Eco anxiety – what it is and what to do about it
Today’s young adults are facing increasing rates of anxiety and depression related to a multitude of concerns related to an uncertain future. This includes feelings of hopelessness regarding their future quality of life, and feeling let down and left behind by older generations and those in positions of power. Rising economic inequality, financial instability, and the global pandemic are all factors that contribute to increased anxiety about the future. An issue that is increasingly contributing to increased feelings of anxiety is fear related to climate change. This is called eco anxiety.
Eco anxiety is a new term for feelings of anxiety specific to climate change and leadership inaction regarding this issue. Although not yet established as a specialization in psychology, a decade ago Dr. Thomas Doherty predicted that climate change would become an issue that contributed to psychological distress. Therapists are now seeing more people reporting eco anxiety as their reason for seeking services. When the world shut down at the beginning of the COVID19 pandemic, we were saw images of how different the environment looked with less humans out and about on a constant basis. The start stop return to a ‘new normal’ can certainly increase concerns about our impact on the environment and serve as a motivator to make needed changes, but as with any change this is not an easy fix.
In a 2021 survey, 78% of respondents reported feeling some level of anxiety directly related to climate change. Eco anxiety is a growing phenomenon that causes feelings of hopelessness, anger and distress: it can be managed with some simple life changes.
Feelings of anxiety are often rooted in fears related to uncertainty and things beyond our control. It is not always a bad thing. For example, anxiety about the future can motivate a student to study for a test, or a mild amount of climate change anxiety might prompt someone to recycle. Anxiety becomes problematic when it impacts someone’s functioning in a negative way. This can look like someone experiencing racing or intrusive thoughts they can’t control, obsessive behaviors, or panic attacks. Anxiety can disrupt sleep and can also manifest in other physical ways such as having an upset stomach or heart palpitations. Eco anxiety might have some or all of these symptoms with thoughts about climate change and feelings of helplessness being a part of this vicious cycle.
Climate change brings about a lot of anxiety rooted in what we feel we don’t have control over.
What we can do to reduce eco anxiety?
It is not a bad thing to be concerned about the environment and to be aware of how vast this problem is. It will take major systemic change and cooperation to make widespread changes and it is understandable that young people do not have much hope that these changes will occur. However, we also don’t know for sure they will not. It’s okay to rage at the system but staying there too long means nothing much gets done. Taking care of yourself is one of the best ways to make an impact. If you are in a state of anxiety and panic, your mental energies are not going to be at their best for activism related goals or decision making.
Eco anxiety is an emerging specialization, but we can use some of the strategies for managing general anxiety to help. Reducing your overall anxiety so that you can remain at your best to tackle the issues you want to change can be empowering. Maybe you aren’t concerned about activism, but feel powerless and scared about what quality of life will be like on Earth in the coming years. Climate change brings about a lot of anxiety rooted in what we feel we don’t have control over. Focusing on what we can control can reduce anxiety.
Are you doom scrolling?
Doom scrolling is the term for mindlessly scrolling negative news information. It can happen quickly and without being fully aware that it is going on. News headlines and stories related to global warming are reportedly linked with feelings of eco anxiety. This makes sense. It is human nature to search for answers to your questions, but in today’s society of never-ending media sources it is easy to go down the proverbial rabbit hole.
Many headlines are clickbait articles that are not providing accurate or helpful information. Even high quality journalism does not need to be consumed on a near constant basis. In our search for information and attempts to gain some control, this can become part of the anxiety cycle. Mindlessly scrolling and clicking can feel like we are taking action and this gives a false sense of control. A near constant stream of negative information increases feelings of anxiety, yet doesn’t actually change anything. Smart phones were designed to be addictive. We can use the tools we know that help addictive behaviors to reduce news consumption.
News headlines and stories related to global warming are reportedly linked with feelings of eco anxiety.
Start by setting limits for yourself. You can set timers on your phone, delete apps from your home screen, unsubscribe from fear mongering email lists. Habits are hard to change. It might feel weird at first when you muscle memory takes your thumbs to an app that is no longer there, but this can create an immediate reminder of what you are trying to do differently for you own mental health. In addition to breaking the habit of doom scrolling, you can begin to evaluate your media consumption. It can help to reduce your consumption to a limited number of reputable sources.
It is not just the negative news that can be problematic. There are many websites dedicated to teaching us what to do to reduce your carbon footprint. While well intentioned, anything to its extreme can be bad for mental health. Being mindful to reduce waste is not harmful but being concerned about the source of every thread you wear indicates anxiety. It is not always logistically possible to implement every suggestion for reducing your impact on climate change.
Making lifestyle changes can be overwhelming. If reducing your carbon footprint is important to you, but you cannot reasonably implement all the recommended changes, that can lead to feelings of guilt or failure. Focus on what changes are the easiest for you to do first. When making lifestyle changes, small changes made consistently are more effective than big sweeping gestures that are not sustainable. Pick 1 or 2 issues that are of the most concern to you and do them as consistently as you can. Progress is the goal, not perfection.
