Climate change: what is eco-anxiety and what can we do about it?

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Therapists are noticing an increase in patients feeling overwhelmed about climate change.

By Abigail Malbon

Have you ever felt stressed about climate change? Worried about how much plastic you’re using, or panicked about increased water usage? Has it left you lying awake in bed at night, or frantically Googling the effects of global warming? If so, you could be suffering with eco-anxiety, and you wouldn’t be alone.

Described by Psychology Today as ‘a fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis,’ eco-anxiety is likely to stem from an increase in news headlines about climate change, along with an obvious shift in temperatures and weather patterns. This, combined with more talk about our personal impact on the world, is leading to millions of people feeling stressed about the future of the planet.

Since it’s a fairly new problem, no stats are available on the prevalence of eco-anxiety. However, many psychologists and therapists are noting an increase in patients seeking help for their stress. We speak to Roxana Rudzik-Shaw, psychologist and counsellor, and Hilda Burke, UKCP and BACP accredited psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, who both say they’ve seen more clients seeking reassurance over climate change.

What is eco-anxiety?

Rudzik-Shaw says: ‘Individuals experiencing anxiety about the changing and deteriorating state of the world we live in may present with anxiety or stress, worry, guilt, overwhelm, panic, uncertainty, powerlessness, pessimism, rumination and sleep issues, to name a few examples.

“With the prevalence of natural disasters, it is unsurprising that individuals may be experiencing psychological distress.”

‘With the prevalence of natural disasters, which include extreme weather events such as drought, floods and famine, and few solutions to address an environmental crisis on a global scale, it is unsurprising that individuals may be experiencing psychological distress.’

2017 report from the American Psychological Association on the impacts of climate change on mental health describes eco-anxiety as: ‘a chronic fear of environmental doom’.

It notes that some people are ‘deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change.’

Who is suffering from eco-anxiety?

‘In my private counselling practice, I have noticed an increase amongst millennials in particular who are already afflicted with mild-moderate anxiety, experience the vulnerability and helplessness of eco-anxiety when considering the future,’ Rudzik-Shaw says. ‘This may be heightened due to the rise of the internet, social media and popular culture in general reporting natural disasters. We know that some individuals experience vicarious traumatisation on hearing about a tsunami or flood on the news, for example.’

Burke has also noticed a shift in eco topics being discussed. ‘I have noticed an increasing number of clients expressing anxiety over the state of the planet, and indeed its survival,’ she says.

‘What’s interesting to note is that this anxiety is rarely an isolated one but often mentioned in connection with Brexit, poverty or race/gender inequality. Often the client expressing such anxiety feels helpless and disempowered, a sense of ‘what can I do as one single person’ to make a difference?’

What’s it like to suffer with eco-anxiety?

23-year-old Ellie, from London, says her eco-anxiety began when the video of a sea turtle having plastic straws removed from his nostrils went viral online.

‘I hadn’t realised how badly polluted the ocean was,’ she explains. ‘My brother was studying marine zoology at university at the time and he brought home quite a few details about the effects of plastic pollution on marine animals. As I’m an animal lover and also suffer generalised anxiety disorder (unknown at the time) it affected me quite a lot.

“Going zero-waste has really helped to alleviate some of the guilt about the environment.”

‘I had anxiety dreams about it, many of them I can’t remember but things like drowning at sea and being locked in my flat because of piles of plastic. I also started feeling tremendous guilt whenever I used plastic items like straws, takeaway cups, disposable cutlery etc.’

Ellie looked for alternative ways to use plastic to ease her guilt, and ended up finding out about ‘zero-waste living’.

‘I first discovered it via YouTube with Kate Arnell based in London and other YouTubers across the globe,’ she says. ‘Through this, I learnt about zero-waste stores that offer plastic-free items like reusable cutlery, bamboo toothbrushes, refillable cleaning supplies etc.

‘Going zero-waste has really helped to alleviate some of the guilt about the environment and the current rate of pollution and climate change. And my going zero-waste has helped others, such as my parents and friends, look at their own levels of pollution and find alternative ways to combat their waste.’

How are therapists treating eco-anxiety?

With such a huge problem looming, and no real answers, what can be done if someone is suffering with eco-anxiety?

‘I try to explore ways that they could feel empowered, how they could get involved to shape change, whether it’s joining an action group or just becoming more conscious of how they can personally act in a way that helps the planet,’ says Burke. ‘Often taking steps – however small – to affect change can help to ease their anxiety and sense of helplessness.’

What can individuals do to help ease eco-anxiety?

According to Anxiety UK, more than 1 in 10 British adults are likely to experience a ‘disabling anxiety disorder’ during the course of their life. While this doesn’t refer specifically to eco-anxiety, some of the coping techniques remain the same. These include:

✔️ Breathing exercises

✔️ Getting enough sleep

✔️ Taking time out

✔️ Exercising

✔️ Focusing on the present

Individuals worried about their effect on the planet may also alleviate anxiety symptoms by beginning to make positive changes in their life; such as reducing plastic usage, making conscious choices about the way they travel and consuming energy carefully. It may also help to talk about climate change further with family, friends and colleagues.

Mental health support

If you are feeling anxious or depressed and you need some support, try one of the following resources:

✔️ Anxiety UK: a charity which specifies in helping those suffering from anxiety.

 The Samaritans: a charity providing support to anyone in emotional distress.

 Mind: a charity that makes sure no one has to face a mental health problem alone.

 CALM: helping to reduce stigma and reduce rates of male suicide.

Net Doctor

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