Eco anxiety: what it is and how to deal with it
With devastating biodiversity losses and a climate in chaos, it’s not surprising that we are increasingly anxious about the state of our planet says Lucy Lapwing
I’m worrying again. It’s that familiar, gut-deep tug. Clenched teeth and furrowed brow. Not a single dandelion left, not one! I tear up at the roadside, feeling simultaneously silly and furious.
It’s a morning in late April, spring has barely got started, and yet it has begun. The cutting. The mowing, the strimming and hacking. I’m standing by a busy A-road, near the supermarket, watching a lad on a giant mower annihilate a bank of basking dandelions and bobbing cowslips.
How anyone can mow a cowslip I don’t understand. These butter-yellow wildflowers are the sunny faces of spring! They cause no harm, nor do they obstruct views on roads, or scratch or sting. Yet we mow them down – it’s heartbreaking. I bend down and pick up a slightly wilting, severed flower, twirling it between my fingers.
A horrible sensation sits in my tummy for the rest of the day. I find myself feeling sad as I drink my brew after lunch. This incident is just one small patch of cowslips, but it’s indicative of a bigger problem. The same can be said for my mood. The amount of time I spend in a state of worry seems to be on the up. Fret is always there, nagging like the incessant itch of a fresh horsefly bite.
What is eco-anxiety?
There’s a word for this feeling: eco-anxiety. Several years ago, whilst volunteering at RSPB Loch Garten, I found myself experiencing a complex potion of emotions: worry, sadness and despair. These were sensations that sat heavily in my chest and over time seemed to swell, like a plant’s roots growing too big for its pot.
I remember chatting with an older lady in the osprey centre. We spoke about the news and our perceptions of impending doom. We embraced; strangers sharing a cuddle, tears sparkling in the corners of our eyes. “Eco-dreads” we giggled awkwardly as we came up with a name for the uncomfortable feeling we shared.
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It was later that same year that I first heard the term eco-anxiety. It’s probably something you’ve come across, yet there isn’t a single definition. For some, it comes down to concern about climate change, thus its alternative name of ‘climate anxiety’. For others, it’s about ecosystems and nature, watching the biosphere disintegrating before our eyes.
For me, it’s a complex tangle of both; climate and nature are of course inextricably linked. Whatever the focus of our eco-anxiety, it largely comes down to this: ‘the chronic fear of environmental doom’. Another definition, coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht, is ‘the generalised sense that the ecological foundations of existence are in the process of collapse’.
Why should we worry?
The results of a 2021 study give the most recent generation even more reason to worry. The research warned that at the current rates of global warming, extreme weather events would continue to rise in frequency, intensity and duration over the coming decades, and that children born in 2020 would endure up to seven times as many extreme events as their grandparents.
How does eco-anxiety affect us?
Doom. Collapse. Crikey. It’s a lot, isn’t it? Eco-anxiety might be a new term, but the sentiment and the emotion surrounding it are nothing new. Lots of folks relate to it; we might see ourselves more as eco-worriers than eco-warriors. It manifests itself in lots of ways – the specific focus of your eco-anxiety might be very different to mine. For that reason, it’s not yet classed as a medical term; you can’t be formally diagnosed with eco-anxiety. It’s a response to information, environmental cues and perceived threat. When the news is full of wildfires, floods and ticking countdowns, isn’t it only natural to respond with worry? With fear? In that sense, I think eco-anxiety can be thought of as a rather normal response to the comprehension of something big and scary.
Just because it’s not a medical diagnosis, it doesn’t mean it can’t affect us physically and mentally. Whilst eco-anxiety isn’t a recognised disorder, the things it can lead to are. Long-term anxiety, grief and hopelessness can in some cases bring about conditions such as generalised anxiety disorder and clinical depression. Such big emotions are uncomfortable. They’re sharp and pointy, like trying to find somewhere soft to sit on a shingle beach. They’re heavy too. Sort of like the ache you might get in your shoulders after a long walk with a weighty rucksack.
I find the grief the hardest to deal with. As a millennial naturalist (what a title), I’ve seen nature in freefall since I was a welly-donning kid in the 90s – birds like cuckoos, turtledoves and nightingales have disappeared from much of our countryside. I grieve them. Then there’s the things I’ve only heard about from my parents, and older naturalists. Clouds of moths, clustering around the warm glow of lamp posts. Seas of bobbing blue cornflowers punctuating every arable field. These I’ve never seen, yet I grieve them too, in the way you grieve a relative or an ancestor you never got to meet.
So, we know these feelings are vast and painful. We also know they’re on the rise. Eco-anxiety is appearing more frequently; in the news, in conversation and in therapy sessions. Much of the media coverage of eco-anxiety focuses upon youth – and rightly so; younger people have to live in the future that’s being created for them. In 2021, a global study asked 10,000 young people aged 16-25 about climate anxiety. The results were significant, and heartbreaking. Nearly 60 per cent were very or extremely worried, and 84 per cent were moderately worried about climate change. Reading and hearing about wildfires, droughts and ‘insecta-geddons’ in the news every day, it only seems reasonable.
