Please Explain: Eco-Anxiety
Worried about climate change? Stressed about the future of the environment? You might be suffering from eco-anxiety, Grace Joseph explains.
CONTENT WARNING: ANXIETY, DEPRESSION
One afternoon last semester, I was waiting for a train, absorbed in my phone like the good little millennial I am. I kept seeing the same article pop up on my Facebook feed: Major Climate Report Just Issued a Dire Warning, But Everyone's Going to Ignore It Anyway. Believe me, I tried very hard to ignore it, but the guilt eventually crushed me, and I clicked the link, shrouded in dread. I can't recount the article in detail, but all you need to know is that we have 12 (I guess it's closer to 11 now) years to prevent irreversible damage to the environment.
I slowly sunk to the floor, letting disgruntled commuters weave their way around me, ignoring their glares. I didn't care anymore. I couldn't care about anything, not in the face of widespread, irreversible environmental devastation. The inevitability of the situation and our leader’s stubborn stupidity was overwhelming.
Since then, I've had countless discussions about the environment with people my age, and the overwhelming response mirrors mine: a fun mix of anxiety and hopelessness. So is what we're feeling valid, or are we all just sensitive snowflakes?
What is Eco-Anxiety?
Eco-anxiety is the term for increased feelings of distress or anxiousness about the ecological future of the planet. The expression first emerged about a decade ago, in the early stages of the 'minimal waste' movement that is popular in rich countries. In 2008, however, eco-anxiety generally referred to shopper's guilt – that is, feeling overwhelmed by the pressure to make sustainable shopping choices and fight climate change through responsible capitalism. Back then, environmental science was murkier, and climate change was still some far-off, unlikely phenomenon that could be avoided if we always remembered our Keep Cups.
Unsurprisingly, eco-anxiety in 2019 refers to a whole lot more than your consumer choices. Psychologists cite 'ecological grief' as a trigger for increased mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, especially amongst those who are already at risk. But it's very common to experience eco-anxiety regardless of your mental health history - in fact, a recent poll of American millennials found that three-quarters had anxiety spikes after reading about ecological issues. Still don't quite understand the concept? BBC Northern Ireland puts it in slightly more colloquial terms:
'Imagine you go outside, and you look up at the sky, and there's a comet there... you've been told by scientists that that comet is racing towards the Earth, and it's going to kill everybody and everything in a big fiery storm. And nobody else notices the comet'.
Eco-anxiety is closely related to the concept of solastalgia, defined as distress caused by destructive changes to a physical environment, as well as eco-depression. However, despite their prevalence, none of these conditions are officially recognised as mental health illnesses and thus are rarely taken seriously. But are you surprised? Our politicians barely believe in depression, let alone climate change – a combination of the two would be enough to scare the speedos off Tony Abbott (sorry for that image).
Impacts of Eco-Anxiety
Apart from, well, anxiety, eco-anxiety manifests in many different ways. Just this February, the Australian Conservation Foundation surveyed over 6500 people and found that 33% of women under 30 and 22% of women under 39 were 'reconsidering having children or more children because [they were] increasingly worried that if [they] have children they will face an unsafe future from climate change'. Additionally, triple J Hack found that women aren't having children due to fear of overpoplation and the carbon footprint that each new human will produce. People are literally changing the course of their lives because of environmental distress. If that doesn't scare the conservatives into action, nothing will – after all, what are women good for if we're not having children?
Another damaging impact of eco-anxiety is how it facilitates apathy. Although apathy may be related to laziness or the belief that climate change won't affect you personally, I'd argue that it is also a coping mechanism for a lot of young people. Using myself as an example, I can see that sometimes it is better to feel nothing at all than to worry endlessly about things that are, unfortunately, mostly out of your control. Psychoanalysts share this viewpoint, rethinking apathy as 'paralysis in the face of the size of the problem'. So if you, like me, sometimes avoid the news for fear of how it will affect your mental health, you don't need to feel guilty. Wait until you're in a healthy headspace then get down to business tackling climate change. Speaking of which...
What can we do?
If you're suffering from debilitating eco-anxiety or -depression, the most important thing to do is talk to somebody. I know this advice gets tossed around a lot, and a lot of people feel that talk therapy is useless or terrifying, but there are so many options out there that don't include face-to-face sessions. A personal favourite of mine is eHeadspace, where you can chat to a clinician online from the comfort of your bedroom. Lifeline has a similar service, or you can call them on 13 11 14 at any time. Obviously, if there is an immediate risk to yourself or someone else, call 000.
Another vital action is voting. While it's important to take as much responsibility for your carbon footprint as possible – I'm not going to remind you to take the bus and bring your Keep Cup to uni – the reality is that carbon emissions from big companies are doing most of the damage. Therefore, it's vital that governments recognise this and deal with it with appropriate initiatives and tax schemes. So make sure you're enrolled to vote in the upcoming federal election (you have until Thursday to get on the roll), and do your research into each party's climate change policies – unsurprisingly, the Greens are leading the way in this area.
Other options for tackling eco-anxiety include joining the vegan protestors or attending climate change strikes. The most important thing, though, is to look after yourself – we can't save the world if we're not functioning ourselves.
Grace is a second-year Communications/International Studies student, who majors in Creative Writing because she wants to be a barista for the rest of her life. She's probably the only uni student alive who'd rather wake up at 5:30 am than still be awake at 10:30 pm - an early bedtime each day keeps the doctor away (maybe).