Eco-anxiety and climate anxiety are conditions associated with climate and ecological breakdown. As the climate crisis worsens, these conditions are likely to become more prevalent in society.
The mental health burden of inaction on the climate and ecological crises can be life-inhibiting. Some people are so concerned about the climate emergency, that they’re worried about having children, and some have even taken steps not to have children. This is therefore a major issue which needs to be addressed by our leaders and wider society.
I was inspired to write this blog after reading the fantastic eco-anxiety book, Generation Dread by Britt Wray (which I’ve reviewed here). I’ve referenced Generation Dread numerous times, so I’d like to thank Britt Wray for creating this indispensable resource. If you haven’t already, I’d also strongly recommend subscribing to the Gen Dread newsletter. My thanks also to Panu Pihkala whose journal articles came up over and over again when I was researching this blog. I’ve also referenced many of these throughout.
A note on terminology
There may be some confusion surrounding climate anxiety and eco-anxiety, as the terms are sometimes used interchangeably throughout articles, research papers and books. Panu Pihkala writes that there are also variations and different spellings of these terms, including ‘ecoanxiety’ and ‘climate change anxiety’. I’m going with eco-anxiety and climate anxiety as they come up most often. In this blog, I’ll explore each of these terms and try to answer a few commonly asked questions in the process.
It goes without saying that all mistakes in the blog are my own and I’ll be happy to correct any errors that are brought to my attention.
Can environmental issues cause anxiety?
This question seems like a good place to start. To put it simply, yes, environmental issues can cause anxiety. A research paper published in The Journal of Climate Change and Health, said what was “clear from our research is that mental health and reactions to climate change are inextricably linked.”
An opinion piece on the BMJ blog explains that those who are experiencing the impacts of climate change may be likely to experience mental health issues including depression, PTSD, mental distress and low mood.
There is also a type of anxiety that arises from the knock-on effects of environmental issues, called ‘eco-social anxiety’. These knock-on effects might include unemployment, health issues, as well as issues around injustice.
So what is eco-anxiety?
Eco-anxiety has been defined by the American Psychological Association as the “chronic fear of environmental doom”. Panu Pihkala writes in a research paper that eco-anxiety can encompass, “any anxiety which is related to the ecological crisis”. Pihkala quotes Glenn Albrecht, who says that eco-anxiety is, “the generalized sense that the ecological foundations of existence are in the process of collapse”.
Eco-anxiety is rising in prevalence, as the climate and ecological crises begin taking a massive toll across the world. In her book Generation Dread, Wray says that eco-anxiety had a 4,290% increase in usage in 2019 compared to 2018, according to Oxford Languages. That same year, Wray writes that climate anxiety was named as the “biggest pop-culture trend” by Grist Magazine.
What are the symptoms of eco-anxiety?
In Generation Dread, Wray lists various mild symptoms, which may include:
- Sleepless nights
- Change in moods
- Temporary paralysis
How can we cope with eco-anxiety?
Before looking at ways of overcoming eco-anxiety, it’s important to say that eco-anxiety is positive in the sense that it shows we care about what is going on in the world. In terms of strategies to cope with eco-anxiety, Panu Pihkala covers a comprehensive range in his research paper, Eco-Anxiety and Environmental Education. I’ll list a few below:
- Incorporate self-care into our lives
- Ask for support from other people
- Try to stop catastrophizing
- Identify and implement distractions that are healthy
- Build emotional and mental health skills
- Retain hope and meaning in our lives
- Find ways to take action on an individual level and as a collective
- Connect to nature
- Incorporate mindfulness into our lives
- Name the emotions that you’re experiencing, which could also be done through creative means
Wray offers some additional practical steps for managing eco-anxiety in Generation Dread, including:
- Seeking eco-anxiety support groups, including Climate Cafes, such as those hosted by The Climate Psychology Alliance.
- Seeking eco-anxiety help and counselling through a ‘climate-aware therapist’. Useful websites include climatepsychology.us, which has a Climate-Aware Mental Health Professional Directory, and climatepsychiatry.org, which lists therapists in North America.
- Exploring additional eco-anxiety resources on The Climate Psychology Alliance (UK) and Psychologists for Future.
Can eco-anxiety be beneficial?
A research paper in The Journal of Climate Change and Health is the self-proclaimed first to provide a link between eco-anger and pro-climate behaviours. This suggests that eco-anger can be motivating for change.
