Don’t be scared to talk about eco-anxiety

Imagine being an informed citizen who values things like solidarity, dignity and justice – yet waking up in a country where the largest serving party says that not a single euro should be spent on addressing the climate crisis. Most people in the Netherlands, where this recently happened, might experience what is known as ‘eco-anxiety’. But what does it really mean? What are the different coping mechanisms? Ella Winslow investigates.

Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the rapidly deteriorating state of our planet? Maybe, you feel like the climate crisis keeps you awake or causes stomach pain? Do you feel some form of loneliness because you think too few people truly grasp the gravity of our plight as humanity? Well, you are not as alone as you may think, because eco-anxiety is felt by most of us – to a varying degree. With eco-anxiety being such a complex topic, often associated with misunderstanding and even conflict, the time to open a conversation about it is now. 

What is Eco-Anxiety?

Eco-anxiety is not limited to the fear of climate disasters exclusively. The crossing of six out of nine planetary boundaries is a phenomenon that leads to rises in pollution, deforestation, increased chances of natural disasters, extinction of species and so many other environmental issues that there seems to be no limit to things to worry about. In this light, the phenomenon of eco-anxiety has become increasingly prevalent while we, as humans, continue to grasp the severity and acuteness of our existential challenges. To illustrate, a 2023 survey found that 93% of the EU citizens see climate change as a “serious problem”, while 77% see it as a “very serious problem.” 

While we often discuss the physical and biological consequences of climate change and environmental disasters, it is equally as important to acknowledge the mental and emotional toll of these events as well. The American Psychological Association (APA) defines eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” Eco-anxiety research is just one topic being examined in the new field of climate psychology, and it is important to recognise that all types of anxiety also interact with a variety of other emotions. 

Symptoms of eco-anxiety can present themselves in many different ways. The APA states that eco-anxiety can range from mild stress to disorders like clinical depression, anxiety or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some of the more common effects of eco-anxiety are symptoms that include panic attacks, loss of appetite, irritability, weakness and sleeplessness. 

What Causes Eco-Anxiety?

Climate anxiety is felt powerfully by informed youth, first responders to climate-related natural disasters, climate scientists, as well as activists in particular. The desire to know and care can be at odds with the desire to remain sane. An overdose of exposure to negative climate information is one of the largest identifiable causes of eco-anxiety. The vastness and complexity of the issue, as analyzed by researchers like Professor Harald Welzer in his book ‘Climate Wars’, by can create a sense of despair. 

Research says that first responders, emergency workers and others involved in extreme weather-related disasters are at increased risk of short- and long-term mental health conditions like anxiety, depression and PTSD. 

Eco-anxiety is universal because so many of us have positive memories of spending time in nature. Some of us might actively desire a world in which our children and grandchildren can also experience its beauty. When this ideal is threatened, we feel a sense of loss or grief for the connections we have with nature and the world we imagine for those we care about.

Seeing that progress in combating the climate crisis is so slow might be frustrating and disheartening. This last stressor is particularly felt by many who are unsure about their own ability to make a difference or those who are irritated at the political and economic barriers that hinder progress. Despite our efforts, the lack of immediate solutions may make us feel like we are powerless in the face of such a monumental challenge. 

What Can We Do to Reduce Eco-Anxiety?

So how do we keep calm among all these stressors? First, you need to end the denial and finally accept that you are experiencing all these emotions instead of suppressing them.  This way you can fully focus on what part of the problem you can control. 

Choose what works best for you

The challenge is not to keep the lid on this pot, but to find the constructive transition from fear to hope that fits with your personality and psychological capacity. Maybe you will benefit from participating in climate initiatives when you can or encouraging legislators to take action. Some would be more comfortable with building more sustainable habits, such as energy use, recycling or cutting back on consumption, while others could see changing their eating habits as their way of contributing to the solution. You could feel better from commuting in a greener way, like using  a bike or taking public transport, or by engaging family and friends in meaningful conversations about climate change. 

Each of these actions may seem small, but many of us are already doing them and they offer a counterbalance for the eco-anxiety that many of us have inside us. Do not put too much pressure on yourself to do it all. 

Find support 

Try to find ways to talk with like-minded individuals about how you feel. This can be in the form of climate anxiety support groups or just calling up friends and family to encourage one another. Finding a community of people who share your passions and understand how you feel can help you realize that you are not alone. 

Be mindful of the news

Another step you can take to reduce eco-anxiety is to turn off the negative news – or avoid it as much as we can – and stop ‘doomscrolling’. When you start feeling overwhelmed by the news of events around the world, it may be a good time to give yourself a break. This can be a small break, even just a couple minutes to distract your brain with something else. Remind yourself that all of those news stories, updates and information will still be there when you are ready to read it. 

Notice the good things

When you return from your break, you might be excited to find that not all the climate news is negative! It is statistically proven that celebrating small wins boosts our productivity and improves our mindset. Celebrating our progress and small victories is an easy way to keep your attitude positive, because we have so much to celebrate! In the EEB alone, a lot ofpositive work is being done every day in our fight for the environment, and reminding ourselves of that is important and impactful. 

Use all resources you can

Taking care of our well-being is just as important as taking care of our planet. In order to work towards a more sustainable future, we should not despair, but have hope. 

Check out the podcast with writer and activist Rebecca Solnit and the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, ‘The Case for Hope, With Rebecca Solnit (The Science of Happiness Podcast)’. Solnit believes in embracing the realities but having hope in the power we have and the progress we have made. In the podcast, the writer shares why she loves uncertainty, what she finds hopeful and how hope empowers her. If we too can embrace our hope instead of drowning in our anxieties, we can reignite our passion and work towards a world where our worries are not as big as mass extinction. 
If you feel that professional help may be beneficial in combating your eco-anxiety, the Climate Psychology Alliance is a global organisation dedicated to addressing the psychological ramifications of the climate crisis. The organisation’s website can help direct you to a number of resources, including climate cafés, one-on-one therapy sessions or find a youth support space.