Climate anxiety: prime motivator for climate action?

A summer heatwave. Another day of torrential rain. A hosepipe ban. Yet another weather warning. Most likely these are the only direct effects of the climate crisis which we personally experience on a regular basis in the global north. But it is plain to see that such extreme weather events are occurring more and more frequently and in greater extremes, such as the record-breaking temperatures this summer. And more importantly, you will have read about the much more severe climate events which are affecting primarily the global south on an increasingly regular basis. Extreme floods in Pakistan. Prolonged drought in East Africa. Worsening cyclones in the Pacific.

The physical impact of such climate events on people and their communities has been clear for many years, but only recently have we begun to recognise the simultaneous crisis in mental health and wellbeing: climate- or eco-anxiety.

In the last few years, therapists and psychologists have observed a huge rise in people who are suffering from anxiety and depression related to the climate crisis. Our constant exposure to natural disasters, both in the news and increasingly on a personal level, is having an endemic negative effect on our mental health. Professionals fear that the crisis will only worsen as the impacts of global warming are experienced more and more widely and severely.

Psychologists such as Dr Patrick-Kennedy Williams, based in Oxford, have only become aware of the prevalence of climate anxiety more recently, after being approached by numerous climate scientists struggling with their mental health in 2018. His research demonstrated that climate scientists are not alone in suffering with climate anxiety; parents, children and young people are all particularly and increasingly affected.

A 2020 survey in the journal Climatic Change showed that 60% of Americans aged between 27 and 45 worry about the carbon footprint of having a child, with over 96% concerned about the wellbeing of that child in a climate-changed world.

Therapist Andrew Bryant, based in Washington, was first approached by parents facing fears about the future that would await their children in 2016, when a couple discussed their dilemma over the ethical question of whether or not to have a child who would grow up and grow old in an unstable, climate-changed world. At the time, he and many other therapists felt they lacked the means to support clients in the context of climate change; in a 2016 study, half of therapists felt that they had not had adequate training to allow them to deal with the mental health impacts of the climate crisis.

Bryant and others have paved the way to ensure that all mental health professionals receive training on treating those suffering with climate or eco-anxiety. Climate psychotherapist Tree Staunton has successfully campaigned for such changes in the UK, saying: ‘Climate change is the context in which we’re doing therapy.’

A 2020 survey by Yale University showed that 40% of Americans feel ‘disgusted’ or ‘helpless’ about climate change, and more than half felt somewhat or extremely anxious about effects of climate change on their mental health. Even more concerningly, researchers following more than 1,700 children who experienced a major hurricane found that up to half of them suffered symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in the years that followed.

Eco-anxiety is particularly common amongst children and young people, who are fearful of their generation’s future in a climate-changed world. A survey by The Lancet last year revealed that almost half of the 10,000 young people surveyed globally said concerns about the state of the planet interfered with their daily activities, with more than half agreeing with the statement: ‘Humanity is doomed.’

Many psychologists and therapists suggest that such anxiety, however, can be a key motivator for climate activism. Alec Tyson, associate director of a Washington thinktank suggests that young people who are the most concerned about the climate crisis are also the most confident that they can do something about it. Recent global movements pioneered by young people, such as the massive protests in 2019, and their significant involvement in groups such as Just Stop Oil, indicates that many are successfully channelling their fears into campaigning for meaningful change.

Activism can help to control your anxieties about the climate crisis by envisaging a different future and campaigning for meaningful change as part of an active and motivated community. In spite of fears, hope persists.

What can you do if you are suffering from climate anxiety?

There is no one solution to an ongoing problem, but environmental organisation Greenpeace suggests some ways to manage your anxieties.

— Get active! Sign up to a local climate campaigning group or a national movement – be part of a community determined to create a better future for all.

— Find friends or a community where you can express your anxieties – and your hopes! Conversation with like-minded people will help you feel supported.

— Spend time outdoors, away from news of the climate crisis. Relax in natural beauty and allow yourself to be hopeful for the future.

— Invest in books and media which advocate messages of hope rather than doomsday visions – there are lots out there, but Greenpeace has a helpful list here.

— Take time out of activism to focus on what brings you joy – in whatever form this may be.

— Consider approaching professionals or specialists for help and support – the Climate Psychology Alliance website offers lots of resources, or for more general mental health support, try Young Minds, Mind, Mental Health UK or Rethink.

Image: Garry Knight via Flickr.

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