Eco-anxiety is a fairly new concept, defined as having a fear of environmental damage or ecological disaster. This feeling stems from worrying about the current state of the environment, as well as its future. People who concern themselves with environmental issues may find their minds wander into a dark mental state when faced with such monumental challenges.
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In the 1970s, climate change became a very apparent issue, and governments around the world took on a federal approach to help accelerate progress being made by cities, states, and companies through law and regulations.
Younger generations have grown up enveloped in the evident changes in their environments and many have been actively trying to make an impact. Lowering your carbon footprint, using alternatives to plastic, renewable energy, eco-friendly make-up brands, and sustainable foods and sustainable fashion are very topical amongst young people in Ireland.
On the other hand, growing up and growing older in a time where the natural world is changing rapidly before our very own eyes, it is easy to experience eco-anxiety. Eco-anxiety is caused by an awareness or understanding of environmental issues and the angst that brews from the thoughts of the actions that need to be taken. A study based on eco-anxiety by Yale University found that 21% of people in the U.S. say they are “very worried” about global warming.
Eco-anxiety is a fairly new concept but awareness of the phenomenon has grown in the last few years. There have been reports of some children becoming terrified by climate change and protest groups, such as Extinction Rebellion, holding “grief-tending workshops”, where people are given support in dealing with their eco-anxiety.
Many people who work within environmental charities describe their heartbreak and grief at the loss of the natural world. They are experiencing eco-anxiety not only for the loss of the beauty of the natural world but because they are also extremely aware of how acute and threatening the climate emergency is to our communities.
In 2019, a group of psychotherapists met in London to discuss how to manage the dread and fear people are experiencing over our impact on the planet.
“Eco-anxiety is a term that’s used a lot, but it’s misguided if it’s not used in the right way,” said Sarah Niblock of the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) in her opening speech. “This is not an illness or disorder, it’s a perfectly normal and healthy reaction.”
Caroline Hickman of the Climate Psychology Alliance claimed that she had been contacted by museums, science institutes and civil servants, as well as counsellors, with one asking her how to help a 19-year-old student who was sobbing and said:
“I can never have children because of the climate emergency”.
Climate scientists and environmental activists who also attended the conference provided tips and advice for managing eco-anxiety. Many stressed the benefits of agency, which is the feeling of being active and being capable of making a change.
They acknowledged that significant action from governments is necessary but feeling in control of the things that you can change can make a huge impact on your mental health. We’ve narrowed it down to five small steps you can take to cope with eco-anxiety.
1. ALIGN YOUR LIFE WITH YOUR VALUES
When you live a life that does not reflect your values and the person you want to be, it is easy for your mental health to start deteriorating. Not living up to the standards that you have set for yourself may lead to feelings of anger and shame.
Once you take back control of your life and ensure that every decision you make adds value in a way that also helps the environment, you can start to manage the negative feelings that come with eco-anxiety.
Researchers from Imperial College London’s Grantham Institute recommend to start making small changes, such as eating less meat and dairy, driving less, and refraining from buying and disposing of so many items.
“We live in a throwaway society,” says the institute’s Neil Jennings. “We consume much more than we need and it’s not making us happy”.
By opting for more sustainable purchases, you will find yourself in a better place financially and mentally. Sustainable foods are better for your health and your body whilst sustainable items last longer. When you make the decision to keep these items, instead of disposing of them after a few uses, you become less dependent on materialistic things that may be costing you financially.
This way, you are helping the environment by reducing waste and supporting eco-friendly brands, which in return helps to relieve feelings of eco-anxiety. However, if changing over to eco-friendly brands for every aspect of your life seems too overwhelming, there are many other small steps you can take to help the environment. You just have to acknowledge what your values and strengths are and focus your energy on them.
2. BUILD A MORE ECO-FRIENDLY HOME
Your home is also a reflection of yourself and your lifestyle. If you care deeply about the environment and are experiencing eco-anxiety at the thought of the ecological crisis, ensuring that your home is built on a sustainable and eco-friendly basis can help to alleviate much of that stress.
The Grantham Institute recommends ensuring your home is energy efficient, with good insulation and draught-proof windows and doors, which means that you will not have to use as much energy to heat your home.
“Reducing your energy use helps you take some direct ownership of your consumption,” says Jennings.
