By Robin Silver
Global warming and climate change have been in the public eye for years, and recent weather patterns have made the effects impossible to ignore. Each year is hotter than the year before, and the changes to our planet have shown no sign of stopping. Scientists have reported the amount of time we have to prevent drastic change is extremely limited—decades, at best.
Extreme weather events, such as floods, heatwaves, earthquakes, and hurricanes, have forced people from their homes across the globe. Droughts have caused food shortages. Biodiversity is shrinking at unprecedented rates. The economic and physical ramifications of climate change are undeniable, but there are more subtle effects at work too. Mother Nature is angry, and it’s taking a toll on many of her children’s mental health status.
A 2017 study on mental health and climate change by the American Psychological Association (APA) and two climate change organisations concluded that the “unrelenting day-by-day despair” of environmental degradation is so widespread that a new diagnosable term was needed. Eco-anxiety was officially introduced into our lexicon.
While most forms of anxiety are based on irrational fears, eco-anxiety is based on real and undeniable facts that are a threat to human life. Because of this distinction, dealing with eco-anxiety will have to be dealt with on both personal and societal levels.
Who Is Affected?
According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “between 25 and 50% of all people exposed to an extreme weather disaster may have some adverse mental health effects.” Disaster survivors are often diagnosed with PTSD, depression, anxiety and slower to manifest, long-term climate change can have significant psychological ramifications as well.
The implications of climate change will affect future generations the most, and parents are particularly susceptible to eco-anxiety. The world their children and grand-children will inherit will no longer be the relatively calm and well-resourced world of the 20th century.
Concern also plagues these children as they grow up and with good reason. The future of Generation Z seems unpredictable—with rising sea levels, coastal cities and towns are at risk of total destruction.
Greta Thunberg, 16-year-old climate activist, best summarised her generation’s fears in a speech at the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit:
“You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words, and yet I’m one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.”
While this paints a bleak picture of our globe at present, it is not a death sentence for the future—change is possible, and major disasters can still be averted. But how?
How To Help On A Personal Level
There are ways to turn eco-anxiety into empowerment, and it starts in your own home. Lifestyle changes, such as giving up meat and dairy, have positive effects. The beef industry has a significant impact on growing concerns, like deforestation of the Amazon. If there is less demand from individual consumers, there will be less incentive for agribusiness to burn down the rainforests that the planet desperately needs.
Modest lifestyle changes can help too. Buying second-hand is a simple way to reduce consumption significantly. Cycling or walking instead of driving can reduce carbon emissions, as well as give you an endorphin boost—which helps alleviate mental health anguish on a physiological level.
Though they don’t directly help save the world, cultivating self-regulation and self-soothing practices have a positive impact on mental health. Creative practices like yoga and meditation, or simply making time to relax with friends and family provide significant value. According to the APA report, strong social connections ease the mental stress of climate change.
Another way to soothe eco-anxiety, especially in children, is preparedness. Think about the type of disasters likely to hit your area. Make and practise emergency plans with all the members of your household. Store away first aid kits, non-perishable food, and extra water.
How To Help On A Larger Scale
Corporations and climate change deniers in positions of power are obstacles which may seem insurmountable at times. Taking collective action and joining larger movements can help foster optimism and turn eco-anxiety into affirmative action.
The incentive for corporations to change is growing with consumer pressure. There is safety in numbers, and large, systemic means of fighting climate change are crucial to preserving life on our planet.
It took a long time for the climate disaster to reach this fever pitch and solutions will not occur overnight. Eco-anxiety can feel crippling in the moment, but perhaps these fears can help people come together to create a better, cleaner world.