Editor’s Note: If you think you’re experiencing severe symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder or any of the mental health conditions listed in this story, reach out to a health care provider to make a plan for finding treatment. Calling the National Helpline for Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) is a good place to start.
Imagine you open up your news app and discover a story about the climate crisis. Maybe it’s a piece focused on the 11,000 climate scientists who recently warned of “untold suffering” unless society transforms our way of living. Or perhaps it’s a write-up of recent research from Nature that says we’re headed toward a “global tipping point” and we can’t afford not to take action. Maybe you live in an area increasingly affected by wildfires, or your region is seeing more flooding. Or possibly, you’ve been reading about the fact that our planet’s carbon dioxide concentration levels are the highest they’ve been in 3 million years.
No matter the version of the climate change story, the statistics probably make you feel a bit anxious. Our planet undergoing drastic changes and landscapes won’t look the same for future generations; that fact may fill you with grief, nostalgia or even panic. But concerned reactions to these stories are relatively normal and they even have a name: eco-anxiety.
What is eco-anxiety?
We already know, based on research, that climate change may be responsible for negative physical health outcomes—like the link between increased air pollution and respiratory problems, or draughts causing starvation. But it wasn’t until recently that the psychological community started to vocalize concerns about the negative mental health effects of climate change, too. Studies have shown that rates of serious mental illness and suicidal thoughts skyrocketed after big storms like Hurricane Katrina. And people who lose their homes to wildfires are at increased risk for post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.
According to a 2018 article by Dr. Panu Pihkala, a researcher at the University of Helsinki in Finland, these effects can be attributed to a category of symptoms defined as eco-anxiety, a pop-culture term that describes symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder, major depression disorder and other mental health conditions that occur when the environment around us starts to deteriorate at a rapid rate. You might also hear the condition described as “environmental anxiety” in some circles.
“Eco-anxiety describes a negative response to evidence of environmental threat,” says Susan Clayton, a Professor of Psychology at the College of Wooster. “It can be anxiety, but also grief, fear, frustration, isolation, social disconnect, and certainly anger. It’s a constellation of emotions.”
Eco-anxiety isn’t an actual diagnosis in the DSM-IV, the handbook health care professionals use to treat mental health conditions. Instead, it’s a popular term psychologists are beginning to use to denote psychological symptoms that are caused by the environmental crisis. Symptoms of eco-anxiety can be caused by both indirect and direct environmental crises.
“For example, a person may feel anxiety and sorrow because a woodland area next to him is cut down. But even more people experience anxiety because they feel that climate change is taking away their future,” Pihkala wrote in the 2018 study.
Why do we experience eco-anxiety?
According to Pihkala’s research, we experience eco-anxiety for two very rational reasons: First, because we need to adapt to changing circumstances on the planet, which means developing new coping skills. That’s stressful, and our usual tools might not feel like they’re working.
Second, it can be tough to accept your ethical responsibility for climate change while still keeping things in perspective. In other words, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and depressed when you consider how much we’ve already damaged the planet.
Eco-anxiety typically occurs when your concern about the environment and climate change causes you to limit or change your behavior. You may develop psychological symptoms that range from severe to mild; sometimes, those symptoms fall into other diagnosis categories, like major depressive disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder, among other things.
Some people with severe climate anxiety experience depressive symptoms, serious insomnia, difficulty maintaining daily functioning, self-destructive behaviors (like substance abuse or self harm), and compulsive behaviors around environmental causes (such as becoming obsessed with a cause and losing interest in all else in your life).
On the other end of the spectrum, mild eco-anxiety symptoms involve occasional insomnia, feelings of sadness and restlessness, disassociating from climate-related issues and trouble making moral decisions about daily actions that could lead to climate breakdown.
Eco-anxiety is typically handled on a case-by-case basis during an appointment with a health care provider. Some cases may be mild enough to be treated with group or talk therapy, while other cases may necessitate medication or an intensive therapeutic regimen.
What we can do about it
If you’re experiencing severe symptoms, it’s important to reach out to a health care provider—like a therapist or even your primary care physician—to talk about what medical options might be available to help you work through your symptoms.
If your symptoms are mild, you might consider working through them on your own, or with your support system. It’s natural to develop feelings of apathy about climate change, especially when it’s too hard to process the complicated emotions and existential questions associated with the crisis, Pihkala says. He notes that this apathy is actually a defense mechanism; behind it, we usually store up fear and anxiety.
To work through apathy, Clayton recommends acquiring concrete information about the climate crisis. Read books, gather data, and work to understand what’s happening and why by engaging with websites like NASA and the U.S. Global Change Research Program.
Next, find a group of people to connect with. We know from research that social support can help us get out of emotional ruts and promote resiliency, thus working together with a group of people can help you feel more empowered.
Once you’ve found a community, try taking small, manageable steps to help contribute to climate solutions. For example, you might work in your local community to spread information or cultivate a community garden. You might also do what you can in your own household to reduce your environmental footprint.
“Find something you can do with others,” advises psychiatrist David Pollack, who works closely with the Climate Psychiatry Alliance. The more connected we are to others, he says, the more aware we can be of the reality of the situation, and the more committed we may feel to finding solutions.
Finally, take time to work through the emotions you’re experiencing—this is when a trained mental health care provider can be a helpful resource. Self-reflection can help you make sense of where you’re getting stuck and how to move forward. For Pihkala, the best solution requires taking on a tone of hope in the midst of tragedy, one that acknowledges the crisis but also maintains that we can do something about it.
“It is possible to show understanding for the great losses that have already occurred and will inevitably still occur, [while also believing that] humanity can yet have an effect on how much damage climate change will bring in the future,” he says.