The feeling of agency helps when coping with any sort of psychological problem and eco-anxiety is no different. The awareness that your values should coincide with your lifestyle as well as your home, brings the control back to you. Realising that you have the power to enforce these changes helps in reducing feelings of anxiety.
3.DON’T FEEL ASHAMED
Leading an eco-friendly life means that you will notice more than anyone else the carelessness and mistakes of those who don’t concern themselves with these issues. However, the world we live in is built on systems that are not necessarily all eco-friendly. There are things that are out of the hands of many individuals who just want to get by and survive.
Environment writer and activist, Emma Marris, claims:
“The systems in which we are all enmeshed essentially force us to harm the planet, and yet we put all that shame on our own shoulders,” says Marris. “The shame is not helping anybody.”
Marris argues that we can’t get where we want to be through individual action, and that accepting this has therapeutic benefits. While having agency and making changes in your personal life has its advances, it’s important to understand that you cannot carry the weight of environmental issues by yourself.
“I don’t think a complete narcissistic focus on the self is healthy,” she says.
Eco-anxiety dwells on the feeling that your actions alone are not enough to change the immediate environmental crisis and that is, in fact, true. However, you do not need to feel ashamed if you think you are not doing as much in comparison to others. The actions of one person may not exactly change the world but your choices can inspire others to do the same no matter how small they may appear to you.
Marris suggests that if you are looking to make a much more meaningful impact you should consider working with others to lobby governments. The Grantham Institute advises letting your MP, local councillors and mayor know that you think action on climate change is important. You can also write to your bank or pension provider to ask if you can opt out of funds that invest in fossil fuels.
4. FIND LIKE-MINDED PEOPLE
It is important to understand that you are not alone in the fight against ecological crises and feelings of eco-anxiety. The small changes you make to your life have much more meaning when you realise that you are not the only one doing them. A collective effort brings definite positive results.
Finding a community of like-minded individuals to express and share your feelings of eco-anxiety is a massive step in coping with it. The opportunity to relate to others and find solutions in your life and communities that help with the environmental crises builds on the feeling of agency and being able to make a real difference.
Marris agrees, saying that you can’t solve climate change on your own and that joining a group of some kind will enable you to make friends.
“I’m not an expert on mental health but I feel like making friends is helpful,” she jokes.
5. GET INVOLVED IN YOUR COMMUNITY
Getting involved in community environment projects may help your mental health while also being good for the planet. Green spaces absorb carbon dioxide, cool urban areas, reduce flood risk, and provide valuable habitats for wildlife.
It is also recommended to spend more time outdoors and become more in tune with the natural world. A recent study found that spending two hours a week outdoors in nature is linked to better health and well-being.
There are plenty of well-established environmental organisations in Ireland and getting involved in their projects would help anyone experiencing eco-anxiety. Getting directly involved in making changes in your community helps you to see the impact your actions can have on the environmental situation. This in return helps in reducing feelings of eco-anxiety.
Some of these organisations include:
IEN is made up of active Irish Environmental NGOs from all around the country. They represent a broad range of environmental issues, including everything from wildlife conservation to biodiversity to climate change. Members help to carry out their work through practical conservation work, campaigning, lobbying and raising public awareness of environmental and conservation needs.
The goal of GFI is to create a sustainable Ireland. They organise and run GFI events to maintain best practice corporate governance and to keep the Board of Directors informed and engaged with all aspects of GFI’s work.
This website highlights the stories of local initiatives in regards to the Sustainable Development Goals. Regional and local events, training and workshops with global goals can also be found listed here. Their focus is based on education, communication and citizen engagement.
Spark Change is a collaborative project of The Wheel and Trinity College Dublin. Their main objective is to improve the economic, social and environmental sustainability of Irish communities.
They also gather information on how community and voluntary activity is contributing to Ireland’s commitments to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
They claim that they “want to empower the doers in every community to spark change by signing up to the Spark Change Challenge and sharing their success stories with other communities”.
Eco-anxiety is a very real problem that many people are facing today. The gravity of environmental issues can be too heavy to carry for individuals by themselves. The fear that comes with the uncertainty of our future can trigger many negative thoughts and emotions. However, building on the power of agency and individual change, as well as getting involved with like-minded people can help alleviate the feelings of eco-anxiety.