[Eco-anxiety] “It’s becoming more and more common as we all start to recognize that climate change is here and obviously has a huge impact on our lives.”
- Toni Sappong
What is Eco-Anxiety?
I’m writing this on a day where Western Canada, lots of British Columbia and Alberta, is quite dreary. It’s been raining since yesterday evening; however, despite the grey, and the cold, there is an overwhelming sense of calamity.
Why? Because our Earth begs for rain as forest fires threaten many cities. Finally, some rain has come. Not to say that this rain will eradicate the fires, because likely, it wont. But it helps.
Do you remember when forest fires, hurricanes, tsunamis, ravaging storms, and other natural disasters were not so “normal.” They were devastating, but rare, and therefore more resources were there to aid when disaster struck? Nowadays, in Western Canada, you can expect a summer of forest fires, it’s just a matter of when the fires will start.
As climate change reveals itself more and more, there is an increasing awareness of the risk of extreme weather events that include, “the losses of livelihood or housing, fears for future generations, and feelings of helplessness” (Huizen, 2019),
In 2017, the American Psychiatric Association (APA), coined the term “eco-anxiety” to refer to chronic fear of environmental doom” (Huizen, 2019)
As a less emotional definition, many mental health professionals use the term eco-anxiety to refer to an individual’s psychological relationship with nature, how this impacts their mental health, well-being, and identity (Huizen, 2019).
What does Eco-Anxiety look like?
“You’re not really functional. You feel like every effort doesn’t matter anymore because it’s such a big issue.”
- Manvi Bahalla (Rodriguez, 2021)
Eco-anxiety may stem from experiencing, being at risk of, having loved ones at risk of climate-related disasters, or being victim to secondary-trauma. It also commonly stems from intense feelings of uncertainty, unpredictability, and uncontrollability of the climate crisis.
According to the APA, this can affect one’s mental health and manifest in a few ways: trauma and shock, PTSD, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, aggression, reduced feelings of autonomy and control, and feelings of helplessness, fatalism, and fear (Haase, 2021 & Huizen, 2019). Some studies have shown an increase in suicide rates months or even years post natural disaster (Kõlves et al., 2013). Brown et al. (2019) note, this statistic is of particular concern as it may highlight the importance an individual’s ability to cope with adversity throughout- and post-natural disaster, and the role in this in determining long-term mental health outcomes.
Are we seeing increasing rates of eco-anxiety?
“Code red for humanity.”
Rodriguez (2021) reiterates many public health expert concerns - that the climate crisis is emotionally taxing, specifically on young Canadians, who’ve been born into this crisis. And this is due to their dependency upon adults, structural vulnerabilities, and the “physical, psychological, and social factors related to the youth developmental stage” (Bown et al., 2019, abstract).
Most who read this article will likely be familiar with – “The Beast” – the May 03, 2016 wildfire of Fort Mac. Reported by Cohan & Cole (2021), the murderous forest fire forced approximately 88,000 people of Fort Mac to evacuate; due to the extreme damage, the community has faced lasting social, emotional, and psychological difficulties.
Brown et al. (2019) conducted a study on the youth involved in The Beast disaster; both children who were directly impacted (present during the fire, saw the fire, and/ or their home was destroyed), and children living in Fort Mac in 2019 who had no direct impact from the fire (out of town, no damage to house, not living in Fort Mac, etc.) were analyzed. In both cases, these children had significantly higher scores where the following was measured: symptoms related to PTSD, depression, anxiety, and substance misuse. Additionally, these individuals scored significantly lower where the following was measured: self-esteem, quality of life and resiliency. The significance of the scores of children who were not directly impacted by the fires, indicate the presence of a secondary-trauma due to exposure to the impact of the fire upon the community.
