Eco-Anxiety: What is it and how to cope
A gentle-looking 16-year-old, with two long plaits, wearing a crumpled flannel shirt, stands up in front of some of the world’s biggest power players to deliver them a message.
“I don’t want your hope. I want you to panic.”
Greta Thunberg is the 16-year-old activist who started the School Strikes for Climate, which led her to this speech to world leaders at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. Watching this young woman speak really struck me, and not just for her impressive youth or conviction. When Greta addressed the world’s leaders, you could see that she was really angry - and really scared.
Climate change is rapidly coming to define our news cycle and our reality. There are people in Australia who are already living on the front lines of climate disaster. Just this summer, we have seen catastrophic floods in Queensland, devastating bushfires in Tasmania and an evaporating river in NSW.
However, the health impacts of climate change are not just physical. Climate change affects our mental health in significant – and surprising – ways. For those dealing with the worst effects of climate change, the trauma of displacement, grief, and depression are all well documented symptoms of natural disasters.
However, there is growing academic and anecdotal evidence that climate change is making us feel anxious and depressed – just from our awareness of what’s happening.
A 2017 report from the American Psychological Association investigated the way climate change affects the mental health of those who are worried about long term climate change. While there isn’t a specific term yet, several studies have coined this worry “eco-anxiety,” “climate change distress,” and “ecological grief.”
For anyone even vaguely informed about the current state of affairs, things feel grim. If you read the news more than once a week, it can feel like the impending apocalypse. The toll of this constant onslaught of bad news and inaction is so clearly felt in Greta Thunberg’s words. They’re feelings I’m sure all of us reading here can relate to.
I talked to RMIT lecturer Dr Blanche Verlie, whose work investigates how we respond to climate change, in order to get a better understanding of what eco-anxiety is and what we can do about it. She explained that feelings of frustration and hopelessness among those of us who care about the environment are real and very common. “There are a number of ways to understand ‘eco-anxiety’”, she tells me, “for example, looking at it as an anxiety condition that is triggered by climate change.”
However, Dr Verlie explains that a distinguishing feature of this distress is guilt. We are all implicated in contributing to climate change, no matter how diligently we recycle. It’s perfectly okay not to be a zero-waste paragon 24/7, but these feelings of anxiety about our own contribution to climate change often work as a trigger for us to disengage altogether. Dr Verlie says this isn’t surprising – its’ very easy to get frustrated and overwhelmed when our public discourse repeatedly tells us that the world is burning, but that you should feel bad for not using your keep cup.
I found this happened to me recently while watching David Attenborough’s new Netflix series, Our Planet. Not even the naturalist’s dulcet tones could sooth the anxiety I started to feel as the show took an unflinching look at habitat destruction and species loss. I found I couldn’t watch more than one episode at a time without feeling really low. I knew it was important to watch the show and be aware, but I just felt like I didn’t have the emotional energy to care.
So, what’s the solution?
There are no easy answers, says Dr Verlie. Realistically, if we are aware of climate change, it’s going to make us worried. She tells me that “in my experience, people who are activists, or doing something about climate change, are indeed deeply panicked.” To a certain extent, eco-anxiety is unavoidable. However, it’s important that we engage with that panic in a productive way.
One of the best ways to combat the isolating and disengaging effects of eco-anxiety is to get involved in collective efforts to address climate change. Talking to other people who share your worries, and being a part of something like a community group, can help to make an important shift: instead of constantly worrying ‘what can Ido’ about this overwhelming problem, it’s ‘what can we do.’
Personally, being a part of the Seaside Scavenge has helped me to feel much less overwhelmed and more purposeful: the problems aren’t going away, but I’m not alone in caring about them and working towards change.
“In many ways, Greta telling us to panic hits the nail on the head,” observes Dr Verlie. “What point is there in being hopeful if we don’t get out there and create the conditions for hope to thrive in the first place?”
Further reading: fascinating article by Dr Verlie https://theconversation.com/the-terror-of-climate-change-is-transforming-young-peoples-identity-113355
3 Tips to Help the Anxious Activist:
1. Get involved in Activism
Activism can mean whatever you want it to! It might be joining a protest, helping in a beach clean-up (wink), or something as simple as hosting a vegan dinner with your mates. Don’t be overwhelmed – small or big, activism helps you feel motivated and connected.
2. Find a Community
Joining a local community group can help you meet like-minded people. This can be in real life, or online – the internet is an amazing resource. Join a Facebook group for spotting local wildlife. Go to a community meeting. Meet your people!
3. Take a break
If you’re feeling sad or overwhelmed, recognise that sometimes you can’t carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. Maybe switch off from the news for a minute, go for a walk in nature. It’s so important to remind yourself that as well as the bad news, there’s a world worth fighting for and caring about right on your doorstep!
Written by Ainsley Halbmeijer