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In today's world, where climate change has emerged as an omnipresent reality, discussions about these changes have also become more widespread, and in particular, the psychological effects of environmental problems have begun to be addressed. An important article titled "Mental Health and Our Changing Climate", published jointly by EcoAmerica and the American Psychological Association (APA) in 2017, introduced the concept of "eco-anxiety" and took the first step towards understanding this new concept. Understanding how this anxiety arises, its root causes, and its effects on individuals plays a crucial role in navigating the complex roadmap of environmental awareness. In this article, we will delve deeper into eco-anxiety, understand its nuances and its impact on our lives, and explore practical strategies to mitigate its impact on our mental health and collective well-being.
As climate change is one of the most pressing issues of the twenty-first century, individuals find it worthy of attention. A growing proportion of the world's population suffers from increased psychological anxiety associated with environmental concerns because of climate change, which may also be referred to as "eco-anxiety" or "climate anxiety.” Feelings such as anxiety, guilt, shame, terror, hopelessness, and helplessness are all included in this concept. Associated with a deep sense of anxiety and distress caused by the environmental crisis; the American Psychological Association defines eco-anxiety as a chronic fear of environmental apocalypse.
Not all definitions of eco-anxiety are the same. However, the basic and shared view among anxiety researchers is that this anxiety is about the future and is related to a threat about which there is considerable uncertainty. What is still debated among researchers is whether eco-anxiety is something completely new that has been triggered by climate change or whether it is an emotion already present in all of us and has been triggered by climate change. But whether it's a brand new emotion or a sub-branch of anxiety, what we can agree on is that eco-anxiety has become a reality of our lives. Perhaps more people than we realize are experiencing it. In a global survey, when 10,000 young people were asked about the impact of global warming on their mental health, 59% said they were very or extremely worried, 84% were moderately worried, and 75% said they thought the future would be scary.
Climate Crisis and Mental Health
Although it can be painful and distressing, climate anxiety is a rational state and does not mean that we have any mental illness. Anxiety is a feeling that alerts us to danger, which can cause us to seek more information about the situation and find possible solutions. In protracted and uncertain situations, such as the climate crisis, this response is sometimes referred to as practical anxiety because this form of anxiety has the beneficial effect of causing people to reassess their behavior to respond appropriately. But because the climate crisis is so complex and lacks a clear solution, anxiety can easily become very intense, even overwhelming. Moreover, we do not need to be directly exposed to a climate change event to experience this feeling. Studies show that climate change also affects the mental health of people who have not personally experienced climate-related disasters: More than two-thirds (68%) of US adults report having at least some anxiety about climate change.
Identification of Eco-Anxiety Experiences
According to Nancy Piotrowski, APA Council Representative, climate change issues have significant implications for mental health. Dr.Thomas Doherty adds the following: "In the past, we knew that a disaster would happen, that a storm would flood a town, that drought would destroy crops, that fires would ravage neighborhoods, and then it would be over. Because these disasters started and ended, but with climate change, the damage never stops, with new events occurring and recurring day after day."
This may be why it takes a long time to discover experiences of eco-anxiety. It can be difficult to identify these feelings, which we now face almost every day, to discover that the anxiety is rooted in a concern for the future of the planet. People experiencing eco-anxiety may recognize feelings of helplessness, fear, or grief about the planet's future. These feelings are likely to be intensified differently in different groups. For example, younger generations, such as Generation Z and Millennials, may struggle with a sense of betrayal that previous generations have disrupted the natural order and anxieties about their future. Marginalized communities, including low-income groups and people in areas disproportionately affected by environmental issues, may experience both increased stress due to limited resources and increased resilience to climate impacts. For example, indigenous communities may witness ecological changes first-hand due to their deep connection to the land, which increases their anxiety levels, whereas, for urban dwellers, eco-anxiety may be triggered more indirectly through social media images. Activists and environmentalists engaged in climate action may face burnout and emotional exhaustion due to slow progress or relentless advocacy efforts in political resistance.
