Eco Anxiety – The New Normal?

By Sharon Michelle, MSc Psychology

When I was about 8 years old I ran all the way home from the Cinema absolutely distraught after watching Watership Down (1978) an animated film about rabbits finding a new home because of developers moving in on their habitat.  It was my first experience with what may now be termed “Eco-anxiety” (to this day I can’t listen to Art Garfunkels “Bright eyes” without feeling a bit choked up!)

Eco-anxiety hasn’t yet been classified as an anxiety disorder, but some Health Care professionals feel it should be.  The DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) used by Health Care professionals to diagnose mental health conditions, describes several anxiety disorders where symptoms can be excessive fear, anxiety, and behavioural disturbances.  There are many causes of anxiety and around the globe environmental issues and climate change is fast becoming one of them.

I have always felt a strong, innate connection to nature.  As a young girl, I preferred to walk in the countryside and be in nature rather than play with friends, or with my brother who always wanted to stay in and watch The A-Team on TV.  I wanted to be out in the fresh air watching the birds or the leaves changing when the seasons did.  Whenever I am happy, or sad, a walk-in nature feeds my soul and I feel good.

I have always felt fiercely protective of Nature and in the past felt a little lonely with this belief.   Most upsetting for me is the attitude of many that Nature is only a commodity, something to be conquered, with no consideration to Nature as a living entity with rights to live and thrive – the same as humans do.  Wondering why Politicians haven’t listened to scientists and environmentalists about Climate change, the lack of care or pure apathy for the destruction of the environment have been sources of anxiety throughout my life.  I have dealt with my eco-anxiety by being as environmentally conscious as I could be.  There have also been times where I felt powerless and overwhelmed so avoided reading up on environmental news hoping the realities wouldn’t impact me to an extent that I wouldn’t be able to cope.

Now, all over the world, people are seeing and experiencing the effects of climate change.  Eco-anxiety, affecting mental health and wellbeing, especially in young people, is becoming a real worry for Mental health professionals.  This will only become more prevalent as climate change gets worse.

Graham Lawton (2019) in his New Scientist article argues Eco-anxiety is actually a very sane and rational response to Climate change, and it should not be classed as a mental health condition because if it was, then “the forces of denial will have won”.  I wish I could have read that article 20 years ago.  What I have been feeling all this time is a healthy response to a horrifying real-life situation that is now affecting more and more of us, whether you care for nature or not.

In the last couple of years, there has been a major shift towards a sense of Eco-consciousness which can be experienced both positively and negatively.  Feelings and emotions bring our awareness to situations we find ourselves in. They can act as signals or warnings that the situation needs to be addressed, adjusted, or changed.   Anxiety, for example, can be negative when it is debilitating and overshadows the real problem.  But a little anxiety can also be a positive experience – when it sheds light on a problem so a path to a solution can be found.  It can be good stress that motivates or excites a person to get a job or project done.  It can provide essential energy for a person to reach their full potential or the energy required for taking necessary action.

When does anxiety become a mental health problem?  A person “suffering” from anxiety may have overwhelming apprehension, uncontrollable worry, intense fear, which affects their everyday life impacting their mental and physical wellbeing. Debilitating anxiety can be treated with therapy and/or drugs, regardless of whatever caused it.  Everyone has felt anxious at some point in their lives and the tolerance or threshold for anxiety will vary for different people.  Before it becomes unmanageable it is important to give ourselves permission to feel sad/angry/anxious, taking timeouts to rejuvenate and recover when needed.  Talk about it, you will probably find more people feel the same way than you realise.

Now, I feel more hopeful and connected to others than I have ever felt before.  Up until two years ago, I felt the human race was getting more and more disconnected from nature, but now environmental issues/climate change is the main topic of conversation.  There seem to be more discussions over how to repair the damage and restore the relationship with the Earth. More positive action is being taken than ever before.  Nature as an entity is being recognised, as is the horrifying reality of her destruction. The plight of nature can’t be ignored anymore.

During the Pandemic, people, in general, came together, looked out for others, and there has been a great deal of reflection about what’s really important.  Vaccines have come about due to concentrated efforts and worldwide cooperation.  Enormous behavioural change has taken place and we have all witnessed the difference it has made.  Looking at the world from this perspective, I can imagine the possibilities and opportunities available using the same focus and collaboration, to solve the issues for Climate change and the environment.  I feel less anxious.

More and more places and spaces provide examples, articles, and stories to feel positive about such as a great website called Happy Eco News (you may have heard of it…)  Here I soak up the news and save the articles that make me feel positive and excited about the future.  Instead of being apprehensive about finding yet more doom and gloom I actively look out for organisations that are making a positive difference like the excellent Extinction Rebellion, Project Drawdown, the Rewilding Organisation.  The more I find, the less I feel overwhelmed.  I am becoming part of a growing collective and consciousness that is getting stronger.  I feel more and more hopeful.

My Eco-anxiety is spurring me on to read and hear about more positive stories. Because I keep finding them, they have become my medicine.  Although I still can’t bring myself to watch the new Watership Down movie, I don’t avoid reading about Environmental issues anymore.  I recently discovered a great book called Back to Nature, Chris Packham & Megan McCubbin (2020).   A tough read in places, but it is an example of reminding people of their connection with Nature, a perception becoming more mainstream that fills me with joy.

There are tough challenges, trouble, and difficult times ahead but creating my own database of websites, books, and articles, of positive eco-news, and reading and re-reading them from time enables me to honestly face the issues and energises me.  Eco anxiety is unhealthy when it gets too much and impacts your sense of well-being, if this happens try and take a step back and get help if needed.  But eco-anxiety can also be a good motivator to take action and make the changes the Earth and Nature need us to.

 

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