A common behavior when we feel anxious, is snapping at other people. This often comes with feeling angry, seemingly without reason— yet the actual reason is our limited capacity for stress. Going around yelling at other people, typically means that they are less likely to join your cause. We don’t control other people. We can’t make other people care about the same things we do. Sometimes our behaviors can influence others. Your efforts to reduce waste might influence a friend or acquaintance to do the same. These small changes can add up and have a domino effect.
When making lifestyle changes, small changes made consistently are more effective than big sweeping gestures that are not sustainable.
The ABC’s in eco anxiety
Intense emotion can reduce our logic and can have negative consequences. Just like doom scrolling, these consequences can become habits. We can use the ABC method to disrupt the eco anxiety thoughts, feelings and behavior cycle. In this technique:
- A stands for activating event– what is going on when you feel eco anxiety
- B is for beliefs– what are your personal feelings or meanings related to this event
- C is for consequences– what are you doing and feeling because of A and B
- D is for dispute– can you challenge your personal beliefs and possibly have different consequences
- E is for effective– and results in effectively adapting new beliefs for improved consequences
Here is an example of how the ABC method may be implemented by someone with eco anxiety.
A: activating event
You are grocery shopping. You see fruit needlessly packaged inside of plastic wrap.
You believe that fruit wrapped in plastic shows just how much no one cares about climate change. You are going to suffer in the future because of it and no one cares about your suffering.
You feel immense stress, anxiety or maybe panic or anger. You might leave the store and go home without any of the things you needed and now you are hungry. Perhaps you go drinking or on an online shopping binge because clearly nothing in life matters anyway. You might yell at a grocery store clerk or a fellow shopper who puts the plastic wrapped fruit in their cart and goes on about their day.
Is there any room to challenge the belief mentioned in B? The fruit wrapped in plastic certainly isn’t helping to make improvements to reduce our impact on the earth around us. It does not mean that absolutely no one cares or that you are all alone. Why do you know that plastic wrap on fruit is bad for the environment? The fact that you know that serves as some proof that other people care.
E: effective new belief
Some people don’t care about reducing their carbon footprint, but you do. You might choose to not shop at the store that sells fruit wrapped in plastic wrap anymore. You might ask to speak to a member of management and express your concerns. Talking to a like-minded friend, getting involved in your community, or voting for politicians who care about climate change can help you to feel empowered. It is also okay to recognize this is a big problem with no easy answers and that you are doing your best.
Instilling hope at college
It can be overwhelming to see a problem as big as climate change and feel that it is up to you to fix it. The good news is that it is not up to you to fix it all and you are not alone. Many colleges are joining the fight and have enacted major changes to reduce their harmful impact on the planet. Looking at these resources might help to remind you that student voices matter. You can have hope or feel inspired even you are not able to directly participate.
A unique school that ranks at the top of the list for green universities is the College of the Atlantic located in Bar Harbor, Maine. The school was built around offering only one course of study – human ecology. This small school was the first in the country to be carbon neutral. Their campus dining is a huge part of their sustainability efforts using locally sourced food and vendors, and reducing related waste. Their kitchen is deeply connected with studies and class scheduling to further support sustainability efforts.
Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA is on the forefront of innovation for sustainable living on a college campus. In 2012 the school was acknowledged by Forbes magazine for their contribution to making Pittsburgh a greener place to live. Their Eden Hall Campus is the first campus in the world that was designed to be a showcase for sustainable solutions. Bike rentals and repairs are available to help users reduce their carbon footprint. Funding is available to any student interested in starting a sustainability project. In addition to supporting student led sustainability initiatives, the university offers a wide range of academic majors that can lead to an environmentally conscious career.
Iowa State University ranks at the top of campuses committed to making the college experience one of environmental consciousness. The university demonstrates that small changes can make a big difference evidenced by their campus wide adoption of using the docusign software program reducing paper waste and saving money. They also have funding opportunities to support student projects dedicated to sustainability.
Stanford University consistently ranks at the top of colleges dedicated to sustainability. The school maintains a platinum ranking in the Sustainability, Tracking, Assessment and Rating system (STARS) which measures the sustainability performance of universities. They have reduced campus greenhouse gas emissions by 68% and landfill waste is down 61% since the year 2000. Stanford continues to take serious steps dedicated to sustainability. They are launching a new school dedicated to climate change and sustainability in the fall of 2022.
Eco anxiety is a valid response to a real problem, but you don’t have to suffer or face your anxiety alone. Even if you are not able to locate an eco anxiety expert near you, reaching out to a therapist can help you develop coping skills to reduce the negative impact eco anxiety has on your quality of life.
Meet our counseling expert
Meet our counseling expert
Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
Rayelle Davis is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor, Nationally Certified Counselor, and Board Certified Telemental Health Provider specializing in addictions and trauma. She is also a doctoral candidate in the counselor education and supervision program at Duquesne University where she works as an adjunct faculty member and clinical supervisor for master’s level counseling students. She is passionate about mental health education and reducing related stigma. Her research focuses on the cultural trauma of the Appalachian region of the United States. She has presented at various professional conferences and received research awards from Duquesne University and the American Counseling Association. She owns her own practice in western Maryland where she resides with her family.