Eco-Explainer: What is Eco-Anxiety?
Climate change is wreaking havoc on our sea levels, weather patterns, and agriculture. It’s hurting our mental health too.
You feel all that climate-related stress?
It’s common enough to make it into the dictionary.
“Eco-anxiety,” is defined as the “persistent worry about the future of Earth and the life it shelters.” The term was coined in 2005 by philosopher Glenn Albrecht.
According to Google trends, people have been searching the term “eco anxiety” since at least 2004. Other lexicons used to describe this phenomenon include “climate grief” and “climate change distress.”
Dr. Mary Beth Mannarino, a clinical psychologist and professor emeritus of Chatham University, said that although the term ‘eco-anxiety’ is a good start, it doesn’t totally encapsulate the emotions that people experience due to climate change.
“It’s more a constellation of a lot of different feelings. Some people might have anxiety and worry, others might experience sadness or grief. Some people experience reactivated trauma, from times in their life when things were unstable and unpredictable. ‘Eco anxiety’ is only one piece of all the different feelings that we might have.” said Dr. Mannarino.
Eco-anxiety affects people of all ages
Dr. Mannarino says it can impact people of any age. “I’ve worked in organizations with people in their 80s and 90s, who weep at the thought of what their children and grandchildren and great grandchildren are facing. It’s very real for them.”
While eco-anxiety affects people of all ages, young people are being severely affected by it.
Dr. Mannarino said that there’s a range of emotions, from shutting down to revitalized activism. “They have a lot of different reactions, like feeling almost paralyzed about it to really wanting to do something about it.”
There’s also a defense mechanism. “I’ll use the word denial. They don’t understand all the information, it’s scary. They feel helpless. So they just kind of drop out of the whole thing,” explained Mannarino.
For many, climate change is an event that’s impacting the present as well as the future.
Tifrah Akhtar, an organizer for Medicare for All, has seen the effects of climate change within her lifetime. “I grew up in Michigan where you could always tell the four different seasons – when they would start, when they would end.” Now, Tifrah says the weather is less defined and the changes between seasons are more mild, “It’s just not what I grew up with.”
Mayanna Ashley-Carner, a student, sees the health implications of climate change in Philly. As Ashley-Carner said, “People in Philly die of heatstroke and polluted air all the time.”
Rethinking the future
Young adults are considering how climate will life choices, big and small. “A number of young women and young men have kind of opted out of that part of life because of the fear and uncertainty ahead,” said Dr. Mannarino.
Xavier Lopez, a journalist, said that he’s questioning whether he’ll have children. According to Lopez, “At least once a week, this idea comes to my mind that maybe I don’t wanna have kids, because (of the) environment and the world is going to hell.”
“I didn’t know that we really only have 10 years until climate damage becomes irreversible,” Ashley-Carner said about their eco-anxiety. “It makes it really hard to think about the future.”
Looking into the future, flooding in particular worries Ashley-Carner, “I think a lot about flooding, especially because I live on the east coast. I’ve always wanted to live in New York City and its right along the Atlantic Ocean. I think, ‘I better get to New York fast before it’s underwater.’”
Distressed by lack of political action
Environmental policymakers give Lopez hope, but he worries that there’s not enough people in power to stop climate change. As Lopez explains, “the policymakers that have worked things like the Green New Deal inspire me. But they’re not the majority yet.”
Ashley-Carner has also been distressed by the lack of action of political leaders, “I’ve known what climate change was for a long time, but I used to think, the government will solve it. But I came to realize people really weren’t solving it. And then I started to feel anxiety.”
Akhtar is inspired by the work of climate activists, but hesitant. “I don’t want to fall into false hope. As someone who’s done a lot of organizing around environmental justice, one thing we have to root ourselves in is the possibility of yes, things can get better. Yes, things will get better. But I don’t want to be naive about it.”
Coping with eco-anxiety
Dr. Mannarino said that finding support with others is one of the best things you can do, “You’re not alone in this. “You can find people in real life, in organizations online, among friends, that you can talk with and work with.”
That’s how locals are finding solace in the unknown.
“The most important thing that most people can do is to be part of the communities that are working together to do things that directly combat capitalism, that ultimately fosters climate change,” said Akhtar.
Ashley-Carner also finds comfort in community. “The thing that makes me feel the most hopeful is when I spend time with people who I know are committed to fighting for a future where there is no climate change.”
Even sitting with your feelings – without solutions – can help. “Staying with the emotions and reactions, which you have, is a brave thing to do. Sitting with uncomfortable feelings is too,” said Mannarino.