However, it’s important to note that eco-anger and eco-anxiety are different. While eco-anger might be motivating, the researchers say that eco-anxiety had the opposite effect. One research paper therefore suggests conducting future research on how to foster eco-anger without triggering negative eco-emotions.
Should we all be feeling eco-anxiety?
If we want to address this question in a literal sense, then I defer to Kurth and Pihkala who say that experiencing eco-anxiety is “a morally admirable sensitivity to ecological crises”. They continue by saying that, “eco-anxiety is an emotion we ought to be feeling to increase planetary wellbeing.”
Who is experiencing eco-anxiety?
A Guardian article looked at the scale of eco-anxiety in society. It talked about a study conducted by the Global Future thinktank, alongside the University of York. The study found that climate change concern is almost the same among younger and older generations, as it is between middle-class and working-class individuals. Statistically, it was found that eco-anxiety was experienced by around 78% of those involved in the study.
Panu Pihkala writes in his journal article, Eco-Anxiety and Environmental Education, that a 2019 national survey in Finland showed that 25% of people experienced climate anxiety. This figure grew to 33% for 15-30 year olds. In the same paper, Pihkala says that in a December 2019 survey from the US, 68% of people experienced eco-anxiety.
According to a commentary piece on the BMJ blog, there is a growing fear among 27-45 year olds about the future young people will inherit. Meanwhile in an opinion piece for The Lancet, it was suggested that the youth might experience the negative effects of climate anxiety more so than others, due to the stage they’re at in their development. The authors suggest this might lead to more mental health issues during their lifetimes. As such, I’ll explore this topic in a bit more depth below.
Eco-anxiety and the youth
In 2020, a survey in England revealed that 57% of child psychiatrists see children who are concerned about the climate emergency. In that same year, the UK had a national poll which showed that 70% of people aged between 18 and 24 had more concern about climate breakdown, than they did the year before, according to Wray in Generation Dread.
Meanwhile in 2021, Caroline Hickman and her research colleagues conducted a survey of 10,000 children and young people, between the ages of 16 and 25. The eco-anxiety survey spanned 10 countries including the UK, USA, Brazil, Finland, Australia, France, Portugal, Nigeria, India, and the Philippines. The results showed that:
- 59% were either extremely or very worried about the climate crisis
- 45% said their feelings about the climate emergency affected their daily life and functioning
- 75% believe the future is frightening
Crucially, the survey by Hickman and her colleagues showed growing frustration and anger with governments due to their failure to take meaningful action on the climate crisis. The research paper says, “Climate anxiety and dissatisfaction with government responses are widespread in children and young people in countries across the world and impact their daily functioning. A perceived failure by governments to respond to the climate crisis is associated with increased distress. There is an urgent need for… governments to validate their distress by taking urgent action on climate change.”
On which note, as the climate crisis is often a major cause of eco-anxiety, let’s explore climate anxiety.
What is climate anxiety?
Climate anxiety can be defined as anxiety which stems from the anthropogenically-induced climate crisis, and is considered to fall under the eco-anxiety umbrella. Panu Pihkala writes that it might be the most mentioned type of eco-anxiety.
Is climate anxiety real?
Yes. The International Review of Psychiatry even dedicated a special edition to the climate crisis and mental health in 2022, which can be viewed here. Panu Pihkala writes that climate anxiety isn’t a disease, but rather “an understandable reaction to the magnitude of the environmental problems that surround us.”
Symptoms of climate anxiety
In a 2019 report on climate anxiety, Panu Pihkala discusses several severe and mild symptoms, which could potentially include:
- Clinically definable anxiety
- Difficulty to function
- Compulsive behaviours, including ‘climate anorexia’ and ‘climate orthorexia’
- Substance abuse
- Difficulty making decisions
- Mood changes
- Lower levels of energy
Can extreme weather cause anxiety?
The climate crisis is already causing, and will lead to more extreme weather events. In an editorial for the International Review of Psychiatry, Adrian James says that extreme weather can psychologically affect people who’ve gone through those events. There are also additional issues associated with the climate crisis and extreme weather. For example, rising temperatures have been linked to aggressive behaviour as well as higher levels of criminality.
Who is most susceptible to feel climate anxiety?
It may not be a surprise to learn that one group vulnerable to climate anxiety are those who care a lot about the environment. In his climate anxiety report, Pihkala mentions that other vulnerable people include:
- Children and younger people
- Those with existing mental health issues
- People who make their living from nature (for example: fishermen, farmers, people involved in winter sports etc.)
