The Chilling Rise of Climate Anxiety

Photo by Toimetaja tõlkebüroo on Unsplash

It’s February 2020. Record rainfall is putting out fires along eastern Australia but bringing widespread flooding and rising anxiety. For some people, there’s no time to stop and take a sigh of relief.

Thousands of homes are without power in NSW and WA. Trees have been uprooted, power lines are down, and roads are closed. Sydney is experiencing commuter chaos and residents directly affected are frustrated and stressed. And those watching around the world are becoming more anxious and concerned about climate change.

Severe weather makes us frustrated and anxious

Fires, floods, and tropical cyclones are all part of growing up in Australia, along with deadly redback spiders, death adder snakes, and great white sharks. Australians are adaptable to extreme conditions. The country’s national pride is based on “working hard and doing it tough”. But, the devastation and disruption in our lives is now different. People seem to be more affected regardless of whether they are directly impacted by the disaster or the ecological event.

The constant access to media and news through social media and the Internet means that even if you live in Queensland and aren’t affected by the fires in Victoria or the floods in Sydney, the photos, video, and stories of the destruction can cause trauma and anxiety. Such pervasiveness of technology certainly has a large influence on the newly emerging form of mental health concern known as climate anxiety.

What is climate anxiety?

Eco-anxiety or climate anxiety was defined by the American Psychological Association in 2017 as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”. It results from a fear of environmental damage or ecological disaster. Climate anxiety is not included as a specific condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

The Australian Psychology Society says, “Climate change is as much a psychological and social problem, as it is an environmental or ecological catastrophe. Many people may also feel seriously concerned, frightened, angry, pessimistic, or guilty in response to climate change. Qualitative research finds evidence of some people being deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change. New terms such as eco-anxiety and climate change anxiety are sometimes used to describe this.”

Why is climate-anxiety increasing?

Climate change emerged as a key issue in Australia in the 1980s. Why is it having a greater impact on mental health now?

Last year when the Australia fire season began, the Australian Medical Association (AMA) issued a warning about the health impacts of climate change. The AMA joined other health organisations around the world in declaring climate change as a health emergency. The AMA warned that climate change will not only cause injury and mortality from increasingly severe weather events but will also cause a higher incidence of mental health.

An increasing number of young people are fearful of their future, compare with older people. Latest figures from the American Psychology Association (APA) reveal that more than two-thirds of adults (68%) said that they have at least a little eco-anxiety, whereas nearly half of 18-34-year-olds (47%) said that stress about climate change affects their daily lives. “The health, economic, political, and environmental implications of climate change affect all of us. The tolls on our mental health are far-reaching,” said Arthur C. Evans Jr., CEO of the APA. “As climate change is created largely by human behaviour, psychologists are continuing to study ways in which we can encourage people to make behavioural changes — both large and small — so that collectively we can help our planet.”

Earlier this week on the Australian ABC Q&A Climate Debate, Alice Trumble, a environmental science university graduate, revealed her experiences in dealing with climate anxiety on national television: “I’d really like a family, but I’m way too scared to do it.” When explaining her reasoning, Alice said that she considered it unsafe and unethical for her to bring children into the world. One of the five panellists TV host Osher Gunsberg responded to her by saying that “the world needs your child,” indicating the importance of environmentally conscious parents raising children.

What causes climate-anxiety

The causes and triggers of climate-anxiety vary. They can be related to direct experiences of extreme weather or they can be as a result of lack of control over the state of the environment and the future of the world. Many people who work in environmental jobs can also be prone to eco-anxiety due to their direct experience of the effects of climate change on the natural world (for example, the bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef off the eastern coast of Australia).

Social media and frequent use of technology give people immediate access to visual and auditory information which can be a sensory overload. With the intensity of organised student strikes and the daily doses of devastating national and global news and images streamed to our phones, it’s no surprise that young people are anxious about climate change.

What to do if you are experiencing climate anxiety

It’s important to seek and maintain support when dealing with any form of anxiety. Mental health organisations like ReachOut, Beyond Blue, and Headspace provide support to people panicking about any issue, including climate change.

ReachOut, an online mental health organisation for young people, has included “how to cope with anxiety about climate change” as one of the big issues. On its website, ReachOut tells young people concerned about eco-anxiety, “Hearing constant news and events about climate change in Australia and overseas can make you feel worried, angry and frustrated.”

ReachOut provides some practical advice for those experiencing climate anxiety:

  • Know that you are not alone – others are worried too
  • Talk to friends or family members who share your values and concerns about the environment
  • Take a break from social media and the news – hang out with friends and have a picnic
  • Do something to feel empowered, whether it is using public transport or eating less meat or writing a letter to a politician – every action counts

It’s also important to know that if you do experience this form of anxiety you are certainly not alone in your suffering. Eco-anxiety is real and its incidence is increasing. But you don’t have to face it in isolation. Connecting with like-minded friends and supporting one another is a wonderful way to stay mentally resilient to your fears, worries, and doubts.

And remember, if you have climate anxiety it’s most likely because you care for the planet and its health. The world needs you. The world needs your love, care, and positivity more than ever.

Copyright © L.A. Golding 2020

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