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Eco-anxiety: Managing mental health amid climate change impacts

Rishita Chandra
Rishita Chandra

Pursuing a master's degree in Public Health

Rishikesh, India  /  Tue, December 3, 2019  /  09:02 am
Eco-anxiety: Managing mental health amid climate change impacts

A man walks along a riverbank that has cracked due to prolonged drought in this file photo. Climate change has been linked to a type of psychological distress over environmental threats: eco-anxiety. (JP/Seto Wardhana)

Ecology is the study of interactions between organisms and their surroundings in the Earth's biosphere. Climate is an integral part of ecology. It is a summation of atmospheric elements and their variations over a longer period of time; weather is its shorter counterpart.

To quote Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “change is the only constant” can be applied to the climate condition these days. As climate patterns change, living beings must work to adapt to those changes.

Charles Darwin introduced the concept of “natural selection” or “survival of the fittest” in his seminal work On the Origin of Species, which suggests that those creatures that adapt to the changes in their surroundings have a better chance of surviving as a species.

But the extent to which the climate trends and patterns are changing is verging on beyond adaptability. Climate change has had a negative impact on living creatures, particularly the most conscious species: human beings.

Climate change is an etiology – a cause or a set of causes – for an emerging type of psychological distress that has been termed “eco-anxiety”: persistent anxiousness and stress over ecological disasters and environmental threats.

People have started to view climate change as an apocalypse, and this is becoming evident in symptoms like discomfort toward the environment they live in, worry and negative thoughts regarding the future and feeling anxious and perplexed about the global scenario.

This doomsday approach to climate change as an existential crisis is causing some people to feel chronic fear for the future, giving rise to a new plethora of uneasiness and discomfort about the environmental crisis. This is eco-anxiety.

Global warming has been a burning topic for a decade, and it is now not just limited to the depletion of the ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbons or rising temperatures. As huge glaciers melt, coastal lands become submerged and large swathes of the Amazon rainforest continue to burn, the devastating effects of climate change have rung an alarm to awaken everyone from ignorance.

During her speech at the United Nations Climate Summit in September, 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg accused the generations of the past as being responsible for today's climate disruption. Her statement, “How dare you!”, became a sensation and roused many celebrities to stand in support of her movement. Thunberg also accused the past generation of stealing her dreams and childhood.

And her emotional breakdown while delivering her speech reflected her deep concerns and anxiety over climate change.

At a UN meeting in March, General Assembly President María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés of Ecuador said, “Eleven years are all that remain to avert a catastrophe.,” stressing that climate change would become irreversible a decade from now. Espinosa Garcés said that "Climate justice is also cross-generational justice," and emphasized a collaborative approach to address the challenge.

Various studies describe the effects of climate change on the human psyche and behavior. The 2017 report of The Lancet Countdown on health and climate change states that “the human symptoms of climate change are unequivocal and potentially irreversible – affecting the health of populations around the world today”.

These warnings, taken collectively, have become a reason to panic over the present condition of the environment. People around the world have even started to have nightmares about climate change and environmental deterioration, and to feel stuck in a maze, unable to find or design a sustainable path through it.

The American Psychological Association (APA) describes eco-anxiety as a “chronic fear of environmental doom”. Although “eco-anxiety” is not recognized as an official condition in the APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it is an emerging psychological condition that needs addressing in addition to the climate.

How to identify eco-anxiety

Take a look at the questions below:

  • Do you feel worried about severe rises or falls in temperature?
  • Do you find yourself worrying about heavy rainfall and flood?
  • Do you find yourself worrying about worst-case scenarios if you do something that isn't considered environmentally friendly, like using plastics, wasting water or using chemicals?
  • Do you find yourself imagining a series of future events that lead toward a negative climax of the world ending and the survival of human beings becoming impossible on Earth?
  •  Do you relate to movies like Interstellar and feel the need to find another habitat for humans in space?
  • Are you so concerned about the future that you don’t want to have children of your own?

These are some of the signs of eco-anxiety, and can become more aggravated if you start feeling helpless and start blaming yourself. Feeling guilty about not being able to do anything about it can exacerbate your anxiety and increase your stress level.

Aside from adults, climate change is having a strong effect on children. A September 2019 article in The Telegraph talks about children being treated for eco-anxiety and how parents can approach it.

The article quotes Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) executive Caroline Hickman as saying that the symptoms of eco-anxiety were similar to clinical anxiety, and that the overriding fear was “that we're all going to die”. She advises parents to discuss the topic with their children in a positive manner, taking a factual approach that instills caution, not fear.

How to tackle eco-anxiety

According to some psychologists, eco-anxiety is emerging due to “learned helplessness”,  a state in which an individual gives up trying because they consider a situation to be out of their control, and which leads to despair and a feeling of uselessness.

Some psychologists like Hilda Burke encourage their patients to accept their feelings of anxiousness, listen to it and explore their own ways to eliminate its cause. For example, those who feel anxiety over climate change could join conservation and preservation groups. They should start becoming conscious of their surroundings and putting effort into the climate change movement – even a small step can remove the feeling of guilt as well as the sense of helplessness, and bring positivity into their attitude.

Research suggests that mindfulness intervention like meditation and with yoga can help reduce stress related to eco-anxiety.

Being concerned about the climate and our Mother Earth is the need of the hour, but conservation is only possible if people stay healthy and alert. Anxiety and stress reduce the capacity of the human mind to think clearly, so it is essential to tame your thoughts and emotions to work effectively, to minimize the effects of climate change and avoid contributing to this global problem. (wng)

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Rishita is pursuing a master's degree in Public Health. She writes as a way to express her views on various medical and healthcare fields. She is particularly interested in healthy lifestyle issues, and also writes about yoga, meditation and the importance of psychological and spiritual health.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of The Jakarta Post.