How to cope with eco anxiety

With multiple councils and governments declaring a climate emergency, the worsening environmental situation can often feel overwhelming. Psychotherapist and lecturer Caroline Hickman discusses the phenomenon of "eco anxiety", and what to do about it.
  Published:  28 Jan 2020    |      3 minute read

Over the last 5 years I’ve been researching how children and young people feel about the climate emergency. The amount of stress and anxiety I hear in this work, both from them and adults, has been steadily on the rise in this time.

"Eco anxiety" as a term is growing both in usage, and in the number of people recognising it in themselves. As a psychotherapist, I believe it’s crucial to deal with these psychological issues around the climate crisis in order to understand why it’s such a challenging issue for people to take action on.

If you’re feeling what seems like eco anxiety right now, the first thing to know is that you’re far from alone. I’m certainly feeling it too.

It is not only reasonable to witness the ongoing fires and floods around the world and feel some anxiety, I believe it is in fact necessary in preparing yourself for the impact of these very real changes to our environment. Often the alternative is retreating into denial, to protect us from painful truths that we fear we cannot tolerate, and it can certainly seem easier to avoid looking at the effects of climate breakdown around the world. As I write, Australia is on fire and Brazil is flooding: there is plenty to worry about.

What should we classify as "eco anxiety"?

When it comes to talking about this worry, and how psychology as a whole can help us understand human behaviour in the face of the climate crisis, eco anxiety as a term has its uses. People like to have something that is defined, and that can make sense of their experiences, but it can also be problematic. We should be wary of suggesting that someone anxious about the climate crisis is in anyway "mentally unwell". Eco anxiety is not a mental health problem that needs to be fixed or cured, rather it is a healthy response to the situation we are facing. Anxiety, whilst uncomfortable, is at least an awareness of the reality of the situation that we face. And the good news (if I can call it that), is that once aware you can then at least do something about it. Or start to face the difficult, uncomfortable truths of what the future looks like.

When you look at it like this, eco anxiety can also be seen as being "eco empathetic", or "eco compassionate". Because in feeling this, it also connects you to others, to vulnerable people, to the suffering of animal life and to people who are already struggling in the global south.

What can you do about eco anxiety?

Actually feeling this anxiety is an emotionally mature state to be in, which shows that you are aware of the crisis that we are all facing. So, whilst it can be unpleasant, I would firstly say that this is a sign of willingness to face painful truths and facts, and that should be acknowledged and almost (though not quite as simple as this) be celebrated. But how?

First of all, try to recognise your feelings as completely reasonable and necessary, rather than push them away. Taking time to acknowledge my feelings helps me maintain a healthy relationship with them, and often motivates my work and activism.

Finding your place in a community can also be a huge help with feelings of despair and anxiety. There are a lot of support and activist groups you can join. The shared belonging and concern can be a great support, and working towards tangible solutions can give a much greater sense of control in overwhelming circumstances.

If the anxiety is so severe that it causes you to be unable to function, or is so painful that it can feel unbearable, then you should consider seeking professional help. You need empathetic understanding and connection and also, crucially, to find the meaning in this.

It is often the loss of meaning that causes people most suffering, but understanding that these feelings have meaning can be comforting.

The ideal is to find balance between feeling these emotions, and then using them in different ways to create meaningful change, better relationships with your family and friends, maybe even more meaningful work and activism of some kind. At least know that you are not alone with your fears.

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