Eco-anxiety is the most frequently used term in literature and research to describe heightened emotional, mental or somatic distress in response to dangerous changes in the climate system. The term climate change anxiety is often used synonymously. A 2017 report by the American Psychological Association links the impact of climate change to mental health and references ‘eco-anxiety’ as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.
The concept has recently become a focus for attention for journalists and the media and there is a danger that it becomes material for a ‘moral panic’ which is then subject to derision by the online alt-right.
Ecological threat response
It is important to stress that CPA does not view eco-anxiety as a clinical condition, but an inevitable and even healthy response to the ecological threats we are facing, such as food/water shortages, extreme weather events, species extinction, increased health issues, social unrest and potentially the demise of human life on Earth. Paying heed to what is happening in our communities and across the globe is a healthier response than turning away in denial or disavowal.
The notion of solastalgia is closely related to eco-anxiety. Coined by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht (2005), it refers to the existential pain experienced when the place where one resides is subject to environmental degradation.
A range of emotions
Whatever words we use to illustrate the psychological effects of climate change, fear and anxiety are certainly not the only emotions people experience in relation to the climate emergency. Anger, helplessness, sadness, grief, depression, numbness, restlessness, sleeplessness and other symptoms can befall those who are able to face the facts. Fear and anxiety are feelings that alert us to danger and can mobilise us into action. Without enough support, anxiety can escalate into panic on one end of the spectrum or evoke a freeze response and paralyse on the other end of the spectrum.
Rather than attempting to rid people of anxiety, therapists can support individuals and communities to build strong containers that allow the expression and exploration of their emotions without collapsing under it or turning away. With strong enough support structures in place, most people can sustain strong feelings without either dissociating and numbing or going into blind panic. They can engage with difficult truths whilst staying connected and grounded. Community groups, climate cafes, supervision groups, are just a few examples of initiatives that can offer containment, sharing, witnessing, and empowerment.
Whilst individuals may need support to increase their resilience to bear the unbearable, interventions to reduce suffering need to be on a systemic level rather than an individual one. Decisive global action to reduce CO2 emissions is therefore the appropriate ‘treatment’ for eco-anxiety, not medication or interventions to eradicate the discomfort.
If eco-anxiety is treated as a pathology, ‘then the forces of denial will have won’ says Graham Lawton (2019) from the New Scientist. He goes on to say that ‘what we are witnessing isn’t a tsunami of mental illness, but a long-overdue outbreak of sanity’.
Support needs to come in ways that enables people to experience the extent of their distress. We all need to expand our capacity to bear witness to suffering. With empathy, compassion and kindness, people can offer mutual support to each other, so that the contraction of fear does not cloud one’s heart or dominate one’s actions.
Grief is a normal human reaction to any kind of loss and loss is certainly a core characteristic of this time. It may include loss of a sense of home, loss of a sense of future, loss of trust in humanity, anticipatory loss for oneself or loved ones, loss of biodiversity etc. By processing these thoughts and feelings and bringing them into awareness, we prevent them from operating at an unconscious level. This is an important step in freeing us up to move forward in an empowered way.
Albrecht, G., Sartore, G.M., Connor, L., et al. (2007). Solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change. Australasian Psychiatry, 15(s1): p95–98.
American Psychological Association/eco-America (2017). Mental health and our changing climate: impacts, implications, and guidance. Washington, DC: APA.