Panicked About the End of the World? You Might Have "Eco-Anxiety"

Anything from experiencing a natural disaster to watching the news can trigger this extremely 2020 condition.

Photo: Jenna Brillhart

Climate change isn’t anything new, but your response to it might be. In the past six months, you may have been shocked by headlines about the Australian bushfire crisis or the fires that ravaged the Amazon rainforest. After seeing devastating pictures of hurt koalas, and reading that the “lungs of the Earth'' were choking with smoke, you may have felt your palms begin to sweat and your brain start buzzing from one thought to the next. (Speaking of “buzz,” are the honeybees okay?)

That physical reaction caused by the relentless effects of climate change has a name: eco-anxiety. It explains how worry about the environment can harm your mental health, and was first recognized in a report from the American Psychological Association (APA) in March 2017. According to the APA report, eco-anxiety can be triggered by experiencing a natural disaster or seeing a news story on the looming risks of the rising sea levels. Just thinking about the massive efforts it’s going to take to change the course of the planet’s future while grabbing your reusable bag and driving to the grocery store may strike it in you, too. It can be intimidating and make you feel as tiny as a grain of sand, but it’s anything but rare or invalid.

“The eco-anxiety is coming from a legitimate place,” says Dr. Lise van Susteren, co-founder of Climate Psychiatry Alliance, a group of psychiatrists dedicated to addressing climate change’s impact on mental health. “We’re in trouble.” She suggests that we should not avoid the truth and science that’s out there, and carefully confront the challenging facts instead.

Sure, the conversation around climate change has only become more urgent and more informed in recent years. However, scientists have been recording the changes in sea levels since 1880, finding that they’ve risen 8 to 9 inches due to melting glaciers and the warming of the planet which puts coastal communities at risk for flooding and eventual migration. For decades, they’ve studied the planet’s rising temperature, recording 19 of the 20 warmest years ever since 2001. (When the Paris Climate Agreement was signed and put into effect in 2016, the planet was its warmest to date.) And now — with young climate activists protesting in the streets, and politicians calling the issue a national emergency — we understand climate change to be real, impactful, and widespread.

In November 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) made it clear that we have until 2030 to significantly reduce carbon emissions, which would require a complete overhaul of the energy business. Less than a year later, a teenage activist named Greta Thunberg delivered a powerful speech to world leaders at the United Nations Climate Action Summit, bringing light to the science available and how little action is being taken, and putting heart behind the words, “How dare you.” Her speech echoed from country to country, shocking people into the realization that the time to care is now. So what if you care, and it feels like maybe too much?

Greta Thunberg Spain UN Climate Environment Panel

What are the symptoms of eco-anxiety?

For some people, caring about the planet may manifest in anger, sadness, or fear, and any of this can escalate into eco-anxiety. It’s essential to understand when your emotions reach a point where they feel unhealthy — when knowing the ins and outs of climate change is leading to negative side effects and irrational thoughts. In addition, you should be aware of when your anxiety may naturally increase, such as in a major election year when candidates are frequently talking about the subject on the debate stage.

Courtney Glashow, LCSW, owner and psychotherapist at Anchor Therapy in Hoboken, N.J., says you may have thoughts like, “The world is ending.” She says you may find yourself feeling hopeless or defeated, and experiencing common anxiety symptoms like shortness of breath, irritability, impulsivity, a rapid heart rate, and flushed cheeks. If your anxiety is this intense, then it’s likely very paralyzing and can keep you from living your everyday life, or going about your daily routine without feeling like it's pointless. At this point, you’ve crossed the line.

Women, in particular, may find themselves worrying about their children and becoming extra protective, too. “As women, we have instincts as mothers and caregivers to protect our children or loved ones,” says Glashow. “Climate change does spark fear in us and threatens our children from living healthy lives.” Glashow notes some women may have thoughts like, “How can I make a difference?” (Some may have consider joining movements like BirthStrike, a group that’s decided not to have kids because of the current state of the planet.)

A report from Yale University in March 2018, titled “Climate Change in the American Mind,” surveyed 1,278 American adults, 52% of which were women, and found that women do have a higher ability to perceive risk when it comes to global warming. In all but one category, they responded higher in support of climate change policies and recognition of the harm that can be done to people, animals, and future generations compared to men. The study also showed that women can be incredibly effective in the fight against climate change because of their leadership abilities and openness to new educational initiatives.

How can you cope?

Even though women are typically more likely to experience eco-anxiety, anyone can be affected by it. Glashow suggests treating eco-anxiety like you would any other form of anxiety, by finding logical answers to your thoughts, or focusing on something else that’ll bring you peace and joy. (Spending time with my SO always does it for me.) Practicing a mindfulness routine, relaxing each part of your body gradually and methodically, and grounding yourself in the current moment might make you feel calm, too.

If those therapeutic techniques aren’t enough, or you’re experiencing eco-anxiety more regularly in your life, then Glashow says you can always seek professional help. A therapist might be able to help you work through the intense realities of the climate crisis, and you may find the root of your anxiety is positive, powerful, and motivating — when channeled the right way. “Any type of anxiety can be harmful and paralyzing if it is intense,” Glashow says. “If you are generally concerned about something then it does show you care. And usually we need to care about something in order to be motivated enough to make a difference.”

In other words, action can heal your racing thoughts about inaction, and make you feel positively connected to the issue. Living more sustainably by drinking out of a reusable water bottle, taking a shorter shower, recycling, or using public transportation can be great habits to start and maintain. Dr. van Susteren says confronting the challenge head-on is essential, and that redirecting your overwhelming emotions into tangible actions will ultimately nurture you and the Earth.

Remember, you’re not alone.

Psychologist and climate strategist Renée Lertzman says it also comes down to compassion, and visualizing the millions of other people around the world who are not just concerned about the climate crisis, but acting on those concerns, too.

“Ultimately, eco-anxiety is about love,” Lertzman says, adding that our anxiety is a signal to us, reminding us that “we are alive and part of a larger world.” If you feel anxious, it’s a symbol of your relationship to the planet, and how connected you feel to yourself and the people you care about. And when you adapt that powerful perspective, she says, eco-anxiety becomes less isolating and more a reflection of love.

In addition to shifting your mindset, she stresses the importance of taking time for self-care — carving out time to do things that “connect you with what makes you feel most alive,” and giving yourself permission to feel everything that comes with eco-anxiety. Then, take action that makes the most sense for you.

“There is no one ‘right’ way to respond. If you feel moved to get involved in political activism, great. If you feel inspired to start something at your school, university, or workplace, great. What matters is that you are able to take your concern and channel it creatively.”

She speaks of turning the “me” of your eco-anxiety into “we” as you look to tackle the issue of climate change in your own corner of the world — expanding your mindset, habits, and care toward the issue to include, and not judge, others. “If we can learn to listen, and recognize these are really hard, painful truths for all of us to confront,” Lertzman says, “we may find that our eco-anxiety can be transformed more easily into how we, together, can join up and find ways to take action now.”

It’s like Leslie Knope repeatedly says in Parks and Recreation, “Nobody achieves anything alone.” Eco-anxiety and the climate crisis are no exception.

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