Eco anxiety – a chronic fear of environmental doom – is real, but there are ways to manage it and still do your bit to combat climate change.
“STOP! You’re hurting the planet!” screams my brain a thousand times a day, from the moment I wake until I lay down my head on my clean, detergent-washed, marine life-killing bed sheets. There’s a price to pay for caring. It can feel as though each small and perfunctory life decision – from where to bank to how to commute to which face wash to use – comes riddled with guilt or paralysing indecision. “The koalas! The polar bears! The icebergs!” your inner dialogue yells as you realise you’ve forgotten your Bag For Life and weigh up the prospect of a seven-item shuffle-juggle home from Tesco Metro.
You may be relieved to know that you are not alone. This feeling is so common, in fact, that it now has a name: eco-anxiety. (You can file that alongside the plethora of other anxieties that 2020 has gifted). Eco-anxiety was recognised by the American Psychological Organisation in 2017 and defined as the “chronic fear of environmental doom”. Realising the impact that our lifestyles can have on the planet is not just massively sobering, at times it can be crippling.
So new is the acknowledgment of this phenomenon that there are no official figures on its prevalence. A BBC Newsround report in March found that one in five of the eight to 16-year-olds surveyed had suffered from bad dreams about the climate crisis; a 2017 study by the American Psychological Association named climate change as one of the three most stressful topics for Generation Z, following mass shootings and increasing suicide rates.
Psychotherapists are beginning to specialise in eco-anxiety. Coaching psychologist, Megan Kennedy-Woodard and Clinical Psychologist, Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams founded Climate Psychologists, which aims to support individuals, parents, educators and organisations regarding the psychological implications of climate change. Two years ago a climate researcher visited their clinical practice seeking advice on the anxiety he was experiencing as a result of his findings. “It made me think that we really don’t have a psychological model to understand this yet,” says Kennedy-Williams. Since then they’ve been approached by everyone from children to grandparents, teachers to business owners and media and governmental organisations, either for individual therapy or support regarding how best to communicate effectively about climate change.
Pippa Best is a mother and author of the Sea Soul Blessings mindfulness book, she describes feeling “low mood, sleeplessness, fear, guilt and grief” around the climate emergency. “The more I understand, the clearer the threat is”. Of course, she is not alone. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez chatted to Greta Thunberg for The Guardian last year, she asked her, “Given how daunting the issue is, why aren’t you so filled with despair that you’re staying on your couch every day, and just waiting for the apocalypse?” Greta explained that’s exactly what she was doing before she started protesting: “I was so depressed and I didn’t want to do anything, basically.”
Embrace your eco-anxiety
Is eco-anxiety something that you recognise in yourself? If so, first up, high five! “When people say they’re suffering eco-anxiety, I would say ‘well, good!’” says Bath University psychotherapist and founding member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, Caroline Hickman. “That shows you’re awake. This is the price you pay for being informed. Congratulations on having reached that point of awareness.” She suggests that other names for the condition could be “eco-awareness, eco-empathy or eco-compassion”.
What was once an imminent yet intangible future threat is finding its way onto our nightly news as a very current reality. “We’re getting really big shocks right now,” says Owen Gaffney, global sustainability analyst at the Stockholm Resilience Centre and Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. “Extended heatwaves, flooding, hurricanes, a very mild winter in Europe, two heat waves in two years across the entire Northern hemisphere, the fires in Australia. We’re no longer living in a stable planet. It is caused by humans and we need to act very rapidly.”
“This is doing absolutely nothing for my anxiety levels!”, I hear you cry. But the alternative is what psychologists call ‘disavowal’. It’s like the global ecological equivalent of knowing you’re sailing dangerously close to your overdraft limit and not checking your balance. “Part of your brain goes ‘Oh this is really scary!’ so the other part goes ‘La la la la la’”, explains Hickman. And who amongst us hasn’t engaged in a little futile head-burying? “The first thing is acknowledging how you’re feeling and then accepting and normalising it,” says Kennedy-Woodward. “You kind of want to make friends with your anxiety,” says Hickman. “It gives you strength.”
