With an increasing awareness of climate change, and an increased level of urgency to reverse the impact that we’ve had on the environment, it’s not surprising that more and more people are beginning to feel anxious about our world. Some people use the term ‘eco-anxiety‘ to describe a ‘chronic feeling of environmental doom’. Anyone aware of climate change and the small window in which we have to turn it around (along with the reluctance of some major powers to accept that it’s real) will probably feel some level of anxiety. But how do we know when we’re feeling particularly high levels of environmental anxiety? And what can we do about it?
1. Feeling Overwhelmed And Powerless
When we begin to read about the various impacts that humans have on our environment it can be very easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all. We might begin to feel overwhelmed by all the changes we could, or ‘should’, make in our lives.
When we begin to think about how we can cut out every bit of plastic in our lives, go vegan immediately, realise that we’re using electricity to research coral-friendly suncream and then worry about that, it’s unsurprising that we might reach a point where we feel overwhelmed by all the different ways that we impact our environment. Additionally, we might feel powerless against the climate crisis when we think about how even if we live a carbon-neutral life, huge corporations are still burning fossil fuels 24/7.
When tackling our sense of overwhelm and powerlessness it can be important to remember that every little change we make will contribute to our global efforts to reverse climate change (whether large companies choose to become more sustainable or not). It’s not our responsibility to fix the entire world, we can only do our best to change our own way of living.
2. Hopelessness And Helplessness
Our anxiety might mean that we begin to question the meaning of the things we do each day, deciding that there’s no point in trying to do anything to reduce our impact on the environment when so many others are ignoring the state of the world and consequently feel helpless and hopeless. These feelings can result in an increased level of anxiety, and the cycle continues.
Black and white thinking can play into this cycle in a big way. When we think ‘I either have to be an eco-warrior or a climate-change-denier’, it’s very easy to feel like there is no point to anything we do.
We need to accept that we all have limitations. Not only do we have limitations, but others do too. There are lots of different ways that we can reduce our impact on the environment, but we won’t all be able to do everything. Some of us have to use plastic straws because of a disability we have. Recycling can be incredibly confusing and however hard we try, we probably won’t always get it right. Sometimes we need to fall back on a packaged-up-meal just to get some form of nutrition.
Our environmental-journeys are often big learning curves. Many of us are doing our best, but ‘our best’ means different things for different people. We might look at some things others do and think that there’s ‘no point’ in us trying to do anything to help because nobody else is – but we don’t know what changes people are making in private. Every little helps when it comes to saving the planet, and remembering that each little impact we make adds up can help us to regain a sense of control and feel less helpless and hopeless.
3. Anxiety And Panic About Natural Disasters Happening
The prospect of natural disasters can be incredibly scary. As global warming increases, our weather can be increasingly unpredictable – storms can become more intense and we might find that we have more droughts and floods. For those of us who have been affected by natural disasters and extreme weather in the past, we know how devastating they can be.
Whilst some people will be aware of our rising global temperatures but won’t view it as a huge issue, or will think that there’s no point in worrying about it, for others it can be a huge source of anxiety. We might feel a sense of rising panic every time it rains or have panic attacks whenever it’s especially windy. On days where the weather is more turbulent, we might struggle to wind down and feel as though we can’t relax. If we’ve experienced a natural disaster in the past, we could find that we have flashbacks whenever the weather turns.
We can’t control the weather, but we can control our response to it. It can be helpful to talk to someone when we have these thoughts and feelings. Talking to someone can also help us to rationalise our worries, and to learn new coping skills for managing our anxiety and for coping with panic attacks. Sometimes our response might include practical things – for example, if we’ve experienced a flood in the past and we’re moving house then we might choose to move to higher ground.
4. Sadness And Numbness
We could feel so overwhelmed by the sheer number of effects that humans have had on our planet, from plastic to pollution, that we can’t comprehend it, so we switch off and become numb to it all. Alternatively, we could feel really sad. Photos of sealife battling with our rubbish and driving past places that once were fields and now resemble a lake can be heartbreaking.
Although it might be counter-intuitive, sometimes we need to just let ourselves feel. Let ourselves feel sad, tearful, frustrated, confused, and angry. Trying to ‘fix’ these feelings, or berating ourselves for being stupid when we feel something isn’t going to make us feel any better – we’re human – humans have emotions and it’s absolutely okay to feel. In fact, if we continually squash down our feelings, ignore them, and pretend they’re not happening, it’s likely to lead to us feeling worse.
Many of us will feel some level of guilt when thinking about the environment, but for some of us, this can be overwhelming. We can try and live a vegan, plastic-free, zero waste, cruelty-free, carbon-neutral life, but it’s not easy and in fact, isn’t always possible. We might have a disability, access need, or medical need that require us to use single-use items or prevent us from being able to go carbon-neutral. Putting all medical needs aside, a lifestyle such as this can cost more, or might not be compatible with our family life. Even if we do manage to live this sort of lifestyle, it doesn’t prevent us from feeling guilty about the way we lived our life before we knew any better.
