I haven’t had a bath in two years. In fact, having a bath is forbidden in my household these days, since my then 7-year-old came home from school one day and said: “We talked about climate change at school. We are in the middle of a climate crisis, and we all have to play our part to save our planet before it is too late. We have to stop wasting water, so from now on, we will only have showers in our house.”
After the first few weeks of complaints from his teenage brother who was not allowed to relax his tired aching muscles in a hot tub, everyone adapted easily. I am proud of my little eco-warrior for taking a stand, however small, in the battle to change our attitude towards the environment. In his own way, my son has tried to create a community (his family) where people come together and respond with action to a worrying situation.
However, it is not always so easy, and people react differently to the widespread uncertainty that climate change causes. Over the past 10 years, there’s been a worrying rise in a condition termed eco-anxiety, especially among young people. The American Psychological Association (APA) describes it as “the generalized sense that the ecological foundations of existence are in the process of collapse” and a “a chronic fear of environmental doom”.
First-hand and indirect experience
Anxiety around environmental issues can stem from first-hand experience of the effects of extreme weather conditions. These include hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires and the subsequent fear of losing one’s home, job, livelihood. The APA points out that a changing climate can affect mental health in several ways and manifest not only as anxiety but also as trauma and shock, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and fear. It can have potential consequences on physical health too, such as high blood pressure and heart disease.
However, people can and do experience eco-anxiety even if they are not directly affected by environmental damage. Think Greta Thunberg and the thousands of people who feel helpless and betrayed, especially given the indifference with which world leaders have often treated the climate crisis.
A 2021 survey led by Bath University aimed to record young people’s anxiety around climate change. It collected responses from 10,000 people aged between 16 and 25 across 10 countries: UK, USA, Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, the Philippines, and Portugal.
A staggering 75% of young respondents said, “the future is frightening”. In some countries, that number was even higher. In Portugal – which experienced severe wildfires – it was 81%, and in the Philippines, 92%.
More than 50% of survey respondents said they felt “sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty” about climate change. More than 45% said feelings about the climate affected their daily lives. Over half (56%) said they think humanity is doomed. And four out of 10 are hesitant to have children.
I find these numbers heartbreaking. Young people shouldn’t be worrying about not having a future.
From the survey it transpired that government inaction is inextricably linked to eco-anxiety. Levels of anxiety appear to be greatest in nations where government climate policies are considered weakest. In particular, people in southern regions of the world were the most concerned.
Another study conducted by ClimateCare in the UK in 2020 revealed that, even in the middle of a pandemic, young people were more concerned about climate change. They felt they were less equipped to fight climate change. They didn’t know what to do, they felt powerless.
Climate change is happening now. It has an impact on more or less everyone on the planet and yet young people feel alone in their concern about the environment, citing a lack of real commitment from world leaders to address the issues. This leads them to develop a multitude of feelings, from guilt to shame, to resentment.
Over the past few years scientific research and media coverage around the effects of climate change on mental health have increased exponentially. Climate psychology has developed in response to the growing eco-anxiety in (mainly) young people, in order to both emotionally and psychologically support those who feel helpless. It is also aimed at empowering them to turn hopelessness into positive change and engagement.
Is eco-anxiety all bad?
Maybe not, or not completely.
Nobody can dissociate from climate change; it is a reality that we all must face. The fact that an increasingly large number of young people worry about it means that they care, deeply. However, the goal we (young and less young individuals) should aim to pursue is to accept the fact that we are part of the problem and transform this sense of helplessness and overwhelming despair into empowering tools of positive action and meaningful change.
Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams, a clinical psychologist, said “…the cure to climate anxiety is the same as the cure for climate change – action. It is about getting out and doing something that helps.” All the better and more powerful if we act as a community. A community of like-minded resilient individuals determined to react differently to reality and able to keep going in the face of adversity.
If on one hand, the tackling of environmental issues relies heavily on government and corporate actions combined with societal change, on the other hand we can start taking steps, however small, to address eco-anxiety. It can help us feel more in control of our emotions, and at the same time contribute to saving our world. Accessing informative and reliable information, volunteering, practicing positive thinking, and even understanding when it is time to step away from the information overload and just switch off. Switching from baths to showers could be a good start.
Further resources about coping with eco-anxiety: