Higher temperatures. Extreme weather. Depleting resources. Climate change is negatively affecting our planet—and also our mental health
Eco-anxiety or anxiety surrounding issues of climate change has been on the rise. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), even though it’s not technically a clinical diagnosis, eco-anxiety is a real experience and can be exacerbated in those who already live with anxiety or depression, or for those living in dangerous climate conditions.
The symptoms of eco-anxiety can look like: a fixation and deep fear of environmental doom and human catastrophe, panic attacks, aggression, feelings of dread and hopelessness, as well as sleeplessness. You may notice that eco-anxiety can also present itself through erratic behaviour, such as feeling frustrated with others over their plastic consumption, constantly talking about rising global temperatures, or panicking about situations that feel out of your control.
Many people resort to this fear because they feel their contributions are insignificant, as if their environmental efforts won’t have any impact. Although it’s tempting to avoid the topic, switching off isn’t the solution. It’s important to confront climate issues head on, stay informed without overdoing it, and to begin shifting towards feeling more in control and influential about our role in saving the planet.
Eco-anxiety doesn’t have to trap us in a powerless spiral, and whether you’re experiencing it or not, action is necessary to help our vulnerable friends, and those who are most affected by climate change and anxiety.
Don’t leave it up to the youth
Photo by Markus Spiske on UnsplashYouth—who know they will have to live with the consequences of climate decisions made by the generations who came before them—can’t ignore the problems. They don’t have the luxury to. They know that they’ll be spending their lives not only trying to prevent, but trying to repair, something that is nearly irreversible.
This CBC article details the greater eco-anxiety experienced by youth and children. It explains that youth in Yellowknife and Nunavut especially feel the urgency to act. The North’s average temperature is rising faster than the rest of the world’s, and their populations are already noticing the changing weather patterns. Children who are most exposed to these extreme climate conditions such as wildfires, flooding and heat waves are more likely to feel eco-anxiety because they’re watching their home life and food supplies alter drastically.
Youth are also the most exposed to climate anxiety because they are learning about endangered animal and insect populations in school and feel even more powerless if they see their families being inactive.
Adults reading this: don’t put the burden on future generations. Our youth have mighty voices, and we can’t take them for granted. If they have their families behind them, not only will they feel heard and supported, but they’ll feel ready to take necessary action.
Some productive activities that you can do as a family can be to attend and make signs for climate rallies, watch inspiring documentaries online, make changes to your lifestyle, start an urban or community garden together, or participate in presentations at school. Working together on these issues will create a lasting bond—and a lasting impact.
Promote action at a higher level
Photo by Dave Goudreau on UnsplashWe all may feel climate dread on some level, but BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) communities, who are the most environmentally exploited, are also the ones who are most at risk for eco-anxiety.
“In the Canadian North, Inuit hunters are reporting increased mental health problems, as ice conditions change and threaten the hunt for food,” states a CMHA article.
Most BIPOC communities are made vulnerable at the hands of corporations and governments, who are not only exploiting natural resources, but displacing populations into environmentally destructive areas, which is detrimental to people’s health and wellness.
According to Ingrid Waldron’s book, There’s Something in the Water, BIPOC people are more likely to live near landfills, which are known to increase breathing and health issues. It’s also known that within Canada, Indigenous communities still don’t have access to clean water.
So when we talk about eco-anxiety, of course everyone can experience it, but there are certain communities who experience climate anxiety at a greater intensity. These populations are trapped within an exploitative system, which heightens anxiety because they know that unless systemic change happens, their children and communities will continue to be vulnerable for generations.
It’s also important to recognize the disparity between having climate anxiety and having the privilege to access the resources to treat it. BIPOC communities are the least likely to be treated for mental health issues. Yet, it’s most important for BIPOC populations to access support—because not only are they living within dangerous environments already, and are more likely to experience environmental devastation first-hand and more severely than wealthy, white populations—they are also predominantly the people who are on the forefront of safeguarding our natural resources.
You can dismantle these systems that trap exploited populations in environmental racism through petitions, rallies and advocating for and demanding political change. This will make a huge difference in our overall fight for the planet, but also help at-risk populations right now.
Walk the walk
Preparation and feeling like you can make a difference in the midst of climate change is the key to fighting eco-anxiety. You can do this by becoming involved in local climate groups, signing petitions and taking small steps towards larger action.
If your anxiety limits your ability to take action (which it can), it’s recommended you seek professional help to talk about general anxiety and depression and how it can be intensified by climate change.
Sharing knowledge with others, leading by example, and educating each other is how we can feel connected through climate initiatives, rather than divided and isolated. As challenging as it can seem, remaining hopeful and positive is also a major asset in allowing action to prevail over anxiety.
There are awesome things happening, and it’s great to balance the bad news with the awesome initiatives being taken on by locals in your community. Seek out local growing co-ops, regenerative farms, zero-waste groups or political advocacy groups in your area. Ultimately, it’s important to ensure that our environmental justice work is inclusive of the people who need it most, and who are most vulnerable to eco-anxiety.
If you’re experiencing eco-anxiety, there is a website and online hub at Eco Anxious Stories, where their mission is to give people the courage, tools and energy to connect with others and continue the climb together. It was created in response to their own experiences with eco-anxiety and feelings of isolation as they navigated the crisis. This community shares stories of their own experiences and believes that this site can support one another in meaningful action. It's a helpful reminder that we are not alone in the fight against climate change.