Humans are inextricably linked with the earth. When the planet suffers, we suffer. More and more people with growing awareness about the earth’s suffering are struggling with symptoms of eco-anxiety.
What is Eco-Anxiety?
Eco-anxiety is a form of anxiety marked by worry about the dangers affecting our planet and environment today.
There are two key forms of eco-anxiety: acute, in which anxiety develops as a direct result of exposure to the effects of climate change (such as losing a home to wildfire damage) and chronic, in which anxiety is due to long-term exposure to fears about the changing planet.
This is similar to the two types of trauma that can trigger PTSD, depression, and other mental health symptoms. Trauma to the planet is traumatic to each of us.
Here is one popular working definition of eco-anxiety from psychologist Honey Langcaster-James:
“It’s a chronic fear of environmental doom and impending disaster, and the underlying fear is one of total destruction and annihilation as a result of severe climate and environmental strain.”
Worrying about How Climate Change Impacts Your Life
In March 2017, the APA released a 69-page detailed report about the relationship between mental health and climate change. Through this report, we can come to understand why so many people are increasingly worried about the impact of climate change.
Climate change affects our lives in both direct and indirect ways. For example, severe weather, such as extreme heat, can cause death and devastation. Witnessing this devastation can lead to mental health issues. If you have seen someone die due to extreme heat, you can develop PTSD. You may also develop worry for your own future and both worry and guilt about your children’s future.
This is just one example of how you might worry about the impact of climate change. You might worry generally or you may have specific concerns about issues such as:
- Earthquake, fire, flood, and hurricane threats
- Impact on your food supply and access to clean drinking water
- Concern about the infrastructure where you live
- Rising physical health concerns related to poor air quality including worry about respiratory disease
- Fear about other physical health symptoms, such as heart conditions, related to climate change
- Specific eco-concerns such as worry about rising levels of carbon emissions
Some people worry about very specific, immediate issues. Other people have general eco-anxiety linked with increasing exposure to information about a plethora of environmental issues.
Why Eco-Anxiety is Rising
Eco-anxiety is on the rise. This is due, in part, of course, to increasing awareness of the issue. This always leads to increased diagnosis. However, the problem itself is also increasing.
There are several key reasons for rising levels of eco-anxiety. The biggest of these is that more and more people are directly exposed to the ramifications of climate change. Individuals are increasingly living through natural disasters, suffering infrastructure outages, and seeing first-hand the devastation of changes to our climate.
Additionally, we are all increasingly exposed to second-hand information that can trigger anxiety. You might not personally have lived through a natural disaster but you have seen it unfold in real time on news and social media.
Trauma isn’t just directly experiencing a negative event. Trauma can be the ongoing witnessing of such an event.
Even witnessing these things virtually has the potential to elevate chronic stress levels. This is eco-anxiety.
How Eco-Anxiety Influences Your Mental Health
The APA found that as many as 40% of people who directly experienced a natural disaster had symptoms of psychopathology. General anxiety was the most prevalent symptoms. Other symptoms included specific phobias, drug and alcohol impairment, somatic symptoms, and depression.
For example, people who lived in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina showed these symptoms. One in 6 of those people developed PTSD. Nearly 50% developed anxiety or depression. Suicide rates and suicidal ideation doubled in those areas.
Additionally, people with eco-anxiety often feel helpless and hopeless. If you feel like you can’t control your environment, and that it could overtake your life at any time, then naturally you’re going to feel a loss of agency. This can lead to substance use issues in a misplaced effort to gain a sense of control and/or escape those feelings.
Stress Symptoms Related to Eco-Anxiety
People living with eco-anxiety experience high levels of stress in the body. They may have increased and prolonged cortisol highs, which are a stress symptom that can lead to a variety of physical and mental symptoms. Therefore, here are three key stress-related signs that you might have eco-anxiety:
People who have eco-anxiety often have trouble sleeping. You may stay awake at night worrying about climate change. Alternatively, you may not consciously think about the issue, but the ongoing, gradual threat of climate change disasters increases your cortisol which leaves you unable to sleep well.
2. Digestive Issues
If you experience problems with digestion but your doctor can’t find a clear physical cause then you might want to consider the possibility that there is a link to anxiety. If you have eco-anxiety that raises your cortisol levels, then you are likely to develop digestive issues. Related to this, you may notice a change in eating patterns, particularly a tendency to lose appetite.
3. Increase in Illness of Any Type
Stress diminishes the immune system. People who under chronic stress from eco-anxiety tend to start showing it in the body. If you find yourself increasingly ill with a variety of “things that are going around,” then you might want to consider anxiety as a potential cause.
Additional stress-related symptoms include heart palpitations, trouble breathing, and panic attacks. People who have experienced a natural disaster may have PTSD flashbacks, nightmares, and intrustive thoughts about the experience. They may also have trouble dealing with the grief over the people, pets, and possessions they lost.
Additional Symptoms of Eco-Anxiety
In addition to stress symptoms, here are some other warning signs of eco-anxiety:
- Pervasive feeling of fear or worry related to environmental issues
- Increasing frustration that global leaders aren’t doing more to help the climate
- Obsessive thinking about the earth
- Increase in aggression and/or agitation and irritability
- Overall increase in mental health symptoms and/or mental health emergencies
- Fatalistic thoughts pertaining specifically to the planet
If you have symptoms of general anxiety, phobias, and/or PTSD that you believe are linked directly to thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about the environment, then you might have eco-anxiety.
How to Treat Eco-Anxiety
Treating eco-anxiety is similar to treating other forms of anxiety. One of the key things that the APA recommends is building mental health resilience. More specifically, they recommend building belief in your own resilience. In this way, you can combat the stress of feeling loss of control. By building your own resilience, you can avoid the effects of anxiety while working towards creating change in your community.