What is eco-anxiety and how can we help combat it?

It’s Stress Awareness Month this April, so we here at Green Schools Project would like to share our top 3 ways that everyone can combat eco-anxiety. 

Eco-anxiety is a term which is heard frequently as the effects and future consequences of climate change appear more regularly in the media. Defining the term can be difficult, even though it is likely a phrase you have heard before, as eco-anxiety can have different meanings to different people. 

A general definition of eco-anxiety as ‘the distress caused by the ecological crisis’ is given by Dr. Pihkala Panu from the University of Helsinki. Others point more specifically to climate change, with researchers from the University of New England, Australia, defining eco anxiety as “the distress caused by climate change where people are becoming anxious about their future.

Eco-anxiety can be hard to deal with due to the scale and urgency of current environmental problems. Those connected to the natural world, children and young people are the groups most vulnerable to the effects of eco-anxiety. In fact, a recent global study published in the Lancet found that nearly 60% of people aged 16-25 were very or extremely worried about climate change. However, this does not mean that other groups do not experience negative feelings around the future of our natural world.

Graph showing data from a study published in the Lancet surveying 10,000 young people from 10 different countries. Image from Nature.

 
1. Acknowledging that your feelings are valid and shared by many people

Understanding eco-anxiety is an important first step to managing it. Anxious feelings may come from current or future effects of the ecological crisis, but it is important to remember that these emotions are a very reasonable response to environmental changes. In fact, psychotherapist Caroline Hickman describes these feelings as “necessary in preparing yourself for the impact of these very real changes to our environment” and highlights that this anxiety comes from an awareness of what is happening to the world around us. Caroline Hickman suggests reframing eco-anxiety as ‘eco-empathy’ or ‘eco-compassion’. 

Eco-anxiety is also commonly experienced and it is important to remember that you are not alone in your feelings. Researchers from the University of New England, Australia published a review paper into eco-anxiety, picking up on many similar feelings that different groups of people have:

  • Ecological grief: grief felt in response to experienced or anticipated losses in the natural world.
  • Solastalgia: the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment.
  • Eco-angst: feeling of despair at the fragile condition of the planet.
  • Environmental distress: distress due to people’s lived experience of the desolation of their home and environment. 

People often relate to others elsewhere in the world who experience these negative feelings. This can connect people and bring them together.

 

2. Building support networks

The idea of eco-empathy brings us to another important step in reducing the negative impact of eco-anxiety. Feeling isolated and alone in your fears can often be the key negative experience of eco-anxiety, so conversations about the crisis itself and your feelings are key. Psychoanalyst Anouchka Grose highlights this in her book A Guide to Eco-Anxiety: ‘Finding people with whom you can share ideas and create a support network is invaluable. Being able to let out the words from your head, and give voice to your fears and connect to others who share your worries, can allow you to feel less vulnerable and more proactive…’

Talking about climate change is also important for helping children and young people cope with the effects of eco-anxiety. Health information site Healthline discusses the power of open and honest conversation with kids in this article. They remind adults to validate young people’s concern, give age-appropriate and fact-based answers to any questions they have and to utilise research when answers are unclear.

Open conversations about climate change can help people of all ages to feel less isolated and more empowered to act. Psychotherapist Mary-Jane Rust suggests that finding a community of like-minded individuals gives space for eco-anxious people to express their feelings. 

 

3. Taking action

Taking action, especially collectively through community or family support networks, has been shown to generate positive emotions like hope, empowerment, and connection. There are many actions you can take which have been shown to help with eco-anxiety individually or as part of a group. However, it’s important not to place too much pressure on yourself to take part in a lot of individual action. Environmental writer Emma Marris argues that we can’t solve the climate crisis through individual action and that accepting this benefits your wellbeing.

The type of action you take and who supports you can vary greatly, but there is benefit to be found in any type of action which helps the environment. Some examples include:

  • Participating in community activities such as gardening, litter picking, or local campaigning.
  • Making changes to your personal habits. You could eat less meat, reduce single-use plastics, or start walking/cycling to work.
  • Working to change the systems we live in. This could be through:
    • Supporting a charity via donation or volunteering. 
    • Speaking to your bank/pension fund about opting out of fossil fuel investments
    • Writing a letter to your MP, councillors or mayor. 
  • Reconnecting with the environment by getting out into nature. This could be on your own, with family, or with friends. You could also volunteer to help nurture green spaces.

The climate crisis is just that: a crisis. Anxiety is a very understandable response. However, this anxiety does not have to be isolating and paralysing. It can motivate action and create friendships, leading to positive connections with other people and world around us.

What is Eco-Anxiety and how can we help combat it?