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Eco-anxiety: How to cope when it feels bigger than you

April 8, 2022 - 11 min read

eco-anxiety-a-person-wearing-a-mask-with-city-pollution

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What is eco-anxiety?

5 primary causes of eco-anxiety

Who suffers from eco-anxiety?

What does eco-anxiety feel like?

How to cope with eco-anxiety

When things happen that are outside of our control, we often experience a range of emotions in response. This might include frustration, sadness, or overwhelm. When the threat feels immediately present, however, we often feel anxious in response. We worry about whether there’s something we can do to avoid a negative outcome. 

Dealing with eco-anxiety, though, is a unique and growing experience for people across the world. While the effects seem far away, we can no longer ignore our impact on the planet. The threat is present, looming, and seemingly insurmountable. That’s a recipe for more than anxiety — those are the building blocks of an existential crisis.

If you find that climate change is impacting your mental health, you may be wondering how you can deal with the stress. Read on for more about eco-anxiety and ways to cope with it.

What is eco-anxiety?

To understand eco-anxiety, it helps to first understand what anxiety is.

We often use the term anxiety in casual conversation. Anxiety is the psychological and physiological response that we have in response to stress. Contrary to many people’s understanding (and anxiety’s classification as a disorder), anxiety can be a normal and healthy emotion. In psychiatry, anxiety is only considered to be maladaptive when it interferes with your daily life.

When we talk about eco-anxiety, we're talking about the dread, stress, and heightened awareness someone might feel when making choices and going about their daily life. This eco-anxiety can be thought of as a normal response to the changing climate we experience and read about.

While eco-anxiety isn’t listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the handbook that mental health professionals use to diagnose mental illness, for some people this reasonable concern overwhelms and interferes with daily life. For the many people who are eco-anxious, the psychological impact of the changing climate has a marked impact on their daily lives.

5 primary causes of eco-anxiety

Why do some people experience eco-anxiety more acutely than others? People who live in the same conditions and share a similar climate can still feel very different levels of anxiety.

What triggers climate anxiety? There appear to be five main causes of heightened climate awareness and anxiety:  education, media coverage, having kids, natural disasters, and personal regret.

1. Education

There’s a reason so many protests start on college campuses. When ideas are exchanged and people begin to take a critical look at current events, change happens. 

Whether on or off-campus, learning more about global warming, sustainability, and public health often inspires activism. It can be an amazing way to build awareness — but it can also create a sense of powerlessness and futility.

2. Current events

College isn’t the only place to learn about environmental impact. The news can provide quite a bit of context, insight — oh, and a chronic fear of environmental doom. Certain everyday circumstances, like rising gas prices, can feel like further proof of a climate crisis. This can trigger an emotional response as a result.

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3. Having children

For those of us who are parents, aunts, uncles, and caregivers, we often worry about the world that our children will grow up into. Taking care of the next generation can make the effects of environmental change feel much more immediate.

When extreme weather events cause celebrations, sports, or other activities to be canceled, or favorite destinations are destroyed by fire or flood, we feel real, immediate grief for what our children won't get to experience. That easily leads to worrying more generally about how climate change will impact our children’s and grandchildren’s lives. Grief and unspecific worrying can make us feel anxious and helpless.

4. Natural disasters

In the last several years, the climate crisis has become particularly difficult to ignore. It seems like natural disasters happen one behind the other, in ways that are more extreme or unexpected. When the news (and social media) are full of the devastation caused by droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, and other extreme weather events, it’s hard to not be affected. 

5. Regret

Much of climate change is being attributed to the impact of human beings and technology. We may feel guilty about the impact our own activities and carbon footprint have had on the environment.

eco-anxiety-a-farmer-looking-into-distance-in-field

Who suffers from eco-anxiety?

Eco-anxiety can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, or background. However, researchers have found that certain groups are more at risk of eco-anxiety than others. These include young people, indigenous groups, and those who — for one reason or another — are more connected to the natural environment. 

Women also seem to be more likely to experience climate anxiety, although the reason for this is unclear.

What does eco-anxiety feel like?

The mental health effects of eco-anxiety are similar to that of other anxiety disorders. People experiencing climate anxiety often report the following:

  • Obsessive or ruminating thoughts
  • Feelings of depression, anxiety, or panic attacks
  • Guilt about contributing to emissions or carbon footprint
  • Pain, anger, or grief over the destruction of natural environments
  • Anger with people who don’t understand or deny climate change

Those who have directly or indirectly been affected by an extreme weather event, like a tsunami or wildfire, may also experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

How to cope with eco-anxiety

Even if you can’t convince everyone around you to take action, you can begin to reduce the impact that climate anxiety has on your life. Here are some ways to cope with eco-anxiety:

1. See a professional

Although it’s not an officially recognized diagnosis, the mental health impact of eco-anxiety is very real. Working with a mental health professional can help you manage ecological grief and protect your well-being. 

The Climate Psychology Alliance educates people and professionals about the mental and public health impacts of climate change. The resources on their website may prove both useful and validating.

eco-anxiety-a-group-cleans-up-trash-on-riverbank

2. Take care of your mental and physical health

Stress and anxiety can cause health issues, so it’s important to get them under control. Make time for self-care practices and doing things that you love. Practicing mindfulness can help you learn to manage the feelings associated with your climate stress.

Another way to support your well-being is to cut back on social media and news. Aside from the negative effects of doomscrolling, a digital detox can reduce your sensory overload and help you feel more present.

3. Take action

Find a way, even if it’s small, to make a difference that you feel good about. You can look into ways to reduce your dependence on fossil fuels, cut back on emissions, or raise awareness. Look for organizations committed to sustainability that you can shop or volunteer with.

Taking collective action may make you feel more effective, and it can also boost your well-being. Volunteering is positively correlated with feeling effective, a sense of belonging, and optimism for the future.

Final thoughts

The potential destructive effects of climate change may seem far away or immediate. It may come intermittently, like during a bad case of the Sunday scaries. Its effects on our mental health are very present.

If you're suffering from eco-anxiety, you need to take action on both fronts: the environment and your mental health and well-being. 

Get involved in activities to mitigate the effects of climate change. Seek guidance on developing skills to find perspective, manage your stress and anxiety, and build mental fitness. A changing world requires us all to have deeper stores of resilience and adaptability.

Validating eco-anxiety, managing our well-being, and looking for ways to reduce our impact are ways to cope with ecological grief in our own lives. 

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Published April 8, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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