Navigating Eco-Anxiety

Increasingly, articles are popping up in mainstream media covering the rise of eco-anxiety, particularly among young people. And it is hardly surprising. Today, for example, when I do a quick scan of The Guardian’s Climate news, the headlines read of the severe consequences a 2 degree temperature rise would have on Antarctic ice melt, that fossil fuel pollution has been behind 4 million premature deaths annually, and that the 4 biggest fossil fuel companies (Shell, Chevron, BP and Exxon) have made almost 2 Trillion dollars since 1990 exploiting the fossil fuels that have contributed dramatically to climate change. Just scanning these stories- that highlight both the impacts of climate change is already having around the world, and that our governments and systems appear in-affective to deal with it, it is hard not feeling some sort of worry or fear about the future. It is also easy to understand why psychologists are reporting that people are coming to them for help to manage their worries and fears over climate change, and that climate change is now being recognized as a mental health issue.

What exactly is eco-anxiety?

One group of psychologists define eco-anxiety as the term to: “describe various difficult emotions and mental states arising from environmental conditions and knowledge about them. EcoAnxiety can result directly from an environmental problem, but most often it is an indirect impact. For example, a person may feel anxiety and sorrow because a woodland area next to him is cut down. But even more people experience anxiety because they feel that climate change is taking away their future.”

This is echoed in the words of psychologists from the group Climate Psychologists, who note:

“As psychologists, we are noting the rise in the presentation of eco, or climate anxiety. It can be a crippling worry that can manifest in the forms of difficulty in concentrating, difficulty in being present,  panic attacks, depression, low mood, burnout. This can leave us feeling overwhelmed, detached, hopeless, grieving, angry and paralysed, all of which are emotions that inhibit us from taking necessary action to mobilise against the climate crisis.

Psychologists also make the important distinction between anxiety and eco-anxiety; that eco-anxiety is not a clinical disorder. In an interview for Vice, psychologist Rafael Dupré clarified that while anxiety is often formed around an unlikely or irrational fear or danger, eco-anxiety  “is based on a danger that is very real, it exists and is proven to be a threat to human life.” In this way, one psychologist argues that “for most people, eco-anxiety is a healthy response to the climate crisis.”

Navigating eco-anxiety among youth

According to research, unsurprisingly youth are experiencing high levels of eco-anxiety. A 2019 study found that 57% of US teenagers responded that climate change made them feel scared.

Indeed, it is youth that stand to be some of the most impacted by the climate crisis. As they learn about the crisis and how small the window is for radical action, it is their futures that are the most at threat by governments’ climate inaction. For many young people climate change feels like the end of the world. We see this in the messaging and posters of the youth climate strike movement- part of the rationale for striking from school is why get an education for a future that won’t exist.

I remember experiencing this kind of deep anxiety and paralysis when I was first learning about the impacts of climate change in great detail during my undergrad degree. There was so much cognitive dissonance between the messages I was hearing that everything needs to change, and that people are already suffering because of this crisis, but then seeing and experiencing everything seemingly staying the same. And for young people today, they are having to navigate and contend with the challenge of growing up and trying to build their lives and futures under the great uncertainty that the climate crisis means for that future.

Luckily over the past few years psychologists have also started to offer helpful advice, drawing from their own practice on how to manage and cope with anxiety. Here are just a few helpful tips for engaging young people on climate change with attention to eco-anxiety:

  1. Create space for young people to express and work through how they feel when learning about climate change. Some experts suggest that one of the most important initial ways to address eco-anxiety is to talk openly about it.
  2. Be mindful of the time that you bring up and discuss climate change with students. Is it a really stressful time, where students are already under a lot of pressure?
  3. Reinforce that the outcomes of the climate crisis are not a foregone conclusion- there are predictions and models of what could happen. We need to emphasize the 'could' and that there are other possible outcomes if we act- including those that expand rights and justice for more people. This video by US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio Cortez is a powerful example of visualizing this alternative future in the American context.
  4. Turn anxiety into action! - as psychologist Megan Kennedy Woodward writes: the solution to climate anxiety is climate action. Through taking action we can all build a sense of agency, and recognize the power we have to change things and contribute to a better future. Young people may need support to figure out what climate action means and looks like for them. This is why at Be the Change we have created the Climate Action Tracker, and include an Action Survey in every Action Pack to give students a whole range of actions they can take in their own lives.  
    • In my interactions with young people I always like to emphasize not only the importance of acting, but of finding the ways to take action that you enjoy, and that help to feed your sense of purpose. I do this by having students brainstorm what they already enjoy doing, and what skills and talents they have or that they want to learn. And then thinking creatively about how these skills, talents and interests can be used to support climate action. In this way young people can continue to nurture the skills and interests they have while also using them to create a positive change.  
  5. Emphasize the importance of self-care and setting limits. As one psychologist says: “we all need to embrace not just activism and actions, but coping mechanisms and self-care: ways of painting a future that don’t fill us with pessimism, but picture possible ways to save it.”

I know when I first got involved in climate activism it completely took over my life, because I was trying to do everything I was told we needed to- cut down on my own individual waste, stop using plastic, walking everywhere, going to as many events as I could. I was so frantic about it that it actually led me to feel more overwhelmed because most aspects of my day were just consumed with thinking about climate change, and I wouldn’t allow myself to take breaks to take part in my hobbies and just enjoy my life. This is a pattern I have seen, and shared with many others who share my concern about the climate crisis.

It is important to emphasize that while it is important to act, that we also cannot as individuals do everything. Naomi Klein puts it well in her book On Fire- The Burning Case for a Green New Deal when she writes:

“It is true that we have to do it all. That we have to change everything. But you personally do not have to do everything. This is not all on you. One of the real dangers of being brilliant, sensitive young people who hear the climate clock ticking loudly is the danger of taking on too much….Yes, we need to grow faster and do more. But the weight of the world is not on any one person’s shoulders: Not yours. Not Zoe’s. Not mine. It rests in the strength of the project of transformation that millions are already a part of. That means that we are free to do the kind of work that will sustain us, so that we can all stay in this movement for the long run. Because that’s what it will take.” (2019, pp. 132-136).

This is part 2 of 3-part blog series on the complex world of climate communications. To read Part 1 on 5 tips for navigating climate communications with young people click here.