ECO-EMOTIONS

Looking After Our Mental Health and The Planet

Climate change got you worried about the future? It may be impacting your mental health. Learn about eco-anxiety, its causes, and what you can do about it.
Posted on
August 18, 2022
Looking After Our Mental Health and The Planet

As climate change makes headlines and conversations about the issue become commonplace, climate activists are surely relieved to see skepticism giving way to acceptance and the urgency to act.

However, with this, comes an uptick in something else—a sense of fear and despair about the Earth’s wellbeing. In fact, losing sleep over the looming disasters of a warming planet has become so commonplace that it’s got a name: eco-anxiety.

Many of us have experienced some form of climate anxiety as posts about extreme weather, uncontrollable wildfires, or forecasts of catastrophes crowd our feeds.

While we can dismiss a single bad day with a wave of our hand (it’ll get better tomorrow), the same certainty isn’t so easily applied to the future of the entire planet. Will it get better? Is the world doomed? Questions like these can fuel eco-anxiety—if not for ourselves, then often for those we care about.

A person's hand in a crop field as the sun sets in the background
Photo by Andreas Strandman on Unsplash

Being concerned about climate change and the environment is healthy, but letting stress about it consume your life is not.  That’s why it’s helpful to understand climate anxiety and what you can do about it. Here, we describe eco-anxiety, what signs to look for, and how to manage it.

What is eco-anxiety?

While not considered a clinical condition, eco-anxiety is recognized by the American Psychology Association (APA) and Climate Psychology Association (CPA) as a chronic fear of environmental doom due to the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change. It encompasses a concern for your own future, as well as the future of the next generations. 

Feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration may arise from eco-anxiety due to an inability to make a profound difference. This can be exacerbated by concern that wider systemic changes won’t come soon enough. 

What causes eco-anxiety?

Eco-anxiety may surface as a result of personal experience. You may notice evidence of climate change in your own backyard, whether it’s unusual weather activity or fewer bees buzzing in your garden. 

Reading news about environmental crises around the world, as well as warnings about impending devastation from global warming, can also trigger climate anxiety. Given the increasing reality of climate change’s impact, it’s easy to understand why so many of us experience anxiety, frustration, or despair over the state of our planet. The silver lining? You’re in good company! So what can we do about it? 

A sign on a building reads How are you, really
Photo by Finn on Unsplash

The emotional toll from climate change

Environmental anxiety isn’t the only reaction to climate change. As the discourse on our planet’s plight expands, so too have our emotional reactions, and the terminology to describe them. 

A sense of loss with solastalgia 

Solastalgia was one of the first terms to describe emotions related to climate change. Coined by Glenn Albrecht, philosopher and author of Earth Emotions, the term describes psychological distress caused by environmental change close to home. It’s a combination of the words “solace” and “nostalgia,” and can arise when your own sense of place is upended due to causes out of your control, such as a wooded area that’s been replaced by a new highway, or the disappearance of native species in your region.

Dealing with eco-grief

Ecological grief, or eco-grief is a grieving response to losses in the natural world, both current and future. It’s often used interchangeably with eco-anxiety. For example, farmers struggling through a drought that severely impacts their crops may experience eco-grief due to a sense of loss and powerlessness. 

Terrafurie = Earth anger

More recently, Albrecht developed the term terrafurie to describe the anger people feel toward those they perceive as contributing to Earth’s destruction. These feelings may be directed toward organizations or individuals who appear to stall on actions to tackle climate change.

A recent study sheds some light on how eco-emotions contribute to individuals’ well being and engagement with climate change. It concludes messages that elicited feelings of anxiety or depression about climate change may be detrimental to community well being, while feelings of anger about the state of climate change tend to motivate people to take positive action to help the Earth.  

A person walks along a boardwalk in a snowy landscapes and mountain in the distance
Photo by Jesse Bowser on Unsplash

Who is affected by environmental anxiety?

Not surprisingly, eco-anxiety is prevalent among those who are aware of climate change, whether through experience or education.

