I Have Eco-Anxiety—Here’s What That Means

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Shestock/mack2happy/Getty

On the way home from picking up my son from school the other day, I heard a news segment about a series of unusual tornadoes in a part of the Midwest. Later, my phone pinged with a news alert about the record number of deaths of Florida manatees this year. Then, I hopped on a call with a friend who was fixing her basement after an extreme storm ripped through our neighborhood, causing days (in some cases weeks) of flooding and havoc. Putting it all together, that day my eco-anxiety went from its usual level of dull panic to high-grade, nail-biting, spiraling anxiety.

These days, that’s happening more and more often.

The American Psychological Association defined eco-anxiety for the first time in 2017 as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” While eco-anxiety is not a clinical diagnosis, it is a type of anxiety that’s showing up more and more often in therapists’ offices.

“It is a real issue. It’s not an anxiety born from a sense of insecurity, not being good enough or imposter syndrome. It is actually happening. Clients who have these concerns are having a natural response to very disturbing things that are happening on our planet,” psychotherapist Hilda Burke told HuffPost in an interview.

Eco-Anxiety Is On The Rise

For as long as I can remember, but definitely since after I had my children, I’ve woken up in the middle of the night and worried—about rising sea levels, extreme weather, air quality, and more. My heart rate has spiked at news alerts speaking of declining bee populations, devastated crop yields, and global temperature increases. I’ve eagerly read and re-read any potential positive news about the environment or the ways science might be able to “fix” climate change.

For as long as I can remember, I thought I was the only one worrying. After all, climate change is a relatively vague, nebulous thing to worry about compared to the more present, individual, local concerns surrounding all of us all the time.

As it turns out, I’m not alone. Eco-anxiety is common, and young adults are experiencing it in greater numbers than ever. A recent survey of 10,000 folks ages 16-25 in 10 countries found that three-quarters said the future is terrifying. More than half felt like humanity was in serious trouble. Worse, more than 45 percent said their feelings about climate change impacted their daily lives in a negative way, including, in some cases, hesitancy about having children.

Uncertainty About The Future

Eco-anxiety can be boiled down to the idea that the future is uncertain and unsafe. That our children’s future is uncertain and unsafe. (If I really let myself spiral, I also worry about my unborn grandchildren’s future, too.)

As parents, we have a primal need to protect our children from danger. Climate change is a looming danger, a big hulking thing that could—if worst case scenarios come to pass—change life as we know it. It makes me worry whether, alongside teaching my children basic skills like folding laundry and budgeting, should I also be teaching them how to find water and survive in the case of a full societal collapse? (By the way, I do not know how to teach any of that.)

Thanks to my love of dystopian fiction, I can imagine scenarios where my children’s adult lives are less about Saturday morning soccer and more about scrounging, day in and day out, to secure the most basic resources for themselves. It’s a future I don’t want for them, and worrying about it literally keeps me up at night.

Most climate scientists don’t foresee a “full societal collapse” within a couple of decades in Western Europe. Which sounds comforting, except a couple of decades isn’t that long and the qualification of Western Europe is concerning, and highlights a separate issue: eco-anxiety, and climate change, doesn’t look the same across all geographic regions and across racial and economic divides. Populations with less resources will be affected sooner and more harshly.

Tips To Help Manage Your Eco-Anxiety

Eco-anxiety is a natural response to what’s happening around us, say experts, and in some ways, it’s not all bad.

“I think it’s a positive that people are talking about it because it’s not a groundless fear, it is happening,” says Burke. “This issue needs to be talked about and it also needs to be talked about in that: ‘OK, it’s there, that’s a natural response, what are we going to do about it?’”

Doing something about climate change can return a feeling of control and help lessen feelings of helplessness.

Those things include avoiding single use plastics, getting involved in grassroots movements, or donating to organizations that are fighting climate change. It’s important, however, to find balance, and not get too compulsive in our behaviors, says Burke. Ultimately (and unfortunately) the real work will fall to political leaders and a few key corporations to make changes that have wide-scale positive effects. But taking back some control is helpful.

In an interview with Time Magazine, Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist and CPA member, also urges people experiencing eco-anxiety to talk about their feelings. She says, “It doesn’t have to be a therapy group, but I wouldn’t advise doing it all alone. Because this is pretty scary stuff.”

The reality is our climate is changing, and has changed for the worse. There’s no fixing what’s broken. Unless we (“we,” including big corporations) don’t begin making changes now (yesterday), things will continue to get worse. That’s terrifying.

But I still believe we can stop the ultimate worst-case scenario. World leaders and scientists are turning their attention (finally) to climate change and more headlines are popping up indicating a movement is growing—hopefully it’ll gain momentum quicker. I believe it will. It’s the reason I can fall back asleep at night and the reason I haven’t given up trying to do my small part in protecting the environment.

For many of us, me included, eco-anxiety is here to stay. But hopefully, we all find a way to put it to use to protect the next generation, and all the ones after, from feeling the same, from living that worst-case scenario.

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