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Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis
Introducing Climate Psychology: facing the climate crisis

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4 Eco-anxiety

You can probably see traces of what is called ‘eco-anxiety’ in Shelot Masithi’s story. It is increasingly common and the term has now even entered the popular media, but what does it mean? There have been various definitions given:

  • ‘a chronic fear of environmental doom’ (Clayton et al. for the American Psychological Association press conference, 2017, p. 68)
  • ‘dread associated with negative environmental information more generally’ (Clayton, 2020, p. 2)
  • ‘heightened psychological (mental, emotional, somatic) distress in response to the climate emergency’ (Bednarek, 2019).

The Climate Psychology Alliance Handbook [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] has definitions and discussions of key terms. Figure 1 shows a screenshot of the page on eco-anxiety.

The text in the image reads: Eco-anxiety is the most frequently used term in literature and research to describe heightened emotional, mental or somatic distress in response to dangerous changes in the climate system. The term climate anxiety is often used synonymously. A 2017 report by the American Psychological Association links the impact of climate change to mental health and references ‘eco-anxiety’ as a ‘chronic fear of environmental doom’. It is important to stress that CPA does not view eco-anxiety as a clinical condition, but an inevitable and even healthy response to the ecological threats we are facing, such as food/water shortages, extreme weather events, species extinction, increased health issues, social unrest and potentially the demise of human life on Earth. This has particular significance for children and young people who have little power to limit this harm, making the vulnerable to increased climate anxiety. Paying heed to what is happening in our communities and across the globe is a healthier response than turning away in denial or disavowal. The notion of solastalgia is closely related to eco-anxiety. Coined by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht, it refers to the existential pain experienced where one resides is subject to environmental degradation. Whatever words we use to illustrate the psychological effects of climate change, fear and anxiety are certainly not the only emotions people experience in relation to the climate emergency. Anger, helplessness, sadness, grief, depression, numbness, restlessness, sleeplessness and other symptoms can befall those who are able to face the facts. Fear and anxiety are feelings that alert us to danger and can mobilise us into action. Without enough support, anxiety can escalate into panic on one end of the spectrum or evoke a freeze response and paralyse on the other end of the spectrum. Rather than attempting to rid people of anxiety, therapists can support individuals and communities to build strong containers that allow the expression and exploration of their emotions without collapsing under it or turning away. With strong enough support structures in place, most people can sustain strong feelings without either dissociating and numbing or going into blind panic. They can engage with difficult truths while staying connected and grounded. Community groups, climate cafes, supervision groups, are just a few examples.
Figure 1 A definition of eco-anxiety.

A piece of research across many continents that asked for young people’s responses about climate change found how widespread eco-anxiety is and how it is closely linked with people’s perceptions that people in power are not doing enough and are not trustworthy on the issue of climate and ecological threats. It is referenced above, on the page of the CPA handbook defining eco-anxiety. The same team, Elizabeth Marks, Caroline Hickman, Panu Pikhala and Elouise Mayall, then gave evidence to the UK government, drawing on their research and professional expertise. In their summary they said:

Concern about climate change and environmental issues is highly prevalent across the UK (and worldwide) and increasingly associated with a range of painful eco-emotions, functional impairment, disturbing thoughts and feeling betrayed by governments who are failing to act. (…) Although painful, these emotions are realistic responses to the realities of today’s world. Depending on how we work with emotions, they have the potential to be either significant catalysts for change, or barriers leading to disengagement, avoidance, or paralysis.

(Marks et al., 2022, p. 4)

You can find the full statement here: Submission to The House of Lords Environment and Climate Change. Committee inquiry into behaviour change in the context of climate change and the environment: A psycho-social perspective