E co-anxiety, defined by the American Psychological Association as “a chronic fear of environmental doom”, is on the rise – particularly among children and teenagers.
Eco-anxiety is caused by hearing about the impacts of climate change on our planet (such as increased droughts and flooding) and worrying about the future in a world affected by climate change. It comes with feelings of loss, helplessness, despair, frustration and guilt, but also positive feelings like hope. It is a rational reaction to a crisis that menaces our planet.
Although the term was only coined in 2005, eco-anxiety isn’t new. In the 19th century, Victorians were concerned about the health impacts of black smoke from coal burning. As the environmental situation worsens (with the United Nations warning of a ‘code red for humanity’), eco-anxiety is increasing. Although it is not officially recognised as a mental illness, it can exacerbate a pre-existing mental illness. While Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) involves the experience of danger signals when there’s no danger, eco-anxiety is a normal response to a real danger.
60% of young people feel very or extremely worried about climate change and 56% believe that humanity is doomed due to climate change.
Younger generations appear to be more affected by eco-anxiety, with 60% of young people feeling very or extremely worried about climate change and 56% believing that humanity is doomed due to climate change. This is because, unlike their elders, they have only known about the climate crisis in a very urgent and unavoidable way – with reports of the impacts of climate change often dominating the news.
The good news is that eco-anxiety often leads to climate action. A study shows that people who are concerned about climate change are three times more likely to make meaningful life changes to mitigate it. They pursue careers that make a difference in fields such as science, journalism and politics, go on protests for the planet and set achievable goals like switching to green energy or reducing consumption of animal products. Making life changes to mitigate climate change is particularly prevalent among young people, who are at the forefront of ethical commercial trends such as vegan and zero waste.
The cumulative number of climate change-related court cases has more than doubled since 2015, and these have a significant impact on actions taken to protect the environment. In the Netherlands in 2015, the judges decided the government’s plan to cut emissions by 14-17% compared to 1990 levels by 2020 was unlawful, so the target was increased to 25% and the government closed a power plant four years earlier than planned.
Eco-anxiety could lead to eco-paralysis where people feel unable to take action concerning climate change because their emotional distress is overwhelming.
–Ilan Kelman, Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London
However, others suggest that eco-anxiety could have some more negative effects. Ilan Kelman, Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, fears eco-anxiety could lead to eco-paralysis where people feel unable to take action concerning climate change because their emotional distress is overwhelming. Also, as the name suggests, eco-anxiety plays a part in mental health problems – a 2020 survey found that 57% of child and adolescent psychiatric patients were distressed about the state of the environment.
A global online survey of climate anxiety showed that 39% of teenagers are hesitant to have children due to their potential climate impact. However, there are ways in which children could help the scary situation. From just 5 years old, they can go on climate marches and send letters to local officials. At primary and secondary school, they can discuss climate change with their teachers and friends. And, when they reach voting age, they can vote for political parties that will best benefit the environment.
39% of teenagers are hesitant to have children due to their potential climate impact.
If you are affected by eco-anxiety, you are definitely not alone. There are ways to deal with eco-anxiety: you can reconnect with nature, talk about climate change and how it makes you feel, set achievable goals that help the environment and look at positive information and solution-based stories (not just news stories that speak of doom and gloom). For instance, did you know that electricity generation from wind power in the UK has increased by 715% from 2009 to 2020. And that, in 2020, the UK’s biggest pension fund began to divest from fossil fuels.These statistics are surely reasons to have hope about the future of our planet.