How to cope with eco-anxiety about climate change

Feeling overwhelmed by the planet's ecological crisis? You're not alone. Tiffany Francis explores the roots of this newly defined condition and how to stay hopeful

Eco anxiety

Cast your mind back to the heatwave of February 2019. Amidst the suncream, ginger beer and ice lollies, was there a creeping sense at the back of your mind that something wasn’t quite right? Do you feel devastated when another species goes extinct, or angry when politicians continue to subsidise fossil fuels? If so, you may be suffering from eco-anxiety, a newly-coined psychological disorder afflicting those with anxiety rooted in the environmental crisis.

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With 1 in 10 British adults likely to experience some form of anxiety in their lifetimes, eco-anxiety is on the rise as the consequences of climate change continue to change life on earth as we know it. So is eco-anxiety yet another issue to deal with, or should we channel it as a force for good? The nature of anxiety means that we are often excessively worried about things we either cannot change, or are not realistically ‘bad’ enough to warrant such worry. This is the reason it can be so difficult to cope with – when the cause is not rational, the solution is unclear.

The difference with eco-anxiety is that the cause is entirely justified, as author and scientist Owen Gaffney explains in his book The Exponential Climate Action Roadmap: “Eco-anxiety is the correct response to the scale of the challenge.” The environmental crisis is so important, that our response to it is entirely rational and natural.

Climate youth activist Greta Thunberg, who started suffering from eco-based depression at 11 years old, summarised it perfectly when she said: “Adults keep saying, we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope, I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic.”

How to deal with eco anxiety

Imagine the planet like a human body. If there was something wrong with your heart, you might experience palpitations, sharp pains or dizziness, all of which feel unpleasant. But would you rather not have them, and not know there was a problem? Eco-anxiety is our way of acknowledging that we are damaging the planet, and while it isn’t a pleasant experience, it can also be seen as a positive thing that so many of us care deeply and want to take action.

So how can we take our discomfort and anxiety, and channel it into real, transformative action for the planet? One answer is to treat eco-anxiety like regular anxiety, using techniques that help stem the flow of unwanted negativity and allow our thoughts to form more clearly. Exercise is often recommended as a remedy for unhappy thoughts, and a walk in the countryside can help eco-anxiety sufferers see that so much of nature is still alive and well.

While it’s vital to stay realistic and recognise that wildlife is suffering, the simple act of listening to birdsong or watching a wild flower blossom can remind us that nature is still here – and it is resilient. If plans are made and actions are taken, nature will respond and flourish once again. To help boost motivation, take a look at the success stories of species like the red kite, buzzard and the large blue butterfly, the last of which was brought back from extinction in the UK using a handful of specimens from Sweden.

One of the reasons eco-anxiety can feel so overwhelming is because, as individuals, we feel our power is limited. Counteract this isolation by joining up with likeminded people, whether it’s your local wildlife group, climate protest group or through volunteering at your local nature reserve. Nothing feels more uplifting than being around others who share our point of view, learning together and finding ways to change the world.

If you’re fed up of signing petitions and reading angry tweets, outdoor volunteering is the perfect way to feel like you’re really making a difference to your local wildlife population. If you can spare the time, turn your passions into actions by spending your Saturday morning cleaning rivers, picking up litter or planting trees. You can visit www.wildlifetrusts.org to find your nearest wildlife group.

If you suffer from overthinking, one of the simplest solutions is to brain-dump your thoughts into a notebook or journal. Rather than ignoring the thoughts in your head, this is a great way to acknowledge them and move them somewhere more productive, to own your feelings and reflect on them as they lie on the page. Try keeping an eco journal to record your thoughts and worries, plan strategies, inspire yourself and brainstorm new ideas.

Similarly, keep an eye on what you’re reading and absorbing from the internet. While it’s important to stay realistic and keep up to date with the facts, it does no good to lose yourself in climate change horror stories. If you struggle with how much news to ingest, create a ritual and stick to it. You might spend half an hour catching up each evening, then switch off your phone and unplug from the world before bed.

The most important way to change the world is through communication. It’s easy to feel angry when speaking to people who don’t share our point of view, but remember that the best way to spread the message is through open-mindedness, careful listening, and rational debate. Inspire others to change their habits by showing them how rewarding it can be to prioritise sustainable, green living.

In the end, eco-anxiety is not one person’s burden to bear alone; after all, the climate crisis was not caused by one person but an entire species, so the solution must be carried on all our collective shoulders. As individuals we can only do our best – live sustainably, spread the message and inspire each other to fight for what is right.

Eco-anxiety may be unpleasant and difficult to deal with, but remember that those who suffer from it are more caring, more compassionate, and working towards a brighter, better world.

Eco anxiety

5 mindful ways to beat eco anxiety

1

Join a group

Find a local wildlife or environmental group and share your passion. You’ll make friends, and feel empowered to transform your community, plus it will help you share the burden of eco-anxiety while inspiring each other to find new ways forward.

2

Make a mark

Stop thoughts spinning around your head and pin them down on paper. Writing and sketching are great ways to take hold of your thoughts and put them into some kind of perspective. Write a poem, keep a journal or paint a picture to help express your thoughts.

3

Make a change

Refusing one reusable coffee cup feels great, but how about refusing them forever? What about switching to renewable energy, giving up meat or cycling to work? Making a lifestyle change can turn one small action into a lifetime of green goodness.

4

Write to your MP

It’s up to our politicians to make large- scale changes for the sake of people and planet, so keep in contact with your local MP and share your environmental worries. Remember to keep it polite and rational. Visit www.parliament.uk to find your MP’s contact details.

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5

Attract wildlife

Fill your garden with wildflowers, dig a pond and watch it become a haven for wildlife, or grow your own vegetables. Not only does it feel good to create space for nature, but gardening is a calming practice that can help you mindfully manage your anxiety.