Facing your eco fears
What follows is the tough bit. Facing your fears and educating yourself to the realities of climate change is daunting; but it is ultimately the key to taking control. Think of climate change as the spider and your research as your own form of exposure therapy. “You start with anxiety that quickly translates to feelings of despair, depression, hopelessness or rage,” Hickman explains. “It’s an uncomfortable but necessary journey. You have to grieve what we’ve done and feel sad. When you come through that you can become a resilient activist.”
From there it’s time to crew up. Deciding what make-up brand to use or whether to try a moon cup may feel like a singularly solitary affair; but it’s more fun with friends. “Connection is what pretty much everyone has said is essential,” explains Kennedy-Williams. He suggests anything from a call to a mate to setting up a WhatsApp group with like-minded workmates or finding a grassroots community in your local area. Hickman and her Climate Psychology Alliance recommend starting a Climate Café – “a group of people get together over tea and cake and talk about how they feel, without any expectations”. The first rule of Climate Cafe? No judgy eyes at Climate Cafe. Nobody tuts at you for still eating imported avocados or mutters under their breath because you forgot your re-usable coffee cup. “The group has to play with this. It has to be a non-judgemental space,” says Hickman.
However you like your ‘to do’ lists – neat spreadsheet, scribbled on the back of an envelope or stored in your brain – make an environmental one. Then work your way through it steadily and one task at a time. “We recognise that the cure to climate anxiety is climate action. It might be that the thing that reduces your carbon footprint the most feels like the biggest sacrifice,” says Kennedy-Williams. “So don’t start there. Start with an easy win.” These small successes buoy you up, making it easier to move on to the bigger changes. This is your ecological Couch to 10k.
Your planet needs you
“Think about those win-wins,” says Gaffney. From the health benefits of cutting down on meat to the guaranteed originality of buying vintage, the majority of climate-focussed lifestyle changes come with a built-in bonus. He cites his decision to ditch the car and cycle to work: “I get an hour of fresh air every day, I get my heart rate pumping and I get to work with ideas already flowing.”
And don’t forget to give yourself a pat on the back. “We encourage people to record and quantify the changes that they’re making in order to take stock,” says Kennedy-Woodward. “Celebrate your successes, however small. If you haven’t bought new clothes for a month, then treat yourself to a night out with friends.” Plus, nobody likes a show-off, but Gaffney explains, shouting about your personal eco-achievements is in and of itself a positive act: “If you tell other people what you’re doing then that starts forcing them to think. It can spur other action that goes on to spur other action. It creates what we call a virtuous cycle.”
Regularly check how you’re feeling and consider whether it’s a good time to take a week off Twitter or a night off the news. “You need to engage with the news and the information, but if you’re engaging with it obsessively then it’s not helpful,” says Hickman. “Do you actually just need a night watching Friends?”
Your planet needs you. And there’s never been a better time to look after it – especially since a healthy ecosystem is essential to preventing future pandemics. To do this you need to be strong, resilient and ready for action. So practice self-compassion, avoid burn-out and steel yourself for disappointment. You may find a spring in your step after making a major lifestyle change only to turn on the news and find rising floods in Yorkshire or a climate-denying Tweet from Trump. “You don’t want to invest in a particular hopeful outcome around the climate emergency,” Hickman explains. “You do need some hope; but not naive hope. It is about finding courage, compassion and collective conversation.”
Keep those words in mind – the cure to climate anxiety is climate action. With the Coronavirus the world has proven how quickly we are capable of springing into action, making big and small lifestyle changes when we really need to. We’ve already seen a reduction in flights, cars journeys and meat consumption as people stay home and turn to their store cupboards for dinner ideas. “I know so many people who feel hopeless, and they ask me, ‘What should I do?’” said Greta to AOC. “And I say: ‘Act. Do something.’ Because that is the best medicine against sadness and depression.”
If you, or someone you know, is struggling with their mental health, you can find support and resources on mental health charity Mind’s website or see the NHS’ list of mental health helplines and organisations here.