Our world has been developed in a way that isn’t always sustainable. That’s not our fault. For many things, when they were invented, we didn’t know about the impact that they would have on the environment. We can only ever do our best, and ‘our best’ is different for everyone. Additionally, ‘our best’ can change. Our health status, financial status, living situation, family situation, or access to certain things might change and as a society, our knowledge might change – something which seems ‘good’ now might be shown to be ‘bad’ in five years.
6. Frustration And Anger
Our frustration and anger around all things environmental can come from, and be directed towards, all sorts of different places and people. We might feel frustrated or angry towards previous generations, large corporations, politicians, society, or things like how difficult it can be to recycle or to buy plastic-free fruit and veg.
This frustration and anger are perfectly valid, but working out ways to channel them safely and healthily can stop them from taking over our lives. Talking to others can help us to cope with our frustration and anger, as can things like exercising, or taking positive social action.
7. Physical Symptoms
Anxiety doesn’t exist in our mind in isolation. It often impacts other areas of our body, too. Physical symptoms could include things like breathlessness, bowel problems, headaches, problems with our muscles or skin, tingly hands and feet, a dry mouth, dizziness, insomnia, sweating, and tiredness. Sometimes we might experience these physical symptoms for a while before we connect them to our anxiety. If we’re concerned about any of these symptoms then it’s always worth making an appointment with our GP.
8. A Sense Of Loss
We might feel a sense of loss or grief over our environment, particularly if things are different from how they were when we were younger. When looking at the loss of glaciers, the loss of trees due to deforestation, and the loss of animals as species become extinct, it’s only natural to feel a sense of loss or grief.
It’s okay to feel and it’s okay to give ourselves time to process these feelings.
9. Obsessive Thinking
For those of us with busy brains, we might find that we begin to obsess over the state of the world and struggle to focus on other things without getting distracted by the plight of our planet. This could be general environmental obsessive thinking, or we could be focused on one particular aspect of the environment, such as recycling.
This can be quite difficult to manage because we might struggle to focus on other things. For example, we could be sat in a work meeting, notice that the general waste bin in the corner has recyclables in it, and struggle to focus on what we’re discussing because all we can think about it is moving the recyclable items to a recycling bin.
Talking to someone about these thoughts can help us to get them out of our head, and to rationalise them. We could also try things like writing pro/con lists, brain-dumping onto a piece of paper, drawing, or doodling to get these thoughts out of our head. If we find that these thoughts are beginning to take over our lives, it’s definitely worth arranging an appointment with our GP.
Many of us struggle to sleep for all sorts of different reasons – it’s a really common problem. Environmental anxiety is something else which can affect our sleep. Our worries about the environment can keep us awake. We might have ruminating or catastrophising thoughts as we’re trying to drift off. Not only that, but it could wake us up during the night, too.
Practising good sleep hygiene can help us to sleep whether the cause of our sleeplessness is environmental anxiety of something else. It might also be helpful to keep a notebook and pen next to our bed so that we can write down the worries that are keeping us awake and those which wake us up to get them out of our head.
11. Using Negative Coping Mechanisms
If we’re struggling to cope with the uncertainty and the ‘doom and gloom’ rhetoric surrounding our environment then we may resort to negative coping mechanisms such as drinking too much, eating too much or too little, self-harm, or something else that doesn’t serve us well long-term.
We’re not alone if we’re struggling with these things and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. They can simply be a way to cope with our thoughts and feelings because we don’t have any other coping skills that work for us. If we do find that we’re struggling with any of these issues, or that we’re coping in another way which ultimately isn’t good for us or those around us, then it’s worth making an appointment with our GP and/or speaking to a helpline to talk it through and get the help that we need.
Ways Of Coping
When we live with environmental anxiety, there are things that we can do to help us cope. If we find that we frequently panic about everything then it might help us to be prepared. For example, if we’re worried about a long-term power-cut then we could have an easily-accessible box with torches, batteries, and anything else we might need in it.
Building our own resilience, believing in ourselves, and working on our self-confidence can help us to see ourselves as capable, strong, and able to cope with whatever the world throws at us. Connecting with others who have a similar passion for the environment – or even those who don’t can help us to feel less alone in it all, and to feel more resilient, too.
Life isn’t black and white, but some of us might have a very black and white, or all-or-nothing way of thinking. We don’t have to do ‘everything’ or ‘nothing’. If we can do 3 out of 10 actions to help the environment then that doesn’t mean there’s ‘no point’. It’s 3 more actions than we’d be doing if we did nothing at all. We need to accept our limitations and the limits of others. Our best is good enough.
The internet and media can be scary. People might sensationalise things. We might be bombarded by information or find ourselves down an internet rabbit hole. Turning off our tech and/or being mindful of the things we watch and the people who appear on our news feeds can help us to manage our anxiety.
Looking after ourselves is important. Self-care can help us to wind down, and to manage how we feel. It can give us the time and space, we need to cope with our thoughts and feelings and to manage our anxieties in a way that suits us without running ourselves into the ground.
In terms of professional help, ecopsychology might be available to us. This would involve working with a psychologist who specialises in environmental anxiety. We could also find out whether there are any ecotherapy programmes in our local area. Positively connecting with the earth can help our anxieties to reduce.
We deserve help and support with our anxiety, whatever the cause of it. If we do find that we’re struggling, then we can speak to our friends and family or contact our GP.
Please help us to help others and share this post, you never know who might need it.