Thinking about this, I wanted to hear from someone I know. Indy Kiemel Greene is a young naturalist and good friend. He’s a tree-climber, a sunset gazer and he’s absolutely mad about goshawks. At 17 years old, he was born into a world of biodiversity loss and climate headlines. I asked him about his eco-anxiety and he replied that it’s hard to feel positive about the future of this Earth when eco-anxiety continues to convey a feeling of hopelessness. “I remind myself everyday that there are people out there taking small steps to make big changes,” he said, “but this is constantly overshadowed by the magnitude of negative steps backwards.”
I can relate to this. Eco-anxiety has gnawed painfully away inside me for a few years. At times, it has left me feeling stuck, like the smacking suck of the squelchiest bog, refusing to release my wellies and let me walk onwards.
As well as Indy, I recently had a natter with another of my friends, one I know has dealt with eco-anxiety a lot. Charlie Bell is a brilliant naturalist, a deep thinker and she always makes me laugh. I met her on a slug identification course (it’s where all the best friendships start) and we immediately got on. She described her eco-anxiety as a “gut-wrenching, ever-present guilt that I wasn’t doing enough to save nature.” She said she struggled with burnout after overworking and setting impossibly high standards for herself. “I’d spend hours staring at my computer screen, literally unable to work
or do anything.”
Charlie worried (and worries) about the same things I do. Twinned with doom-soaked headlines, it became a recipe for depression and anxiety. “I had reached the stage where I wasn’t able to find the joy in nature,” she told me. “I believed that this intense eco-anxiety was the only logical and rational response to the situation the world faces. I couldn’t ‘logic’ my way out of it. I was in a pretty dark place.”
How to deal with eco-anxiety
It’s been so important speaking and listening to friends like Indy and Charlie. Knowing you’re not alone with your struggles is a bit like a dock leaf to a nettle for me – it soothes the sting. Friendship and community are vital tools when we’re dealing with big things like eco-anxiety. That said, these are just a couple of people in my immediate circle – what about everyone else? We know it occurs globally. The study I mentioned earlier was distributed quite evenly; interviewing 1,000 young people in 10 countries across the world, from the USA to Nigeria. But the impacts of climate change and biodiversity loss aren’t so equally spread.
Discussion around eco-anxiety is largely a western – and therefore white – phenomenon. There’s a disparity between places where climate change is still seen as a future threat on the horizon, and places where it’s already in full swing, causing suffering, fatalities and displacement. These countries and their emergencies – droughts, floods and wildfires – mostly aren’t treated with the same urgency by western countries as they would be if they were happening in the west.
In the UK, I look at my white peers and can see that we’re in the somewhat luxurious position of actually having the capacity to worry about these things. I can sit here and worry about changes 10 or 20 years down the line. I can feel my soul ache when I conjure the image of a future without cuckoos, curlews and hedgehogs – but ultimately, right now, I’m safe and comfortable.
It might be uncomfortable to confront this – like prodding a bramble thorn deeper into your skin – but confront it we must. Climate change, and the emotions it whips up, only compound existing unjust structures. And we already know those unjust structures are what led to climate change in the first place.
Phew. It’s big stuff, isn’t it? Yet, among these big emotions, I think an opportunity lies. When we’re made to feel things like fear and anxiety, there’s a risk it can lead to apathy, hostility or extremism.
But what if it went the other way? What if we responded to that fear with kindness, community, gentleness and collaboration? This is knowledge that already exists; how to handle fear of existential threat, and how to build resistance. People from indigenous, black and feminist communities have a lot of experience in building resilience – it’s something we need to learn from. We must defend hope and always seek joy. In the face of so many threats and negative emotions, protecting joy feels defiant – almost rebellious. I like this idea.
Lots of articles on eco-anxiety focus on the individual and our actions. Recycle more. Fly less. Go vegan. It’s a recipe for guilt, shame and frustration. In such a flawed world, none of us can be perfect. As I’ve delved further down the eco-anxiety earthworm hole, I’ve felt my thinking change. To me, it feels increasingly obvious that the oppression of people and planet are thoroughly entangled. And one of the greatest actions we can take to keep the worries at bay is to work on community. To share our power and to give voice to the disempowered. To learn about these systems and challenge them. To recognise our comfort, to slow down, and to always, always find joy.
On that note, I’ll pull my wellies on and head outside. Spring’s knocking at the door, and it’s frogspawn season. I’ll be down at the pond, absorbing a cacophony of croaks, and letting the amphibious joy wash over me.
Spending time in nature can have a profound and positive effect on our wellbeing. Research suggests spending two hours a week in nature benefits our physical and mental health.
With Mental Health Awareness week taking place from 15 to 21 May, we’re sharing ideas and expert advice on how to connect with the natural world to boost your wellbeing. Register today to download our FREE Wildlife & Wellbeing supplement and discover more!
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