Imagine standing in the middle of a motorway with a huge lorry speeding towards you. The vehicle beeps its horn and flashes its lights, warning you to get out of the way, but you’re too paralysed to do anything about it. All you can do is wait for your eventual death.
Not to be too dramatic, but that is exactly what eco-anxiety – the fear of environmental and ecological disaster – feels like for me. And with every IPCC report, record-breaking heatwave, flash-flood, or species going extinct, that lorry edges closer.
I’ve always been a catastrophiser, so it’s hardly surprising that I experience an array of violent intrusive thoughts every time someone brings up the future. When people my age talk about having kids, eventually buying a house or where they’d like to ultimately retire, I can’t help but laugh in my head, thinking: “That’s nice, but the world isn’t going to exist past 2050, so what’s the point?”
It’s hard not to get into that mindset. Scientists have warned us that we’re heading towards an ecological disaster for decades and we’ve been told that we only have a number of years until irreversible damage to the planet. Yet countries around the globe carry on destroying ecosystems, pumping greenhouse gases and pollutants into the atmosphere, and missing most of the targets and deadlines they set for themselves during climate conferences.
So, really, can we blame ourselves for feeling like this?
Anxiety arises when your body responds to perceived threats with a fight-flight-freeze survival instinct. Essentially, your body is sensing impending danger and is trying to do something about it. But unlike many other anxieties, which can be at times irrational, eco-anxiety is in fact a rational response to the reality that humans are destroying their own habitats and watching the planet burn.
Lesson: don’t listen to anyone who might tell you’re “overreacting”, because you’re absolutely not the only one going through this.
A study published in The Lancet just days ago found that nearly 60 per cent of young people are very worried or extremely worried about climate change. More than 45 per cent of those questioned said feelings about the climate affected their daily lives.
The survey, conducted by Bath University, recorded responses from 10,000 people aged between 16 and 25 from all over the world. Unsurprisingly, young people surveyed from the Global South expressed significantly more worry about a greater impact on their everyday lives, presumably because their countries are feeling the effects of climate change far more.
Although eco-anxiety can affect anyone, it’s undeniable that certain groups face a higher chance of climate-related distress, especially if they’re located in places more vulnerable to climate change. These groups include: indigenous communities; socioeconomically disadvantaged communities; disabled people or those with chronic health concerns; children or older adults; and people living in coastal or island regions, dry areas, flood-risk areas or other regions with a high geological risk.
What, then, are some of the common symptoms people report?
Feelings of depression. Anxiety or panic. A sense of hopelessness. Fatalistic thinking. Existential dread. Anger or frustration (especially towards climate-change deniers). Guilt or shame about your carbon footprint. Obsessive or intrusive thoughts about the climate. PTSD after a climate-change event. Grief over the loss of biodiversity.
On top of that, these symptoms may even give you secondary health issues, such as sleep problems, appetite changes and difficulty concentrating.
But while it’s all well and good to be able to recognise eco-anxiety, how do you deal with it?
Firstly, don’t downplay how you’re feeling. Instead, allow yourself to grieve the future you once hoped to have.
Secondly, have compassion for yourself and others experiencing eco-anxiety, and talk about it with those around you.
Finally, if you feel like your symptoms are on the more severe side, there’s no shame in seeking professional help. Don’t feel like you have to bury your head in the sand.
But also know that you can channel the anger, the sadness and the fear into something useful and healing. Not only can you try to redress your personal habits and think about how you can live a more sustainable lifestyle on an individual level. You can also get involved in community-wide projects like neighbourhood gardening and litter picking, or join local climate groups to protect trees, parks and habitats under the threat of destruction.
Go to protests, meet like-minded people and make your voice heard!
It’s easy to feel alone in this struggle. But we’re all facing this issue of climate change together, so creating social support around you can only help with optimism and resilience. It’s not just down to you to save the planet. It’s down to all of us.
Make no mistake: eco-anxiety is real and can be overwhelming. But it’s crucial to remind ourselves that only by acknowledging and honouring the issue and working together, can we do something about it.
Need more info about dealing with eco-anxiety? Find mental health advice and resources from organisations like the NHS and Mind. Alternatively, call a helpline if you urgently need to speak to someone.