- Climate scientists and activists
Interestingly, one study on climate anxiety found that it was the media portrayal of climate impacts, rather than direct experience of those impacts, which “predicted climate anxiety.” Additionally, the statistics show that only 4.6% of the UK public feel climate anxiety, despite more than 75% of people in the UK saying they’re concerned about the climate crisis.
How to manage climate anxiety
In Pihkala’s report on climate anxiety, a few coping strategies are mentioned including:
- Looking for social support
- Maintaining routines that are healthy
- Taking some time for yourself and your mental wellbeing
- Applying different problem-solving approaches, to change how you think about a problem
- Avoid trying to suppress feelings of loss
- Try to shift to a problem-solving attitude
- Look for actions you can take
The climate anxiety report by Panu Pihkala is a key resource for additional tips.
How to turn climate anxiety into action
In their research paper, Climate change anxiety and mental health: Environmental activism as buffer, a team of researchers have proposed that taking part in activism may help improve mental health, by reducing feelings of being overwhelmed and of hopelessness. This also creates a sense of empowerment. However, the researchers note that the flip side can also be quite damaging. For example, if someone did take part in activism they may spend a lot of time thinking about the climate crisis, which in itself can be quite deflating. On top of which, if the activism doesn’t achieve it’s stated goals, that could lead to anxiety, distress, and even despair.
In order to bring about pro-environmental behaviours, Lois Player, who co-authored a study on climate anxiety and climate action, said that the media had an important role to play, as long as they communicate the climate crisis in such a way that it doesn’t bring about hopelessness.
Additional phrases for describing climate and environmental emotions
In Generation Dread, Wray quotes Timothy Clark who describes this as the intense fear (horror) of global environmental change.
An intense reduction of carbon footprint, inhibiting a person’s ability to live and function.
A compulsion to eat clean for environmental reasons.
Climate grief is related to anxiety, as well as a sense of loss and sadness associated with the climate emergency. Some useful reading resources for climate grief can be found on Psycom, Greenpeace, APA, The Guardian, New Scientist, and Science.org.
Ashlee Cunsolo and Neville Ellis define this as grief related to expected or experienced ecological losses, writes Wray in Generation Dread. These may include species loss and ecosystem loss.
Renee Lertzman uses this phrase to describe both a feeling of crushing powerlessness and primal loss.
Wray writes in Generation Dread, that Glenn Albrecht refers to psychoterratic emotions as those “related to perceived and felt states of the Earth.”
Solastalgia is a term from Glenn Albrecht, which encompasses a feeling of sadness, homesickness and longing as an environment changes around a person’s own home. The changes are so pronounced, that home no longer offers the solace it once used too, says Wray in Generation Dread.
In Our House is on Fire, Malena Ernman talks about “the burned-out people on a burned-out planet.” This is indeed what the world feels like to many people these days. As the climate crisis accelerates and ecological collapse continues, climate anxiety and eco-anxiety are likely to become more widespread. As such, we’re going to need to find a way to work collectively that enables us to take climate action, while also helping to decrease the negative feelings associated with the crises we’re in.
What’s clear is that we’ll need a great deal more support, especially from those in power. An opinion piece on the BMJ blog talks about how John Kenneth Galbraith said that all great leaders confronted the major issue causing people anxiety, during their time in power. António Guterres is a great example of a leader who is standing up and addressing the crisis and calling out all those who are preventing climate action. We urgently need more leaders like Guterres as we’ve been waiting more than 35 years for climate action. Now as we come close to crossing tipping points and potentially jeopardising the future of civilisation itself, we need our leaders to step up.
We need leaders who will lead us through the coming storms and comfort us as we watch our world transformed. People who will fight with every cell of their being for a liveable future, and one in which civilisation not just survives, but also thrives. Such a world is possible, and such leaders must now come to the fore. For the lives of 8 billion people and a natural world on the brink, depend on it.
My new cli-fi children’s picture book, Nanook and the Melting Arctic is available now. Nanook is a caring polar bear who lives in the Arctic. But when his igloo starts melting, Nanook must find a way to save his friends and his home. He knows that the people who can help are also those who’ve caused the problem and he must find a way to convince leaders to act on the climate crisis. You can purchase Nanook from Amazon’s global stores including Amazon UK and Amazon US.