If you have ever felt an overwhelming sense of anxiety and urgency about the current state of our planet’s environment, you are not alone. You are among the extremely large number of people who suffer from what the global psychological academia defines as eco-anxiety. This anxiety or existential dread stems from the sudden as well as insidious changes in the planet’s environment, which definitely cast an ominous shadow over our collective future as a species.
It also has roots in the fear and guilt of not being able to do anything in the face of an impending catastrophe, the signs of which are dangerously evident: from the gradual melting of icecaps in the polar regions of the planet to wildfires that reduce hectares of forest land to ash to oceans choking with plastic and the list go on and on. While being faced with such grim realities, it is ever so hard to be sanguine about what lies ahead.
This anxiety and sense of foreboding among people was first conceptualized by the American Psychological Association, the central and largest American psychologist organization in 2017. The APA defines the term eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”
According to the APA, a rapidly warming planet can have “resounding chronic psychological consequences” since these subsequent disasters can surface diversity of emotions such as fear, anxiety, anger, exhaustion, stress, powerlessness and helplessness.
Hence, it is correctly said that the impacts of climate change are measured not only in water shortages, wildfires, and hurricanes but also the pace at which our mental health is eroding. These statements are backed by empirical data collected by the Harvard Medical School, soon after Hurricane Katrina rampaged through the states of the USA.
The research paper published by the University indicates that suicide and suicide ideation doubled after the calamity struck. Another paper that was led and brought out by Columbia University suggests that 1 in 6 people affected by the cyclone in one way or the other, met the criteria for PTSD. Thus, we see a direct and unmistakable link between climate change and mental health. The other health conditions linked directly to experiencing the impacts of climate change, according to the APA, are:
Other symptoms that indicate the presence of eco-anxiety include loss of appetite, insomnia, and reduced socialization with the people around you.
To compound this issue, people may also experience the feelings of fear and guilt that surfaces a result of the inability to feel like they are making a sizeable contribution in the fight against the environmental crisis or that they are able to do their part in this collective struggle. They may find it difficult to navigate credible information pertinent to the environment, grapple with the challenges of the larger than life impacts of a rapidly warming planet or even aptly understand the miscellany of crises that envelope us.
It is natural to feel helpless and hopeless in the face of seemingly irrevocable changes in the climatic conditions of the planet we inhabit, but there is a way out. I have been preyed upon by this dreaded existential anxiety back in the summer of 2019, when my city, Delhi, experienced its hottest summer in years, and the temperatures soared up to 48C.
This, while Chennai, a South Indian city that houses over 9 million people, reeled under a record-breaking drought and water crisis, various countries of Europe scorched under unforgiving heatwaves, the Arctic Circle was up in flames, Greenland lost over 600 billion tonnes of ice, and nobody seemed to be doing anything about it. Each day passed as slowly and as excruciatingly as possible.
I was guilt-ridden, reduced meetings with friends, gave up meals and was in constant worry and daze. Having been inflicted by this climate change-induced anxiety myself, I can assure anyone out there, reading this, that there is a way out. All it requires is acknowledging one’s feelings and internal sufferings since the first step in alleviating a problem is to recognize it. Here are some ways to help lessen your eco-anxiety:
Reading up on the various environmental issues and getting to know the facts help to build a context around the problem, which makes it look manageable to allay the problem along with one’s worries and uncertainties. Refer strictly to credible sources of information and be cautious of any misinformation that you might encounter.
This may be a continuation of the first point itself. The purpose is to build boundaries around what and how much information you are consuming. Reading too much on a specific issue may lead to you being bogged down by the pressure. It may also serve to trigger you. Hence, it is extremely vital to consume news and information rationally and judiciously. Another way of setting and reinforcing your boundaries may be to curate your sphere of influence on social media. If you see a lot of posts flashing ‘scary statistics’ without any actions or solutions, follow accounts that make you feel better. Logging out would prevent you from slipping into negative spirals.
The fact that you are worried about the environment is an indication that you care about the environment. Take some time off your 24/7 news cycle and reconnect with what we’re all fighting for. Getting a breath of fresh air or going for regular forest bathing may be some ways you could reconnect with nature.
As it is evidently clear that fighting climate change alone is impossible. So, it is vital to join and actively engage with a community of like-minded individuals who are just as passionate about the environment as you are. You could be a part of online forums, be a part of your local Extinction Rebellion and Fridays For Future meetings, or form your community to lighten the load. Socialize with others, shake hands, pass smiles, share ideas, and join hands to, collectively, save the world.
It is very helpful for a person who is struggling with the fear and stress of climate change to play his/her part positively and actively. Organize or attend beach cleanups, plantation drives, plugging marathons and awareness programs, support sustainable brands and shops, buy locally and defund capitalist infrastructures to contribute to the movement, and feel good. However, remember not to burden yourself with unrealistic expectations. One day at a time!
Note: To reiterate what is pretty self-explanatory, I am not a therapist or a professional. If you feel you need professional intervention, go for it. Seek help and leverage therapy if it’s getting too overwhelming. All the points suggested above are the steps that helped me trudge out of the dark place I was pushed into. This was everything from my knowledge about this theme I feel so passionately about. I hope it helped.