Eco-anxiety: Worrying about climate change can be stressful but it can also help to spur us into action
Many of us are increasingly anxious about the future of the planet.
How worried are you about environmental issues? If thinking about climate change and biodiversity loss stresses you out, you are not alone. Psychologists are trying to understand this feeling, which is called eco-anxiety, and they are finding that this worry may be essential for our fight to save the planet.
To help us measure eco-anxiety, in late 2021, Australian applied psychologist Teaghan Hogg and colleagues proposed a new scale: the Hogg Eco-anxiety Scale. Broken down into 13 items, it captures our complex feelings about the planet.
The scale asks about negative emotions like feeling nervous, on edge, or afraid about environmental issues including global warming, ecological degradation, resource depletion, species extinction, the hole in the ozone layer, pollution of the oceans, and deforestation. The scale also measures whether we ruminate on these issues, like being unable to stop thinking about climate change or losses to the environment.
It also asks how these feelings and thoughts change our behaviour, like whether they lead to difficulty sleeping, working, or enjoying social situations. And, how responsible we feel, like whether we feel anxious about the impact of our personal behaviours on the Earth, or that our individual behaviours will do little to solve the problem.
If you just thought, "wow, that’s me most days", then you probably have high eco-anxiety. This is common around the world, across all ages, but, it seems to be the most pronounced among young people.
In 2022 researchers working with UNICEF published the first ever large-scale international survey on climate anxiety in children and young people. They surveyed 10,000 people aged between 16 and 25, across 10 countries (Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the UK, and the USA). They found that 59 per cent of people were very or extremely worried about climate change, and 84 per cent were at least moderately worried.
Tapping directly into facets of eco-anxiety, the UNICEF researchers also found that half of the children and young people reported feeling sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless and guilty about environmental issues. More than 45 per cent said how they felt about climate change negatively affected their daily life, with fears about the future dominating their thoughts and deep feelings of betrayal from governments.
This is a potential problem for mental health. Feeling constantly anxious and worried about the climate can lead to chronic stress in childhood, which can have long-lasting consequences.
Are young people going to become mentally ill because of the constant stress these issues have on their minds? In a review of research on the health consequences of eco-anxiety published in 2022, a team of Spanish and Brazilian researchers found that it is associated with depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia, lower self-referred mental health, impairment to memory and attention, and a reluctance to have children.
This doesn’t mean that today’s young people are all going to be crippled by eco-anxiety. But it does mean that we need to keep an eye on the psychological effects that climate change is having.
There is also a positive side to eco-anxiety. It has been linked with pro-environmental action and climate activism. It’s because of this that some researchers have argued that, overall, eco-anxiety is a good thing because it is a practical anxiety.
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Anxiety is our body’s way of telling us that we may be in danger. This leads us to try and figure out what that threat is, driving us to find more information and figure out a solution to make us safe. The climate crisis is a very real danger. It’s good that our brains are trying to make us pay attention and do something about it, because that’s how we defeat this threat.
The researchers who examined the link between eco-anxiety and health found that pro-environmental action could specifically buffer against this anxiety evolving into depression.
In other words, particularly if you have eco-anxiety, taking the train instead of flying, recycling, petitioning your local government official, or joining a march, is not just good for the planet, it might also do wonders for your mental health.
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Dr Julia Shaw is a research associate at University College London and the co-host of the Bad People podcast on BBC Sounds. She is an expert on criminal psychology, and the author of three books, Bi: The hidden culture, history, and science of bisexuality, Making Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side and The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory.