Eco-anxiety

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Original short description: "Worry over climate change"

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Template:Merge from Eco-anxiety or climate anxiety has been described by the American Psychological Association in 2017 as "a chronic fear of environmental doom" but is not designated as a specific condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.[1] Although climate anxiety is not a medical condition in itself, in certain individuals it can exacerbate pre-existing mental health problems.

Climate anxiety stems from fears about the current and predicted future state of the environment caused by human-induced climate change. It is associated with a growing awareness of the many direct and indirect effects on individuals lives stemming from extreme weather events, rising sea levels, floods, forest fires and potential loss of livelihood or housing. When there are feelings of loss involved, the response may be referred to as ecological or climate grief.

Many people see the potential impact of global warming as a crisis, emergency or existential threat to the future of human civilization.[2][3] Younger generations, in particular, have begun expressing feelings of helplessness and fear about their future.[4][5][6][7][8] The anxiety this generates can lead to fear, immobilization, manic re/activity, exhaustion, insomnia, depression, substance abuse and suicide.[9][10][11] Anxiety can also trigger positive responses in people wherein they make small lifestyle changes, like using reusable bags at the grocery store and recycling.[12]

Alternative terminology

Some researchers use the phrase "climate distress" instead of climate anxiety, because it describes a range of painful feelings, some of which are not necessarily anxiety. For instance, some people develop a sense of disbelief that the situation seems so dire. Others feel angry about it.[13] Other terms include "eco-fear" which recognizes the distress to be a genuine and realistic response to a serious crisis.

Eco-Psychologist, Zhiwa Woodbury, prefers the term "eco-trauma". He says that eco-anxiety is actually a symptom of climate trauma which he argues is a "higher-order category of trauma." He says climate trauma triggers "all past traumas — personal, cultural, and intergenerational — and will continue to do so until such time as it is acknowledged... What is unique about this category of trauma is that it is an ever-present, ever-growing threat to the biosphere, one that calls into question our shared identity."[14]

Another term is "eco-despair" where the lack of substantive progress towards reducing carbon emissions and ensuring a viable future can lead to an almost total loss of hope.[15]

In 2005, philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the term solastalgia which describes a kind of ‘homesickness’ for the environment the way it used to be. It is similar to nostalgia in that the land around people who have witnessed environmental damage no longer resembles the home they once knew.[16] 'Psychoterratic' is another term developed by Glenn Albrecht to cover various forms of earth-related mental health issues.[17] Psychiatrist, David Pollack, uses other terms such as "eco-paralysis" and "climate grief", which could be considered psychoterratic syndromes. He points out that the mental health consequences of climate disruption typically last longer than other mental health issues and require close attention from psychiatry to effectively identify and treat.[18]

The phrase "eco-angst" has been used to describe an emotional reaction "when a new bit of unpleasant ecological information about some product or other plunges us into a moment (or more) of despair at the planet’s condition and the fragility of our place on it".[19]

Range of mental health consequences

Climate-related weather events and environmental change due to global warming has been linked to a wide variety of acute and chronic mental health experiences including burnout, sadness, distress, despair, anger, fear, helplessness, stress and feelings of hopelessness. Climate change is also linked to elevated rates of mood disorders, such as depression, anxiety, pre- and post-traumatic stress and increased drug and alcohol use. It is also associated with increased suicidal ideation and death by suicide. These reactions may stem from threats and disruptions to one's sense of place or from a loss of personal or cultural identity and traditional ways of understanding and knowing.[20][21]

Existential anxiety

Even though they may not have been directly affected (yet), many people are experiencing a form of existential anxiety - they have concerns that climate change presents a pervasive threat to society with the potential to drastically alter their way of life.[22] In 2018, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that policymakers have only 12 years to avert the worst consequences of global warming. In recent years, news coverage has been filled with apocalyptic stories of storms and wildfires.[23]

In 2019, the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration in Melbourne, Australia, described climate change as "a near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization" and set out a possible scenario explaining how this could come about if there is a failure to take concerted action over the next 30 years.[24] According to an opinion piece in the Washington Post, children in particular are terrified, anxious and depressed about climate change. As a result, parents, teachers and medical professionals face a difficult dilemma: "How do you raise a generation to look toward the future with hope when all around them swirls a message of apparent hopelessness?"[23]

