What is Eco-Anxiety? The Psychological Impact of an Endangered Planet Explained

·5 min read

As every corner of the world cascades into an irreversible climate crisis, reports elucidating the harrowing physical impact of a deteriorating ecology have time and again flooded news.

Just this year, a study undertaken by researchers at Harvard University, University College London, and other universities revealed that over eight million people are killed by just air pollution from fossil fuels every year. A Climate Impact Lab report even states that by 2100, an estimated 1.5 million additional people are expected to die each year from climate change.

However, studies looking into our psychological health in context of a looming existential threat are not as robust.

Besides the trauma and other psychological effects relegated to natural disasters, loss of habitat, and/or other tangible harm catalysed by the environmental crisis, long-term climate change also has a significant impact on mental wellbeing.

On 14 September, a Lancet study spanning 10 nations and over 10,000 participants indicated that an alarming level of climate-related distress was plaguing young people between the ages of 16 and 25.

In 2017, the American Psychological Association provided a definition for eco-anxiety – an effect of long-term climate change – terming it as a chronic fear of environmental doom.

What is Eco-Anxiety?

Research done on the subject has broadly classified eco-anxiety as the "presence of anxiety in relation to the existential threat that the ecological crises represent."

However, anxiety related to the climate differs from clinical anxiety in a very fundamental manner. According to psychotherapist Caroline Hackman, who co-authored the Lancet study, eco-anxiety is a perfectly reasonable and healthy response to the existential threat that a climate emergency poses.

Speaking to The Guardian, she even goes as far to say, “I’d kind of wonder why somebody wasn’t feeling anxious."

Furthermore, a Lancet journal article suggests that the genesis of climate anxiety is knowing that a catastrophe is imminent but lacking the appropriate skills, scripts, or agency to mitigate it.

The Effects of Eco-Anxiety

Complaints of depression, restlessness, palpitation, and insomnia have often been linked to climate anxiety, Dr C Ramasubramanian, founder of MS Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation in Madurai, stated, The Hindu reported.

While Dr Ramasubramanian believes that eco-anxiety is an adaptive response to climate change, he has also stated that persisting climate-related distress can transform into a disease if left unattended.

The Lancet study has also elucidated a specific trend arising from the experience of eco-anxiety. Young people around the world fear having children due to the unfolding crisis.

Madurai-based psychiatrist Dr A Sugaparaneetharan has expounded upon these impulses, iterating that people overwhelmed with feelings of frustration and loss and are immensely worried about their children and future generations.

Speaking to The Hindu, he said, “From an evolutionary perspective, all living things want to give a healthy and protective environment to the next generation. But since we have failed to do it, we are now filled with guilt and anxiety."

Meanwhile, worlds away, UK-based climate psychologist Caroline Hickman states that she has counselled parents fantasising about killing their children out of fear of a climate-drive mass destruction.

'Crisis of Hope': What Else Did the Study Say?

The research undertaken by professors at the University of Bath and published in preprint with The Lancet exposed that over 50 percent of people experienced feelings of sadness, fear, anger, powerlessness, guilt, and anxiety in the context of climate change.

Climate-related anxiety was found in 63 percent of the respondents. the research also concluded that "over 45 percent [of respondents] said their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life and functioning."

Another vital stimulus for eco-anxiety revealed in the study is a 'crisis of hope', which is associated with the youth's emotional response to government inaction in the face of environmental catastrophe.

The paper notes, "The study offers the first large-scale investigation of climate anxiety in children and young people globally and its relationship to government response."

It elucidates that perceptions of a highly disproportionate government response to the emergency has led to feelings of 'betrayal, abandonment, and moral injury' in young people.

It indicates that according to the respondents across countries, the governmental response to climate change has resulted in 'greater feelings of betrayal than of reassurance.'

Over 60 percent of them disagreed with every positive statement about the people in power and agreed with every negative statement, evidencing governmental failures have contributed significantly to the phenomenon of eco-anxiety.

What Can Be Done?

As the need for mental health resources in the context of this crisis grows, therapists in the western world differ in the strategies to help people cope.

While some practise mindfulness-based approaches to combat the anxiety and grief, others employ cognitive behavioural therapy for it. Cognitive behavioural therapy looks at addressing unhealthy ways of thinking. Climate-trained therapists often encourage direct action (activism, engagement with the government) as a way to cope, The Guardian reported.

Tree Staunton, who practises psychotherapy in Bath, England states, “Climate change is the context in which we’re doing therapy...And it can’t be left out of therapy.”

However, what is critical to examine is the presence of this knowledge and resources through the analytical lens of climate justice.

While most studies on climate-related mental health are concentrated in Northern Europe and the US, climate-caused destruction is the lived reality of people living outside the Western world, the people who are witnessing the grief caused environmental disasters, and watching the homes of their neighbours wash away as sea levels rise.

(With inputs from The Hindu, The Guardian and BBC)

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