Siofra Ryan takes a look at the phenomenon of Climate Anxiety, what it is, and how to manage it in the fight for a greener society.
“Climate anxiety”. “Eco-grief”. “Climate despair”. All phrases becoming more frequently used as we enter the new age of climate breakdown and disaster capitalism. But what do we mean when we use these phrases to describe our responses to our rapidly changing climate and the consequences we face?
In 2017, the American Psychological Association published a paper defining “Eco-Anxiety”, as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. While not considered a clinical psychological disorder in itself, psychologists have recognised that climate breakdown has triggered responses of stress and anxiety in patients around the world, exacerbating conditions such as depression and generalised anxiety disorder, and causing others to become distressed, even traumatised by events of climate breakdown.
In simple terms, climate change has generated an emotional response in a lot of people. The thought of ecological catastrophe is scary, and as we watch the climate change in real time; through flooding, forest fires, tropical storms and hurricanes, we can see why one may fall into despair.
Many people reading this article will likely have already felt some aspects of climate anxiety; symptoms include excessive worrying, fatigue, and an overwhelming sense of dread when considering climate change. It’s not unlike the anxious feelings many have experienced surrounding the pandemic – feelings of uncertainty, not knowing when it will end, how to stay safe and worrying how bad it will get.
Interestingly, anxiety (different to anxiety disorders) while unpleasant, is actually considered healthy. Feelings of anxiety are a natural response to a dangerous or stressful situation, and considering the gravity of the climate’s breakdown, it is easy to see that feelings of anxiety are an appropriate response. What is a little more difficult to gauge is how one should manage these feelings of anxiety in a way that we can acknowledge them, validate them, and move on without letting ourselves fall into despair and get stuck in cycles of perturbation.
When learning how to manage climate anxiety, it is important that we learn to recognise such feelings. Feeling extremely worried about things that are completely out of our control, such as climate change is an example. It’s not that it’s unreasonable to worry about climate change, but that excessive worrying will harm our own mental health, and will drain any energy we have to give to the climate movement. So what can we do?
Obvious remedies to anxiety that we hear time and time again are exercise, good food, good sleep. And these sure do help! There is also an increasing amount of evidence that eco-therapy can help our levels of resilience, help us cope with trauma, and improve our overall well being.
Eco-therapy is a broad term, based on the idea that we are deeply connected to the earth, and that re-establishing and maintaining this connection can be healing. Combined with conventional forms of treatment such as counselling, it’s approved by psychologists world-wide.
Outdoor activities like hiking, swimming, foraging, even gardening, are all thought to be effective forms of eco-therapy.
Joining a climate activist group may be helpful to meet new people and contribute to the cause; many groups also run eco-grief workshops that can be great for learning to manage climate anxiety.
If feelings of anxiety concerning climate change are particularly overwhelming, it’s worth considering talking to a professional, as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is considered a highly effective way of treating climate anxiety.
Thinking about what is happening to our natural environment and how it could affect us, especially in a Covid-19 climate, it is easy to become quite scared. As long as there is a fight in us against the government, big industry and the driving forces of climate change, what we cannot let happen, is burnout.
Take care of yourself – acknowledge your fear, take a deep breath, and realise your power both individually and as part of the collective. We’ve got this.