoms of eco-anxiety become similar to those of GAD, or if eco-anxiety is seriously impacting normal daily life, then a doctor should be consulted. Treatment could include simple Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) where thoughts and beliefs about climate change and environment are discussed, and personal coping strategies developed. But this would be different from treatment of other types of anxiety, because it would recognise that eco-anxiety is real and justified. Most levels of eco-anxiety can be addressed through personal action and lifestyle adjustments.
Anxiety, Depression and Mental Health
Our brains respond to perceived threats by releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can disrupt our sleep, make us irritable, make our thoughts race faster, and have all kinds of other effects. If significant anxiety remains a long time after a threat has gone, then it can be called an anxiety disorder. But climate and environmental threats aren’t going away soon, so eco-anxiety isn’t a disorder, although if it’s excessive then it may be unhealthy.
Anxiety can sometimes contribute to depression. Symptoms of depression differ for different people, and some symptoms are similar to those for anxiety. But depression is often characterised by feeling unusually low, feeling bad about oneself, and wanting to opt out of activities. Short term depression is normal as a response to a negative event in one’s life, but the British National Health Service says that if symptoms of depression are experienced most of the day, every day, for more than 2 weeks, then it can be considered an illness which requires a visit to a doctor. Approximately 1 in 10 people need professional help for depression at some time in their lives. Doctors can advise on treatments ranging from therapies and medications, to self-help methods.