It was in 1999, I think, when I went to a writers’ convention and participated as a panelist for a discussion on environmental-and-nature writing. One of the questions from a member of the audience directed to all of us on the dais was: “What keeps you up at night?”
When it was my turn to respond, I answered “climate change.” After I said those two words, the room fell silent; and I didn’t quite know what to make of that. This was just a few years after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the United Nations body responsible for assessing the science related to climate change—had issued its Second Assessment Report that concluded that the balance of evidence suggests “a discernible human influence” on the Earth’s climate. This has since been called the first definitive statement that humans are responsible for climate change. That day in that room, I assumed that the quiet that descended was either from the general public’s lack of knowledge about the issue and the report, or that most people believed that any consequences from a warming world would be felt so far into the future that it wouldn’t matter to them.
Now almost 25 years later, if you or I were to say “climate change” in front of a group of people, you most likely wouldn’t be met by silence. This now-politically-charged term will either elicit loud protests about its very existence or a phenomenon that’s becoming known as “eco-anxiety,” which means that your feelings about the effects of the climate change that we now see all around us range from hopelessness to helplessness to rage.
Climate change cataclysm
Eco-anxiety means as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” A lengthier definition is: “the generalized sense that the ecological foundations of existence are in the process of collapse.” The American Psychological Association describes it this way: “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future and that of next generations.”
If you look around today, you can’t help but observe that “seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change.” We are overwhelmed with extreme weather events, such as droughts, floods, heat waves and even the 2019–2020 bushfires that devastated Australia. The headlines about the accumulation of trash in the oceans, the loss of biodiversity, the overexploitation of natural resources, deforestation, rising sea levels and water shortages are hard to escape. And while not everyone is debilitated by the news, at least 40 percent of Americans feel “disgusted” or “helpless” in the face of it, according to a 2020 survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Young people are particularly freaked out: the results of a 2021 survey published in the journal The Lancet Planetary Health showed that when asked whether “humanity is doomed,” 56 percent of 16-to-25-year-olds answered yes. And 39 percent of respondents said climate change makes them “hesitant to have children.” Another study carried out in the U.S. demonstrated high levels of fear among respondents aged 27 to 45 about their offspring struggling through a climate apocalypse and that they were factoring in climate change into their reproductive choices. While the scale of such anxiety is unknown, it is likely to grow worldwide.
Eco-anxiety does not affect everyone equally. In fact, it tends to be more prevalent among people who are more aware about protecting the environment. Symptoms include anxiety, nervousness, sleep disturbances and stress. In more serious cases, eco-anxiety can cause a sensation of suffocation or even depression. Among the latter group, it is quite common for people to express a strong sense of guilt about the situation of the planet.
Eco-anxiety is also high among children. A 2020 survey of child psychiatrists in England showed that more than half of them (57 percent) were seeing children and young people distressed about the climate crisis and the state of the environment. Those results are not confined to the United Kingdom. Published in September 2021, the largest and most international survey of climate anxiety in young people (aged 16 to 25) to date confirmed that the psychological (cognitive, emotional, functional and social) burdens of climate change are “profoundly affecting huge numbers of these young people around the world.” Not surprisingly, respondents from countries in the Global South (countries in the regions of Africa, Asia, Latin America and Oceania)—who may have observed or experienced climate change—expressed more worry and greater impact on their functioning, but significant numbers from all countries reported feeling “very or extremely worried and that their feelings about climate change had affected their daily lives.”
The 2021 study is the first to offer insights into how young people’s emotions are tied together with their feelings of abandonment and betrayal by adults and governments. Governments are seen as failing to respond adequately, leaving young people with “no future” and “humanity doomed.”
Treating climate anxiety is especially challenging because unlike other forms of anxiety, such as a fear of flying, eco-anxiety is not necessarily an overreaction that can be managed by countering negative thoughts (such as learning to replace “we’re going to crash” with “planes take off and land safely every day”). Climate anxiety is an understandable response to a frightening reality. It’s hard to convince someone that he or she is catastrophizing when the situation is truly calamitous.
Negative emotions, however, can sometimes help us. Anger and anxiety can move us to action. Discomfort can cause us to try to change the status quo—or at least our corner of the world.
For example, working on climate issues can reduce your own eco-stress. That work can be as small as going to a community educational event; having conversations with family members and friends; listening to a Natural Habitat Adventures Daily Dose of Nature Webinar; sharing your thoughts on media sites, such as Eco-Anxious Stories; or joining an organization like the Good Grief Network that can help you process your feelings related to climate anxiety and connect with others to take meaningful action. You could also personally commit to responsible consumption, recycling, eating sustainable food and using sustainable means of mobility to protect the environment as much as possible.
If you’re ready to go bigger, getting involved in organized climate activism can help. The group actions and social connections that result may buffer the effects of climate anxiety on mental health. Plus, joining with others to protect your local wetlands or to lobby the government for systemic changes sets off bigger reverberations than changing a light bulb at home.
To help climate-anxious youngsters, we can ask them to focus on the science and balance the real worries with all the inspiration, success and wisdom that humanity has shown in solving problems over decades and centuries. That includes the divestment by foundations and pension funds in fossil fuels, localized energy systems that run on solar power or wind turbines, guerilla gardening in neglected spaces, rainwater harvesting, accessible science reports on the Internet, as well as the broader social progress that has improved the lives of many, such as environmental programs that also address social justice.
Young people should also be reminded that climate action isn’t limited to public protests. They could consider journalism, health care, science or technology for a career, or run for political office. Point out that an increasing number of youth activists are taking governments to court over climate change.
Personally, to combat my own eco-anxiety, I find it helpful to remember that despite all the dire climate change news, there are positive things going on that don’t make the daily headlines. For example, we just learned that there are more climate-threatened Canada lynx residing in Glacier National Park than we realized, fjords play a big role in storing CO2 and our urban green spaces are making a huge difference for our health.
Another hopeful sign is that climate problems are causing a change in awareness of the need to take care of the planet among a large part of the population. The 2020 survey from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 73 percent of Americans now believe that global warming is happening, an increase of 10 percentage points from March 2015. And more than six in 10 now accept the scientific consensus that humans are causing the warming that is altering weather and ecosystems.
It sometimes takes a crisis to provoke change.
And though it might seem as if forest bathing is like immersing yourself in your own worries, spending time in nature may be just the salve you need. To calm your thoughts, work in your garden, take a solo walk, enjoy a hike with friends or go plogging (picking up plastic from the ground while out for a run).
Although we often wrong nature, it always seems to have a way of righting us.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,