Eco-Anxiety and Mental Health: Navigating the Psychological Toll of Climate Change

April 3, 2024
Avatar for Jyoti Kinghorn, PhDJyoti Kinghorn, PhD
Eco-anxiety is anxiety over climate change

What is eco-anxiety

Eco-anxiety- also called climate anxiety, eco-worry, and eco-grief- is a feeling of worry, anxiety, and distress about climate change and how it can adversely affect our planet and the humans, plants, and animals that live on it.

Eco-anxiety is rooted in the fact that the Earth’s climate is changing rapidly due to human activities such as emission of greenhouse gases, pollution, and deforestation. Climate change is evidenced by the global rise in temperatures, the warming of the oceans, the shrinking of the ice sheets, reduced arctic sea ice, ocean acidification, rising sea levels, and extreme weather events. Climate change impacts where we live, our agricultural success, and therefore the food supply, water supply, and water quality.

Eco-anxiety is very common among young people. A survey of 10,000 young people (19-25 years of age) from 10 countries (USA, Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, and the UK; 1000 survey participants per country) revealed that the majority of them were worried about climate change. 59% of the survey participants reported being “very or extremely worried”, while 84% agreed that they were “at least moderately worried”.

Symptoms and manifestations of eco-anxiety

Symptoms of eco-anxiety can be different from person to person in their manifestation and intensity.

A lot of symptoms of eco-anxiety arise from climate change being a difficult global problem that cannot be solved on an individual level, even though the effects of climate change are felt by everyone. Anxiety is a trigger for action, but when there is no clear path of action or if it is deemed ineffective, a person might feel depression, grief, panic, have fatalistic thinking, or think repeatedly or obsessively about the climate. Individuals may also feel shame and guilt about their own carbon footprint, and find themselves getting angry at others who do not believe in climate change or take insufficient actions to protect the Earth.

These symptoms may lead to insomnia, loss of appetite, and attention difficulties.

Is eco-anxiety a mental illness?

Eco-anxiety is not a form of mental illness, but a legitimate worry about a changing planet. But while most people who have eco-anxiety are healthy, possible underlying mental health issues should not be overlooked. It is possible that some individuals who have underlying mental health issues such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder also have eco-anxiety. Both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can cause hallucinations and delusions which may make a person feel unreasonably threatened. Seek medical care if you or a loved one feels significant anxiety or depression due to climate change to rule out any other causes that may be worsening the symptoms of eco-anxiety.

Where you live affects your level of eco-anxiety

The worst impact of climate change is on the countries and communities that are already struggling with food and water supply. People in affluent countries and communities who do not see a shortage of food and water may find it harder to imagine the effects of climate change. At the same, people in countries and communities that do not provide education about what causes climate change and how it impacts the planet will not experience high levels of eco-anxiety.

Therefore, it is not surprising to see that where someone lives affects their level of eco-anxiety.

In their survey with young people from 10 countries, the scientists noted that participants from the Philippines were the most worried (49% extremely worried vs. 1% not worried) followed by India (35% extremely worried vs. 4% not worried). Participants were the least worried in Finland (19% extremely worried vs. 8% not worried) followed by France (18% extremely worried vs. 4% not worried) and the U.S. (19% extremely worried vs. 9% not worried).

Nevertheless, there is more worry than apathy about climate change in young people from all the surveyed countries.

Strategies to manage eco-anxiety

  • Have a game plan. Based on where you live, make a plan of how you can help the environment every day. Newsletters such as Life, But Greener, and Gen Dread can be great resources to learn more about climate change and what individuals can do to cope with eco-anxiety and reduce their carbon footprint.
  • Spend time in nature. Being out in nature has benefits for health and fitness, and can also lower stress and anxiety levels. You can motivate yourself by writing your own nature prescription or using the one shown here.
  • Lower your carbon footprint. Avoid habits that waste electricity by staying unplugged and away from technology as much as possible. Avoid using single-use plastic materials such as plastic straws and instead use reusable or biodegradable materials.
  • Consume climate-related news with caution. To protect yourself, be cautious while consuming news or engaging in social media about the effects of climate change.
  • Avoid wasting food. Plan and store meals carefully so you don’t waste food. Donate canned food when you don’t want to use it.

Turning eco-anxiety into something good

It can be advantageous for the planet that so many young people are so concerned about climate change. Programs with youth participation that seek change can be instrumental in bringing about political and social change that promotes afforestation efforts such as tree planting and discourages pollution and excessive greenhouse gas emissions.

The information provided in our blog posts is for informational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.

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