To varying degrees, most of us are worried about climate change and the threat to the environment because of factors such as industrialisation, deforestation, mining, urbanisation and poaching. When this worry turns into something more stressful and one begins to live in a constant state of dread, they might be suffering from eco-anxiety.
Climate emergency is a genuine threat. One natural disaster after another, besides extreme weather events, has been occurring more regularly than ever before. Consequently, it has had adverse psychological effects on people, including causing emotional turmoil among the youth.
The number of people experiencing eco-anxiety has increased over the last few years, which has been observed in psychological responses. Therefore, we must talk about this condition called eco-anxiety.
What is eco-anxiety?
There is no clear definition of eco-anxiety but the American Psychological Association (APA), has explained it as a “chronic fear of environmental doom.”
Eco-anxiety results from an increased fear of death and destruction because of unrestrained exploitation of nature, like air pollution caused by fossil fuels. Though the term can be understood as psychological anxiety affecting mental health, according to the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP), it is not a mental illness.
How can climate change affect mental health?
In its review titled ‘Mental Health And Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, And Guidance’, published March 2017, APA notes that survivors of natural disasters may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which might manifest as a chronic disorder even after the situation is back to normal.
“PTSD, depression, general anxiety, and suicide all tend to increase after a disaster. For example, among a sample of people living in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina, suicide and suicidal ideation more than doubled, one in six people met the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, and 49% of people living in an affected area developed an anxiety or mood disorder such as depression,” the review states.
While these are direct mental health impacts of disasters, the APA notes that “gradual impacts of climate change, like changes in weather patterns and rising sea levels, will cause some of the most resounding chronic psychological consequences.”
Besides PTSD, depression, anxiety and suicide, APA also notes that mental health effects as a result of a deteriorating climate situation include trauma and shock, compounded stress, strains on social relationships, aggression and substance abuse, along with fear and eco-anxiety.
However, eco-anxiety is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), which means that it is not considered a diagnosable condition officially.
Why are people suffering from eco-anxiety?
On 9 August, 2021, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned that changes were detected “in Earth’s climate in every region and across the whole climate system” and that some changes such as sea-level rise “are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years.”
Reacting to the report, UN Secretary-General António Guterres termed it “code red for humanity.”
“The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse‑gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk. Global heating is affecting every region on Earth, with many of the changes becoming irreversible,” he said.
The words in the report and Guterres’ statement are alarming. Based on years of research and informed scientific predictions, the climate crisis long ago ceased to be equated to a Hollywood movie plot and became an inevitable reality for our planet.
This eventuality has caused climate anxiety and threatened the future of younger generations. In 2020, the RCP found the young are deeply affected by the climate crisis. According to an RCP survey, more than 57 percent of England’s child and adolescent psychiatrists reported seeing very young patients distressed about the climate crisis.
The rise in the frequency of destructive natural disasters such as cyclones, drought and fires has also been linked to global warming. These, too, contribute to the loss of lives and habitat of humans as well as animals.
Younger generations who are affected by such traumatic developments “now face even more uncertainty about their future because of the pandemic,” according to the RCP.
Besides the young, eco-anxiety also affects people belonging to higher age groups who are concerned about their children’s future.
Additionally, climate change does not affect all equally; indigenous groups, migrants, displaced people and those whose livelihoods depend on the environment, such as agriculture and fishing, are more affected by eco-anxiety.
What other factors have contributed to eco-anxiety?
The apocalyptic nature of climate-change-induced-devastation has been a cause of concern among people, especially the youth. However, what has also contributed to eco-anxiety among many other things is the rank indifference of those in influential and powerful positions.
A 10-country survey, involving 10,000 respondents between the ages of 16 and 25, was conducted by England’s Bath University in collaboration with five universities, with funding from US non-profit organisation Avaaz. Released in September 2021, it revealed that the startling condition of eco-anxiety among the young population was as much a result of governmental inaction on climate change as it was from the degradation of nature.
An overwhelming majority of around 75-83 percent painted a grim picture of the future to varying degrees with some even considering not having children. When asked if the governments have failed young people and if they can be trusted, 65 percent agreed with the former question and only 31 percent with the latter.
The study’s lead author Caroline Hickman told BBC News, “The young feel abandoned and betrayed by governments. We’re not just measuring how they feel, but what they think. Four out of 10 are hesitant to have children.”
On 28 September, 2021, a few days after the results of the survey was published, iconic climate change activist Greta Thunberg vehemently criticised those not taking concrete steps to reverse the damage done to the environment.
“Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah. This is all we hear from our so-called leaders. Words that sound great but so far have not led to action. Our hopes and ambitions drown in their empty promises,” she said at the Youth4Climate summit in Milan, Italy.
The young environmental activist sets an example of an extreme case of eco-anxiety. When she was younger, Thunberg learned at her school about the harmful effects of climate change on the planet, which affected her to such an extent that she went into depression and stopped eating properly. Her parents had to struggle to feed her. As a result, malnutrition affected her growth.
Had her incredible family not altered their lifestyle and extended support to her cause, there wouldn’t have been a Greta Thunberg to jolt the world out of its slumber and take note of an impending disaster.
Is eco-anxiety normal and how to know if you have it?
A certain level of anxiety could be normal unless it becomes a mental health condition defined by APA as “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.”
Unlike a general form of anxiety, which can be about a perceived threat, eco-anxiety is about an actual situation unfolding with each passing day across the world.
Thus, mental health professionals do not classify it as an illness. Speaking with The Hindu, Indian psychiatrist Dr A Sugaparaneetharan said, “Eco-anxiety is not an illness but an actual fear response to a threat.”
He added that there is a feeling of “guilt and anxiety” among us because of the failure to ensure a safe environment for future generations.
Being concerned about the environment and stressing the need for a sustainable future is normal, especially when the lives of every living thing on the planet is at stake.
Since eco-anxiety is an evolving area of study, not much can be said about detecting it. However, fear, frustration, helplessness or anger over the failure of the system in dealing with the climate crisis can be signs of eco-anxiety.
The only way to keep eco-anxiety at bay is to work towards building a happier and healthier future. These include spreading awareness about the factors that contribute to global warming and opting for a healthier lifestyle. Other ways to reduce eco-anxiety are exercising regularly and being optimistic.
Additionally, we need to make greener choices to combat environmental crises, with people joining forces to find adequate ways to tackle challenges ahead.
(Main and Featured images: Jan Kopřiva/@jxk/Unsplash)