A more generalised anxiety may also develop due to a constant fear of possible natural disasters when living in an area at risk. Eco-anxiety can also stem from slower consequences of climate changes and pollution, such as those impacting agriculture or the livability of an area.[25][26]

Examples

Thousands of people around the world are displaced from their homes every year as a result of extreme climate events, putting them at higher risk of mental illness.[25][27][28][29] In some places, the mental health impacts of ecological loss are already severe. In Kulusuk, Greenland, where the ice has melted, rates of depression, suicide and alcoholism have risen.[30] In the Nunatsiavut region of Labrador, Canada, residents report feeling stressed, depressed and anxious because of the melted ice and changing weather patterns.[31]

The 2019-2020 Australian bushfire season has resulted in the loss of homes, land and livelihoods. Farmers in the Australian wheat belt, whose farms have been destroyed in dust storms, have compared losing their farms to a death.[32] These experiences are taking a significant psychological toll on Australian farmers in particular, who feel their sense of place and identity are under threat; persistent drought and prolonged heatwaves have already contributed to increased rates of suicide in rural communities.[33]

In 2017, the American Psychological Association issued a report on the effect of climate change. Although it primarily dealt with trauma from extreme weather, it also recognized that "gradual, long-term changes in climate can also surface a number of different emotions, including fear, anger, feelings of powerlessness, or exhaustion."[34] Also that year, researchers found that rising temperatures over the past three decades have contributed to the suicides of nearly 60,000 Indian farmers and farm workers.[35]

A number of studies have shown that short-term exposure to more extreme weather, multiyear experience with hotter temperatures and exposure to tropical cyclones are all associated with an increase in mental health problems. This is because global warming amplifies the frequency and intensity of natural disasters, which often cause physical injury, psychological trauma, infrastructure damage, and societal disruption.[36] For instance, Hurricane Katrina led to a 4% increase in the prevalence of mental health issues among those who lived through it.[36]

Impact

On young people

There is evidence that eco-anxiety is contributing to rising levels of anxiety and depression in developed economies, including among adolescents.[37] A large national survey in Britain found, in 2020, that one out of five children was having nightmares about climate change.[38] A November 2019 representative and scientific survey of 30,000 people around the world found 48% believed climate change would make humans extinct.[39] Mainstream newspapers from around the world report that adolescents and adults are both suffering from eco-anxiety.[40][41]

Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams, a clinical psychologist from Oxford, has discovered worrying levels of environment-related stress and anxiety in pre-teen children including his six-year-old daughter.[42] Lise Van Susteren, a psychologist in Washington, D.C. says children are generally more likely to accept the scientific consensus that humans are responsible for climate change. She says "They look at the generation ahead of them that could have taken action and didn’t," and says this triggers feelings of anger, grief, resentment, fear, frustration and a sense of being overwhelmed.[43]

On climate scientists

In 2014, Joe Duggan, a science communicator at Australian National University set up a website asking leading climate scientists to write to him answering this question: "How does climate change make you feel?" More than 40 scientists responded. Duggan says the letters, which he posted on his website - Is This How You Feel? - are "emotional outpourings of despair, hope, fear and determination in the age of the climate crisis, from the people helping the world understand its impacts."[44] Some have started support groups at their institutions or online, looking for opportunities to share their feelings of grief and concerns about the future.[45]

On indigenous communities

In a survey of indigenous Inuit communities in the Labrador region of Canada, researchers found people spending less time on the land, leading to feelings of sadness, anger, loneliness and helplessness.[46] Being able to travel and hunt, noted the indigenous people, "was freedom - a way of connecting to ancestors, culture, and feeling well and whole." A lot of interviewees talked about grief for what it might mean for children and future generations to come. One Inuit elder said, "We are people of the sea ice. And if there's no more sea ice, how do we be people of the sea ice?"[46]