One study showed 40 per cent of Americans felt “disgusted” or “helpless” about climate change. However, the impact on younger generations is even more pronounced. 

A 2021 study on youth and children found more than half reported feelings of sadness, anxiety, anger, powerlessness, and guilt related to climate. Further, more than half agreed with the statement: “humanity is doomed.”

Indigenous communities that are deeply attached to the land and have personally experienced the impact of climate change to their livelihood and heritage are also at risk of eco-related mental health issues. Studies show the changes in their communities have led to food insecurity concerns and feelings of sadness, anger, and stress. 

Lower-income populations that face greater threats from climate change due to lack of infrastructure, health care, or community support may also experience pronounced eco-anxiety. 

A windy road stretches towards the horizon with fields on either side
Photo by Illiya Vjestica on Unsplash

What can you do to manage eco-anxiety?

If you, or someone you know, struggles with climate anxiety or ecological grief, there are a variety of ways to manage it:

1. Connect with family and friends

Share your feelings about climate change with those you trust, rather than keep it to yourself. Talking about it can validate your emotions, as well as provide a release for pent-up stress.

2. Be productive with lifestyle choices to reduce your carbon footprint

Recognize you can make a difference through your individual efforts. There are myriad ways to reduce your carbon footprint, such as eating plant-based foods more often, taking public transportation, cutting energy use, or shopping from second-hand stores. Keep track of your progress by measuring your carbon footprint

3. Join a climate-aware group

Find a way to meet other like-minded individuals committed to tackling climate change. These communities often provide opportunities to take meaningful action as a group, such as attend rallies, write to government officials, or conserve nature through activities such as cleanups or mass plantings. Groups like Talk Climate To Me offer fun, team-based action for women concerned about climate change. 

A person stands next to a full bag at a beach clean
Photo by Surfing Croyde Bay on Unsplash

4. Follow social media accounts of climate-aware individuals or groups 

Even if you don’t meet in person, there are plenty of ways to stay in touch with climate change activists through social media. Online communities can help you recognize you’re not alone in your struggles while encouraging you to stay optimistic and get involved in climate-friendly activities. EcoTok, for example, is a collective of educators and activists who post videos that debunk climate misinformation.

5. Hit pause on the news

The dire news about climate change can be overwhelming day in and day out. You’re allowed to take a break from news stories or social media posts that may trigger feelings of hopelessness or despair.

6. Spend time in nature

Getting outside to spend time in nature can help reduce stress and foster optimism. Consider hiking, growing a garden, or simply sitting on a park bench. Step it up a notch with plogging—picking up litter as you jog. Thankfully, green spaces are easy to find, even in urban settings. Albrecht (who coined the term solastalgia) admits he goes bird-watching to alleviate his climate angst. 

A woman stands in a field of daisies looking out to the horizon
Photo by Fanny Gustafsson on Unsplash

7. Take care of your health

Ongoing anxiety and stress related to climate change can be detrimental to your well being. Carve out time to put your health first with practices such as deep breathing, exercise, and maintaining a healthy diet.

8. Speak to a health professional

If your eco-anxiety is extremely troubling, consider reaching out to a health professional. Many health care professionals offer climate-psychology practices to address the unique characteristics of climate anxiety and a new form of stress called pre-traumatic stress disorder (pre-TSD). Pre-TSD, which is similar to post-traumatic stress disorder, is triggered by visions of future trauma (rather than past).

Managing our eco-emotions together

Worrying about the future is normal given the tremendous challenges we face in tackling climate change. Since we face them collectively, it may help to know you’re not the only one feeling eco-emotions. Sharing concerns with someone we trust, connecting with climate activists, and taking action on climate change can help us manage these feelings and turn our sense of powerlessness into hope and action.

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Danielle Leonard
Written By
Danielle Leonard

Danielle Leonard is a lifestyle writer and editor based in the GTA whose favourite earth-loving pastimes are tending to her vegetable gardens, riding her bike and advocating against urban sprawl.

This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While the information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada, RBC Ventures Inc., or its affiliates.

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