‘Eco-anxiety’ is not a clinical diagnosis, nor is it a disorder. But it is a very real concern that’s impacting people’s lives right now.
With UK temperatures expected to reach 40°C, horrendous wildfires ravaging Europe, animal species disappearing, coral reefs dying out, more extreme weather events and glaciers melting rapidly, people’s worried is well-founded.
In the words of climate change activist Greta Thunberg: “Our house is on fire.”
Eco-anxiety, or climate change anxiety, can cause sleepless nights, intense bouts of worry and, in severe instances, may also lead to drastic shifts in people’s behaviour.
Experts have told HuffPost UK there’s been a rise in the number of people coming to them with environmental concerns in recent years, a trend which only seems to be getting worse as the headlines on climate change grow more shocking.
This isn’t new to this year. A 2019 survey by environmental charity Global Action Plan revealed one in three teachers is seeing high levels of climate anxiety in students, while just over three quarters (77%) of students say that thinking about climate change makes them anxious.
That same year a group of psychologists from the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) told The Telegraph that eco-anxiety among children “escalated” over the summer. The organisation has since been campaigning for it to be recognised as a psychological phenomenon, however caveated that it shouldn’t be classed as a mental illness as the worry is a “rational” one.
What is eco-anxiety?
In very simple terms, eco-anxiety is caused by concern or worry about ecological disasters and the advertised risk to the natural environment, says Yvette Addo, a counsellor who works with young people. People with eco-anxiety might have concerns about their own mortality, the mortality of their loved ones and how the environment will impact their future.
Dr Nihara Krause, a consultant clinical psychologist, explained: “When our sense of safety is threatened, our natural reaction is to feel anxious and helpless (as we saw very clearly with the pandemic) since safety is a basic human need.”
She added: “While eco-anxiety has been growing, the current population is more anxious post-pandemic, and so any alarming news to an already alarmed and worried population is also going to have bigger impact.
“While eco-worry is a realistic worry to have, it’s important to try and learn to manage it as best we can.”
Who is impacted?
There are no official statistics on how many people are struggling with eco-anxiety, as it is relatively new term, however counsellors have told HuffPost UK it’s something they’ve seen impacting more and more clients over the past few years.
A quarter of Hilda Burke’s clients expressed concerns about the environment back in 2020. The psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook, says their fears are a totally natural response to what is happening on the planet.
“Unlike other anxieties that clients come with – such as I’m afraid I’ll lose my job or I’m afraid my partner might leave me – climate change and eco-anxiety is grounded in a lot of data,” she says. “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.”
Women in particular are struggling. Addo, who works with people aged 13-36 years old, says the issue is “very common” and estimates that 70% of the women she sees are particularly concerned about how current environmental factors can impact their fertility.
Meanwhile, she suggests 60% of the young people she works with – in this case those aged 21 and under – “have a massively burdened sense of responsibility for our future”. This is because their sense of them ‘being the future’ and feeling responsible for the future are “intrinsically linked”. They feel powerless, resentful, unheard and largely fearful, says Addo.
Discussing some of her clients’ concerns, she says they don’t feel safe, they wonder if their homes might one day be washed away by flooding, they worry about travel. Some worry that just breathing in the air is killing them, others are wondering whether they’ll be able to grow old and have families of their own.
Natasha Crowe, a psychotherapist and Counselling Directory member, has also noticed a “big rise” in eco-anxiety among parents of young children and babies, and suggests they are not only worried about their own impact, but also the language used in the media. She’s even witnessed issues in very young children. “In very young children we would see [symptoms such as] anxiety about bedtime, not going to sleep, and worrying thoughts,” she explains.
What does it look like?
Eco-anxiety can lead to people overthinking and catastrophising about the future. It can be triggered by almost anything, suggests Burke, who works with adults aged 20-50 years old and is a BACP member – from seeing something in the news to engaging in a debate with a friend about eating meat.
One of her clients was triggered by seeing colleagues at work coming in with plastic bags full of food and not recycling them. She had calculated that her small office was one of millions of other offices likely doing the same, and had begun to catastrophise about the huge amount of waste and plastic on our planet. It left her in tears in the therapy room.
This type of anxiety can also make people become compulsive in the behaviours they adopt to try and do their bit for the planet. Natasha Crowe has seen this in practice a lot. New mums in particular can become compulsive about their daily behaviours, she explains, “so constantly recycling or making sure they’re using eco wipes and eco nappies, and really trying to drill down on the daily impact that they’re making.”
One of her clients commutes for work and has stopped driving to the office. Now he gets a bus to work, which takes him longer – an hour and a half in total. It’s all about taking back control for these people, but when these changes impact on wellbeing, or have a negative impact on a person’s life, it’s time to take a step back.
Catastrophic thoughts can be dangerous, as they can lead to “a sense of helplessness” and can be “immobilising”, says Burke. You end up thinking: what’s the point? But there are solutions.
What can you do?
Ultimately the onus is on political leaders and businesses to make the kinds of changes that can have hugely positive repercussions for the planet – for example, cutting carbon emissions and focusing on sustainable energy.
However, they often need a nudge. If you have environmental concerns, write to your local MP who can put pressure on those in power to make changes, or pen a note to businesses you think aren’t pulling their weight when it comes to their eco responsibilities.
On a more personal level, while cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques can help some people to address the anxiety they are feeling, ultimately it might be worth taking a leaf out of Thunberg’s book. Both Burke and Crowe believe taking action and making day-to-day changes (no matter how small) can help overcome those feelings of powerlessness. “Take it back to basics,” says Crowe. You might not be able to directly control what’s happening in the Amazon, but you can use less plastic. “See what you are doing, rather than what you’re not doing,” she urges.
Her advice is to “reframe your daily impact”. This could mean developing new habits where you feel you’re making a difference. They could be very small changes, such as not using baby wipes or switching to a bamboo toothbrush, being mindful of packaging in supermarkets, cycling to work, or being a bit more stringent with your recycling. “If you feel you can control your own actions, you will overcome quite a lot of those very big feelings [of anxiety], and the doom and gloom language that we hear,” she adds.
It’s important to not let this become a compulsive exercise which begins to have an adverse effect on your life and mental health, however. Balance is everything. “It’s about modelling the behaviour and seeing what’s realistic,” she continues.
It might be helpful to write down what it is you want to change over a period of time and make sure you set yourself achievable steps to make those changes. “Don’t try to do everything at once,” she advises. And if you are feeling like you’re catastrophising or overwhelmed, or the habits you’ve developed are impacting your wellbeing, don’t be afraid to contact to a therapist for help.
Burke likens the feelings of powerlessness surrounding climate change to those surrounding Brexit. “As with any kind of issue or challenge a person feels powerless over, in therapy I would work on teasing that out and looking at what you can actually do,” she says.
Whether that’s making behavioural change, getting involved with an organisation or doing volunteering. “That person will feel better if they can channel that anxiety in a practical way,” she concludes.
So is eco-anxiety all bad? “I think it’s a positive that people are talking about it because it’s not a groundless fear, it is happening,” she says. “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?’”