This is a long-winded way of saying, yes. We are seeing increasing rates of eco-anxiety – the relationship between eco-anxiety and the increasing direct exposure of our climate crisis are positive and linear. Additionally, the research on the Fort Mac youth indicates the presence of eco-anxiety starting at a young age and highlights the importance of programs strengthening youth resiliency pre-, during-, and post-disaster.
While eco-anxiety stems from the loss of control an individual feels over climate change, and while that is not something we can control, there are a few tricks to help manage this anxiety. Most tips around managing eco-anxiety, are focused around giving the individual a sense of control over the issues.
Huizen (2019) offers a number of strategies:
1. Taking Action
Taking action is a common tool people use in order to help reduce their feelings of helplessness. In the environmental sphere, this may look like: educating yourself on good environmental practices, or on what to do to be prepared in event of crisis, getting involved with an environmental group, recycling, or following a more sustainable diet.
2. Focusing on Resiliency (Huizen, 2019) & (Brown et al., 2019)
Individual’s who have a strong sense of self-efficacy are able to overcome stress and trauma easier, and likely will handle eco-anxiety better. Brown et al. (2019) offer some tips to boost self-resiliency:
Foster caring, trusting relationships that provide support and encouragement
Not viewing problems as unsolvable
Making achievable goals and moving steadily towards them
Looking at problems in a wider context
Practicing good self-care and focusing on a positive self-image
Keeping personal connections with places and cultural ties when possible
Avoiding isolation and trying to connect with like-minded people
3. Trying to stay optimistic
Reframing things in a positive way and breaking negative think cycles often help individuals manage their anxiety better.
4. Fostering a stronger connection with nature
As previously mentioned, eco-anxiety is often referred to as an individual’s psychological relationship with nature, how this impacts their mental health, well-being, and identity (Huizen, 2019). Therefore, spending more time outdoors may help foster an encouraging, and positive personal connection with the environment, and may help alleviate symptoms of eco-anxiety.
5. Knowing when to disengage
We are often so influenced by everyday media, whether this is in the form of politics, advertising, Instagram, or the like. With so many different platforms that we are utilizing every, single, day, we can be exposed to information over and over again, which may cause extreme stress. This is especially relevant when the information is inaccurate or biased.
Credit checking your sources, or limiting time spent on these social media platforms may help to reduce stress and anxiety.
Eco-anxiety is an impactful phenomenon, and as the research suggests, is becoming a more common element in today’s society. As our world has had to adapt to the unnatural forces we’ve created, causing the climate crisis, we must work together to foster our own- and community- sense of resiliency to aid us as we battle the climate crisis, and our anxieties around it - one day at a time.
Brown, M. R. G., Agyapong, V., Greenshaw, A. J., Cribben, I., Brett-MacLean, P., Drolet, J., McDonald-Harker, C., Omeje, J., Mankowski, M., Noble, S., Kitching, D. T., Silverstone, P. H. (2019). Significant PTSD and Other Mental Health Effects Present 18 Months After the Fort McMurray Wildfire: Findings from 3,070 Grades 7-12 Students. Front. Pyschiatry 10 (1). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00623
Cohan, C.L., Cole SW. Life course transitions and natural disaster: marriage, birth, and divorce following Hurricane Hugo. J Fam Psychol (2002) 16:14-25 doi: 10.1037//0893-3126.96.36.199
Haase, E. (2023, May). Climate Change and Mental Health Connections. American Psychiatric Association. https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/climate-change-and-mental-health-connections
Huizen, J. (2019, December 19). What to know about eco-anxiety. MedicalNewsToday. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/327354
Kõlves K, Kõlves KE, De Leo D. Natural disasters and suicidal behaviours: a systematic literature review. J Affect Disord (2013) 146:1–14. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2012.07.037
Rodriguez, J. (2021, October 07). Eco-anxiety: Young Canadians Report Climate Change Impact on Their Mental Health. CTV News. https://www.ctvnews.ca/climate-and-environment/eco-anxiety-young-canadians-report-climate-change-impact-on-their-mental-health-1.5615253