What Is Eco-Anxiety? How Climate Change Is Affecting Our Mental Health
More than half of Americans have reported at least a little anxiety regarding the health of our planet.
In late October and early November 2020, two powerful typhoons hit the Philippines, causing destruction to the country just days apart. Before that, Australian bushfires decimated over 20% of the country's forests, destroying over 1,400 homes and killing almost one million animals. And in the US alone, summer 2020 brought record-setting heat waves and hurricanes; a rare derecho in the central US, and devastating wildfires that turned skies a shade of orange across the West.
While it'd be easy to chalk up those disasters to 2020 being an awful year overall, extreme weather events like these are becoming more commonplace, and scientists are increasingly linking them to climate change. But our current climate crisis isn't only affecting the Earth—it's also causing an uneasiness to fester among people worldwide that has mental health professionals sitting up and paying attention. It's not a clinical diagnosis and it doesn't have a firm definition, but experts have coined a term to start describing the sentiments being increasingly reported: eco-anxiety.
What is eco-anxiety?
The condition, which the American Psychological Association (APA) describes as "a chronic fear of environmental doom," is widespread. A recent poll, also conducted by the APA, found 68 percent of US adults say they have at least a little eco-anxiety—and about half of those between the ages of 18 and 34 say that their stress surrounding climate change affects their daily lives.
"This used to be a special interest issue; now it's much more common because of climate-related events," Dr. Thomas Doherty, an Oregon-based psychologist, tells Health. "This is not something far away anymore."
The APA adds that eco-anxiety—sometimes also known as climate anxiety or climate change anxiety—can cause both acute effects (usually after a natural disaster) and chronic effects (resulting from gradual climate change) on mental health. Those can manifest as:
- Trauma and shock
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Compounded stress
- Strains on social relationships
- Substance abuse
- Aggression and violence
- Loss of personally important places
- Loss of autonomy and control
- Loss of personal and occupational identity
- Feelings of hopelessness, fear, or fatalism
Who is most vulnerable to eco-anxiety?
Not surprisingly, those experiencing the direct consequences of climate change—wildfires, superstorms, flooding—are especially vulnerable.
Scientists have long studied the psychological health effects of environmental disasters to know the mental health impact is very real. After Hurricane Katrina—the 2005 storm claimed over 1,800 lives—one in six survivors showed signs of post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation and suicide more than doubled, and 49 percent of those living in an affected area developed an anxiety or mood disorder. Australia's Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 left 15.6 percent of the affected community with symptoms of PTSD years after the fact.
"We're going to continue to see climate catastrophes and tipping points," says Doherty. "People have become more used to them, but these really super destructive [events] cause a lot of stress and anxiety."
The climate crisis also disproportionately impacts communities of color, according to the United Nations, so they too may be at an even greater risk of eco-anxiety.
People of color in the US are more concerned about climate change than their white peers, according to a study by George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication. The authors write the heightened worry is because "[people of color] are often more exposed and vulnerable to environmental hazards and extreme weather events."
These hazards include, but are not limited to, air pollution, flooding, hurricanes, and wildfires. Some of these environmental problems have been constant, multi-generational threats for communities of color. Take air pollution, for example. A 1999 IOM study found people of color are exposed to higher levels of pollution than their peers. More than two decades later, it's still a harsh, inequitable reality: Studies have repeatedly shown Black and Hispanic communities are more exposed to air pollution than white communities.
To further compound the issue, communities of color tend to have fewer resources (e.g. infrastructure, access to healthcare, lower access to aid after climate-related disasters) to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis and deal with the aftermath of an environmental disaster.
What can you do to help eco-anxiety and climate anxiety?
Climate change is scientifically undeniable and a real threat. As such, it is rational to worry about it. "A little anxiety can be a good thing if there's a real problem," says Susan Clayton, co-author of the APA's eco-anxiety report and author of a climate anxiety review published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders. "Anxiety is our signaling mechanism saying, 'Hey, you need to pay attention to this issue cause it's threatening.'"
The anxiety around the environmental doom can be alleviated by a change in the dialogue around it and the policy efforts to mitigate it. "If we get to the point where it's more generally accepted that climate change is occurring and we have international task forces to address it, that might actually help to ameliorate some of the anxiety," says Clayton.
Unfortunately, under Donald Trump's presidency, the government has done little to help the environment. The Trump administration has weakened and rolled back rules and policies that aimed to protect the environment — 125 and counting, according to a Washington Post analysis. This includes, but is not limited to, weakening Obama-era fuel efficiency rules, revoking Obama-era federal infrastructure projects to survive sea-level rise, and loosening rules for toxic water pollution that makes its way to public waterways from coal-fired power plants.
There's no one-size-fits-all solution for climate anxiety since individual thresholds vary. For some, gaining more information can help recalibrate the immediate threat level. For others, unplugging from the news cycle is essential. Clayton recommends regaining control by joining local activist groups, writing to local politicians, and taking personal actions (e.g., creating a hurricane preparation kit). But overall, Clayton's main piece of advice is to remember—whether you're suffering from climate anxiety or eco-anxiety—that the situation we're in is dysfunctional, not the people, and that we can all do our part to extend the life of our planet.
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