Climate Crisis and Eco-Anxiety
A recent poll indicates that climate change is one of the top three concerns among people living in Switzerland. Day after day, we come across the news about the climate crisis all over the world. I remember the first time seeing the picture of a polar bear stranded on a piece of sea ice. My immediate experience was the heaviness in my heart, a deep sense of guilt and sadness, and then overwhelm. It was as if I was up against a gigantic wall and there was nothing I could do about it. And when my son, after his lesson about the environmental crisis at school, said cynically, “thank you for passing it down to us,” my heart crashed with guilt. If you had an experience like mine, you are not alone.
An increasing number of people are reporting experiencing what's termed as “eco-anxiety.” According to the American Psychological Association (APA), eco-anxiety refers to “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” It is severe or chronic anxiety and fear we experience in response to observing the impact of the environmental crisis. It is not considered a diagnosable condition and doesn't impact everyone in the same way. We can experience various emotions such as fear and anxiety, anger, irritability, heightened stress, sadness, grief, guilt, and powerlessness to name a few.
We can look at what might be happening in our nervous system when we experience eco-anxiety. As we sense danger, our body goes into a fight or flight response for survival, getting us ready for action. This is only natural unless we are in complete denial about what's happening around us. The energy surges within us to do something about the threat. However, we might feel powerless to act and shift the course of climate change; thus, we could get stuck in this defensive response without completing what our body intends to do. Then the energy can get trapped inside, and we can go into a state of panic or intense anxiety, or go into a collapsed state where we are immobilized with fear. So how do we regulate our activation so that we can show up in this situation in an empowered and connected way?
Get support and connect with others Remember that you are not alone. You want to share your feelings and thoughts with the people you trust. We need support and connection; social engagement regulates our nervous system and increases our sense of safety, competence, and empowerment.
Take action Each of us can take action to help build a sustainable future. In the fight or flight survival physiology, our body gets ready for action. We want to use and discharge this energy by following what our body wants to do; taking an action and doing what we can do, the body can come back to homeostasis. It reduces a sense of helplessness while increasing a sense of empowerment. It doesn't have to be something big. You can do things that may be small but meaningful to you, like creating a garden, recycling and composting, taking a walk or the tram instead of driving, writing to the policymakers, consuming less and wasting less, connecting with nature, sharing your thoughts and ideas with others in your community, etc. You can also volunteer for an organization that fights against climate change.
Limit your media exposure It's hard not to come across the news about the climate crisis. You want to take a break from it as too much exposure can increase our sense of overwhelm and helplessness.
Seek support from a professional You might be more prone to experience intense eco-anxiety if you have existing mental health issues. If it is impacting your everyday life, you should seek support from a mental health professional. Therapy can help you explore your concerns, learn to regulate your emotions, and manage anxiety more effectively.
There's a list of organizations active in the climate change field. You can contact them to find out about volunteer opportunities.
APA American Psychological Association
Climate Psychology Alliance
This article provides resources for parents.