“In therapy, we can’t save the planet. But, what we can do is help somebody give voice to their anxieties” said one expert. Image: Big Issue
Most of us are aware that there is a climate crisis raging across the world.
Floods, storms, heat waves, and wildfires sweep the planet while experts continually tell us it might be “too late” for most species to survive. It’s hard to ignore the feeling of dread and fear that climate change can evoke.
This is normal. Climate anxiety, also known as eco-anxiety, has become increasingly common in recent years, especially among young generations.
People of all ages and from different backgrounds or countries are experiencing climate anxiety, feeling helpless at whether they can do anything to prevent the climate catastrophe experts are promising and rage at those in power who may not be doing as much as they could to help.
But all is not lost. There are plenty of things people can do to battle against the climate crisis, and to mitigate those anxious feelings. Here’s what you need to know.
What is climate anxiety?
In a nutshell, climate anxiety is experienced by people who have heightened feelings of worry and tension due to climate change.
The American Psychological Association (APA) defined the eco-anxiety as the “chronic fear of environmental doom” in 2017, while other experts have used terms such as “ecological grief” or climate anxiety to define feelings of sadness and despair as a result of seeing parts of the planet burn or flood due to extreme weather events.
Mark Vahrmeyer, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy told the Big Issue climate anxiety is “something that is very real”.
“All of us have anxiety, to varying degrees, and we as human beings tend to attach those feelings to specific events that amplify our anxiousness,” he said, “such as the climate.”
Vahrmeyer says there is a challenge in distinguishing people who are predisposed to anxious feelings, which are being amplified by climate change, and those who have worries about climate change that are common to most of us.
But neither is any more ‘real’ than the other and both should be approached with care.
Who is most affected by eco-anxiety?
Eco-anxiety is affecting people of all ages and from all walks of life.
Vahrmeyer says people who are predisposed to anxiety or have pre-existing diagnosis of generalised anxiety disorder may be affected by climate anxiety even more than others, but this is not always the case.
The symptoms of climate anxiety are very similar to the symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder.
According to the American Psychological Association, people who suffer from climate anxiety can experience panic attacks, loss of appetite, irritability, weakness, and sleeplessness, but the list is not exhaustive.
How do you deal with eco-anxiety?
“In therapy, we can’t save the planet. But what we can do is help somebody give voice to their anxieties and go deeper into what they are feeling within that anxiety,” Vahrmeyer says.
He explains how people struggling with climate anxiety may in fact be feeling grief, “real feelings of sadness and sorrow”, a sense of rage and indignation at governments or oil companies, and helplessness.
“They might be asking, ‘Well, what can I as one person do to affect change?’ and feeling like the answer is nothing,” he adds.
As such, climate anxiety is in fact a “broad umbrella term” for many other feelings that need to be worked through and processed individually – the primary way is to talk through it.
Human beings are “relational”, Vahrmeyer says, meaning we need relationships with other people and to talk through things. Whether that discussion happens with parents, friends, siblings, partners, or qualified therapists, it will help you to share the burden with others and discuss what you’re feeling on a regular basis.
Another key way of dealing with eco-anxiety, in addition to talking about it, is to take a step back from climate change. This may sound counterintuitive, but Vahrmeyer says reducing the amount of climate news you consume may help “if somebody’s feeling particularly overwhelmed by climate anxiety”.
“This isn’t the same as denying climate change, and it isn’t the same as denying that emotional experience but rather creating a little bit of space and taking a breath from the negative stories that we are often bombarded with so we can look at those feelings and thoughts in more depth,” he says.
Vahrmeyer says: “There can be a sense of empowerment from actually experiencing and processing these feelings, coming to terms with the fact that these major changes on the planet may not be reversible but can be mitigated in certain ways.”
Instead of hearing we’re all doomed, it may be a case of rewiring your brain to think about how to do something about it.
They can then move on from feeling anxious and maybe look at affecting small but significant change, whether personally with their own climate choices or by engaging with environmental groups, petitioning politicians, or learning more about the science behind climate change and educating others.
That’s the third and final point that Vahrmeyer encourages for people dealing with climate anxiety: engaging in things that are both meaningful and impactful in terms of feeling less helpless.
This will create a necessary balance that will ensure a positive mental attitude towards climate change.
“We can think about the planet, we can think about climate change and take varying degrees of action, while also enjoying life. Go to the park with your children, take a nice walk, or laugh with your friends! Those two positions are not mutually exclusive,” he said.
Vahrmeyer also points out that climate anxiety can often slide into climate doomism, which is the idea that there is no way for humanity to survive the climate crisis and we are already doomed even though experts say this is not true.
He said: “It’s often about a process of mourning, where they think about what has been lost on the planet and there is a lack of hope that that loss can be regained. This pervasive sense of doom can be quite paralysing and it’s one of the problems we’re facing when it comes to the climate crisis.”
Vahrmeyer said this is another form of climate denial, as it can often be easier for people to cope if they believe there’s nothing they can do.
“It’s an awful thought to have if you think the planet is doomed, but it’s not necessarily true at this point in time. People who feel like this could and should take a step back from this daily news of ‘doom’ and find other ways of learning about the climate without always receiving a constant barrage of bad news,” he added.
Feeling concerned about the climate is quite a normal and natural response, according to Vahrmeyer and it is not necessary to classify these kinds of feelings as a “disorder”.
Vahrmeyer, who also feels anxious about the climate on occasion, says: “Anybody who is, I’d say, in touch with reality is going to be in touch with the realities of climate change. Somebody who might come to me to say they’ve noticed the floods and wildfires and heatwaves and feel anxious about that, I would say that is a very ordinary response.”
“Anxiety has a role to play in helping us survive but the problem comes when we tip over into survival mode on a day-to-day basis because it can be incredibly taxing on our nervous system, our immune system, and our emotions.”
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