Eco-anxiety: an overwhelming fear of ecological disaster, or exactly what we need to be feeling if we are going to take action on climate change?

This guest article is by Caroline Hickman, who is a lecturer at the University of Bath in social work and climate psychology, as well as a practicing psychotherapist and board member of the Climate Psychology Alliance. Caroline works with schools, parent groups, youth activist groups and as a psychotherapist with children and adults dealing with eco-anxiety and distress about the climate and biodiversity crisis.

There is a growing understanding of the impact on mental health and the distress, confusion and anxiety that follows increased awareness of the climate and bio-diversity crisis, with concern often centering how this crisis is affecting children and young people. A 2020 YouGov poll commissioned by Friends of the Earth reported that 70% of 18-24 year-olds are more worried about climate change than they were a year ago. 

However, eco-anxiety doesn’t just affect children and young people. Recently I have started to wonder if perhaps we are all feeling eco‐anxiety, but in different ways.

How do people experience and express worries about the environment?

Some people will feel eco-anxiety acutely and frighteningly. They will struggle to focus on other things in their life, unable to empty their mind of thoughts about the worsening state of the planet that are reinforced every time they read a newspaper or watch a bumblebee fly across the sudden snowfall that followed a heatwave last month.

Other people might have a niggling feeling that ‘something’s not quite right’ but manage to shrug these worries away, or they are replaced by more immediately pressing concerns – Covid, economic pressures, worrying about how their children are doing with so much missed school.

Other people might have a niggling feeling that ‘something’s not quite right’ but manage to shrug these worries away, or they are replaced by more immediately pressing concerns – Covid, economic pressures, worrying about how their children are doing with so much missed school.

Sunny beach seen through the mouth of a cave.

Some people feel worried after watching a documentary, or listening to David Attenborough warn us that we have to act urgently, but then reassure themselves that if things were that bad then surely the government would deal with things in plenty of time. Other people might not feel this reassurance, but then could read about the increase in technological innovations and think to themselves ‘we are on the right track’.

Others could say ‘oh yes, it’s worrying isn’t it’, and then in almost the same breath ‘oh I can’t wait for this Covid to get sorted because I’m desperate to fly off on holiday again’, as if they could not join up these conflicting thoughts in their own mind. Some people would dismiss the people who were worried and tell them they were being silly, call them snowflakes, or worse.

The interesting thing is that these are all different ways of dealing with the anxiety that we are all surely now feeling as we learn more about the ecological crisis unfolding in front of our eyes. We may be overwhelmed and unable to push the fears away, we may be able to dismiss them, or respond to reassurance, or defend against the fears with denial or disavowal, but these are all forms of eco‐anxiety. And we can find all the different expressions of it within the same family or friendship group.

What are other common emotional responses to the climate crisis?
Felled trees

Another curious thing about eco‐anxiety is how many ways there are to feel it. Whilst it starts with an anxiety as we ‘wake up’ and learn more about the ecological crisis, it is not just felt as anxiety alone. We often first feel afraid or horrified about the threats that humanity is facing, but then can feel depressed, powerless and despairing that the problem seems so big.

Then there is the understandable confusion about the ‘declaration of a climate emergency’ followed by actions that suggest the complete opposite (if it was an emergency – wouldn’t we stop cutting down trees for example?). 

Many people feel angry and betrayed that the businesses, richest people and governments of the world are failing to take urgent action and work together to deal with this global threat. Sometimes people become numb and disconnected and shut down all their feelings because it all just feels too much.

Is eco-anxiety a rational response to climate change?

Eco‐anxiety is an emergent and changing form of psychological distress, felt as we become aware of the changing world and try to keep some emotional balance as we begin to understand the existential threats we are facing. It is not a mental illness, but it certainly causes distressing feelings in many people. Just this month, the Royal College of Psychiatrists declared a climate and ecological emergency, and released research that found that 60% of people in the UK say the crisis is impacting their mental health now and will continue to in the future.

The climate and ecological emergency is a mental health emergency. Our mental health is entwined with the health of our natural world.

Dr Adrian James, President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists

Paradoxically, eco-anxiety is a mentally healthy response to the changing reality of the world we call home. We should be feeling anxious, sad, scared, guilty, grief, anger and frustration. These are emotionally healthy and understandable responses and a sign that we care about what is happening to the world, other species and other people.

We only feel this distress because we care. We care about the people in the global south who are struggling now with conditions caused by climate change that are threats to life; it shows that we have global empathy, that we understand the interconnectedness of all life, and that we cannot save our part of the planet without saving all of it.

If we feel eco‐anxiety, it is because we care about what we are doing to this beautiful world. If we feel despair, it is because we care about the uncertain and threatened world we are creating for our children and their children.

Children and young people often feel this very powerfully. They are facing growing up in a world without the resources and choices that their parents may have had, and they feel especially afraid when adults around them do not seem to share their anxieties.

Can eco-anxiety help us tackle the climate crisis?

Crucially, eco‐anxiety about the worsening ecological systems that sustain us and give us life can feel bad enough, but really, what makes it unbearable for many people is our collective struggle to take the climate crisis seriously enough to act with urgency. The only way to reduce eco‐anxiety is for us all to be taking sustained urgent action to reduce emissions, to preserve the natural environment we have remaining to us and increase environmental resilience – to put the world first. Humans cannot be saved separately from the planet.

Often people swing between feeling hopeful (we can fix this) and hopeless (we are all doomed). In fact, feeling complete hope or absolute hopelessness are emotional states we should not be attaching ourselves to – neither is helpful to us. I don’t want us to get rid of our eco‐anxiety. I want us to convert it into eco‐empathy, eco‐understanding, eco‐resilience, eco‐action, eco‐determination and eco‐care. Then we would start to get somewhere.

Read more of Caroline’s work on eco-anxiety here

Further research and support

Royal College of Psychiatrists Advice for Parents & Carers

Mental Health Awareness Week

NHS mental health services