A paper published in 2020 in the Environmental Research Letters notes that many indigenous populations dealing with changes in their environment often exacerbate existing mental health struggles prevalent in these communities already at risk.[47] The paper also discusses the impact on cultures dependent on the environment for their livelihood. For example, research in Arctic and Subarctic regions commonly listed the interaction of changes in sea ice, wind, precipitation, and storms as important variables to land access and thereby for emotional and mental well being. Repeated exposure to multiple climatic stressors and subsequent environmental adversities over time may be precursors to mental illness, suicide, substance abuse, and limited psychological resilience.[47]

On women

Template:Main Seventy per cent of the 1.3 billion people in the developing world living below the threshold of poverty are women.[48] In under-developed and developing countries, women seem to suffer more negative impacts from climate change because of social and cultural norms regarding gender roles and their lack of access to and control of assets dominated by men. One reason is that men are generally more mobile and more likely to migrate to areas unaffected by climate events in search of employment, whereas women are more likely to stay in the affected area to care for the family and household.[49]

A study in 2017 found that having one fewer child is by far the most effective step a person in a developed country can take to reduce their carbon footprint - potentially saving up to 58 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. This concern, combined with the fear that climate change may create a bleak future for their offspring, has led some women to decide not to have children.[50] Caroline Hickman, a researcher at the University of Bath, has counselled parents who fantasise about killing their children, out of fear of the climate-ravaged future.[51]

BirthStrike is one of a number of groups around the world questioning the ethics of having children in a warming world. It is a voluntary organisation for women who have decided not to have children in response to what they perceive as the impending "climate breakdown and civilisation collapse". Birthstrike organisers say its aim is not to discourage people from having children, or condemn those who have them already, but to communicate the urgency of the crisis.[52] As at September 2019, over 330 people have joined, of whom approximately 80% are women.[53]

Prevalence of concern

In 2018, the Pew Research Centre conducted a survey of 26 countries to see how concerned people were about climate change. In 23 of those countries, over 50% of those surveyed say "global climate change is a major threat to their nation". In 13 of those countries, it is seen as "the top threat". The survey found that the more educated participants were, the more concerned they were likely to be. In some countries, women and younger people are generally more concerned.[54]

In surveys in the United States in 2018, between 21%[55] and 29%[56] of Americans said they were "very" worried about the climate, double the rate of a similar study in 2015. Between 62% and 69% said they were "somewhat" worried - but only 6% said humans can and will reduce global warming. In the United States, among American adults, concern is closely aligned with political affiliation. Roughly a quarter (27%) of Republicans say climate change is a major threat, compared with more than three-quarters of Democrats (83%) – a 56% point difference.[54]

A Finnish survey in 2019 which actually measured anxiety found that 25% to 33% of people in Finland acknowledged such feelings in relation to climate change.[57]

Treatment & responses

Professor Craig Chalquist says the first step for therapists in treating eco-anxiety is realizing that a fearful response to a real condition is not pathological. He says eco-fear is a completely normal response even if the client finds it profoundly disturbing. He argues that therapists need to take clients fears about the situation seriously and "not assume they’re a dysfunctional mental health problem or that a person suffering from eco-anxiety is somehow ill." However, he acknowledges that fear and anxiety about global warming may exacerbate pre-existing, mental health conditions.[58] Melissa Pickett, an eco-therapist practicing in Santa Fe, claims she treats between forty and eighty eco-anxious patients a month.[59] Symptoms include irritability, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, bouts of weakness, panic attacks, and twitching. In terms of treatment, Chalquist notes that individualistic models of mental health are "not designed to deal with collective trauma on a planetary scale".[58]

In general, psychotherapists say that when individuals take action, either by changing their lifestyle to reduce carbon emissions or by getting involved in social activism, this reduces anxiety levels by bringing a sense of personal empowerment and feelings of connection with others in the community.[60][61] Many psychologists emphasize that in addition to action, there is a need to build emotional resilience in order to avoid burnout.[62][63][64][65]

Several psychological organizations have been founded around climate psychology.[66][67][68] Scholars have pointed out that there is a need for a systemic approach in order to provide various resources for people in relation to the mental health impacts of ecological problems and climate change.[28][69]

See also

References

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  7. Ro, Christine (20 June 2018), How to cure the eco-anxious, Wellcome Collection, https://wellcomecollection.org/articles/Ww2BOCEAAMsAioTE 
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Further reading