In addition to existential anxieties and fears about the future, climate change can affect mental health directly (through natural disasters or temperature) and indirectly (through displacement, migration, and food insecurity). For example, witnessing the decline in dam levels in our region as droughts become more common can make us feel threatened and helpless about a future water crisis. In a 2017 study, rising temperatures were associated with increased emergency room visits for psychiatric reasons. It also found links between food insecurity and depression, anxiety, and behavioral problems.
Recognizing experiences of anxiety that manifest in different ways in different situations is critical to addressing and supporting individuals and communities affected by eco-anxiety.
How to Deal with Eco-Anxiety?
Since uncertainty and loss of control are closely associated with climate anxiety, the best way to deal with it is to take action.
Acknowledge, allow, and investigate your emotions: Acknowledging the weight of emotions such as fear, grief, or anxiety related to environmental issues and not resisting not experiencing these emotions is a critical first step in dealing with eco-anxiety. Rather than suppressing these emotions, allowing them to surface and exploring their origins can provide insights into personal anxieties and connections to the wider environmental crisis. After this article, we know much better that we are not alone in feeling these emotions!
Channel your emotions into empowerment: At times, eco-anxiety can leave a mass of emotions in our laps that push us out of our comfort zone. Turning these overwhelming emotions into a catalyst for positive action can be empowering. Using the energy from the anxiety we experience to engage in constructive endeavors through personal lifestyle changes or community involvement can provide a sense of purpose and agency. This proactive approach can reduce feelings of helplessness and lead to engagement in projects that contribute to concrete solutions to environmental problems.
Educate yourself: Gaining a deeper understanding of environmental issues, underlying causes, and potential solutions equips individuals with the knowledge needed to tackle complex challenges. Researching reputable resources, attending workshops, or participating in discussion groups focused on climate change and sustainability broadens our perspective, instills confidence, and encourages informed decision-making. It also helps us to become more self-aware by observing the eco-anxiety experiences of those around us.
Start small, and focus on what you can control: No matter how much we worry about environmental issues and climate change, we know that we cannot fix it on our own. But that doesn't mean that anything we do individually won't impact environmental issues. By focusing on individual actions that are within our control, such as reducing single-use plastics, saving energy, or supporting environmentally friendly businesses, it is possible to witness tangible impacts that foster a sense of achievement and motivation for further change, starting with small steps and turning our steps into a path together.
Spend time in nature instead of social media: Shifting the focus from digital screens to spending quality time outdoors in nature is a powerful antidote to eco-anxiety. Nature offers a sanctuary to reflect, relax, and connect with the environment. A study in which participants received media input on climate change at fixed intervals shows that news on social media increases eco-anxiety. Instead, hiking, gardening, or simply being in natural environments promotes mindfulness, reduces stress, and fosters a deeper appreciation for the beauty and resilience of the natural world.
Go vegan: According to a study by Oxford University, going vegan is the "single biggest way" to reduce our negative environmental impact. A 2018 study published in Science found that giving up meat and dairy products can reduce an individual's food-related carbon footprint by up to 73%. By avoiding animal products, we can reduce our negative environmental impact by contributing to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, reducing water consumption, and combating deforestation caused by animal agriculture. Being aware that we are reducing our negative environmental impact can play an important role in reducing our climate anxiety: a study published in Nutritional Neuroscience found that a vegan diet may be associated with lower anxiety and stress levels. Making conscious life choices promotes a sense of harmony between personal actions and environmental values and aligns with ethical considerations for animal welfare.
In summary, the term eco-anxiety has emerged as a sharp reflection of our shared concern for the future of our planet and its impact on our mental health. Understanding this emotional response allows us to recognize the complex link between environmental issues and our psychological health. Recognizing signs of eco-anxiety in ourselves and others allows us to offer support and take proactive steps to manage these feelings. As we navigate the complexities of our changing world, we can turn our climate concerns into a catalyst for meaningful change. We can create a more sustainable future by fostering a community that values environmental awareness and mental health. Embracing a sense of empowerment in our actions, big and small, will alleviate our anxieties and propel us toward a more harmonious relationship with our planet.
- https://www.researchgate.net/publication/344363346_Anxiety_and_the_Ecological_Crisis_An _Analysis_of_Eco-Anxiety_and_Climate_Anxiety