As catastrophic bushfires continue to rage across Australia, news sources and social media feeds are dominated by frightening images of destruction. Lives have been lost, homes have been gutted and wildlife populations have been devastated. Even those not living in fire-affected areas are feeling the effects due to rising air pollution levels across the country.
Beyond the physical impact of the bushfires, Australia is seeing the rise of a mental health issue known as eco-anxiety. Eco-anxiety is a psychological phenomenon, otherwise known as ecological anxiety or climate change anxiety. Clinical psychologist and Activist Practitioner Magazine Editor, Ruth Nelson, talks about how to recognise and deal with the symptoms of eco-anxiety.
What is eco-anxiety?
“Eco-anxiety is a collection of thoughts and feelings that have arisen in relation to fairly devastating changes – due to climate change – in our environmental systems and the eco-systems that support life on this planet.”
“Overseas, some societies have been experiencing these changes directly for much longer, but here in Australia, we’re really starting to feel the impact.”
“In response to these changes, people understandably feel anxious which is a really normal and justified response to a very threatening global situation.”
What are the indicators one could be suffering from eco-anxiety?
“You might experience emotions like fear and anger or maybe guilt and shame.”
“You might also experience feelings and sensations in your body like your stomach is sinking or shrinking.”
“You may have thoughts such as: ‘What does the future look like?’ or feel a sense of having a foreshortened future. For example, when you’re feeling healthy and strong, you can envision yourself into old age and you can envision your children into their old age. But, eco-anxiety can have you questioning: ‘What does my children’s future look like? What does my old age look like? How hot will it be? How smoky will it be? What will the water shortages look like?'”
“They’re quite frightening thoughts but they’re also realistic thoughts. Because again, eco-anxiety is a completely normal and understandable response to a really threatening global situation.”
“You might experience yourself wanting to get away from those feelings and thoughts. So you might start isolating yourself from other people or trying to convince yourself climate change is not happening.”
How do you deal with eco-anxiety?
“The path through eco-anxiety is path of action. It’s a path that feels much harder because it means continuing to be aware of and face the threat of climate change and all of the feelings that go along with it.”
“In psychological terms, where there’s a threat (like climate change) and feelings of immobilisation arise, trauma can occur. In other words, where eco-anxiety is tugging you into feeling stuck, hopeless, avoidant or isolated, you’re in dangerous territory where you’re going to experience trauma.”
“However, when a threat is coupled with action, this can actually lead to growth, hope and resilience. In the case of climate change, taking action will also lead to you contributing to opening up the possibilities in this world, for enacting the solutions that we know exist.”
Individual and Collection Action
Ruth warns that merely taking individual action will make overcoming eco-anxiety more difficult. She recommends using individual actions to underpin larger-scale collective action and amplify the results. For example, while you’re working on lessening your own carbon footprint, talk to your friends and family about what you’re doing (such as cutting plastic consumption) and help them do the same so that you can create wider change.
“If I halve my plastic and my neighbours then also halve their plastic and then the rest of the street halves their plastic… that doesn’t have to flow along very far before we’ve all halved the amount of plastic in this world.”
“It would be quite frightening to go and see my local member alone but when a few of us do that together, we’re much braver and we’re much more capable.”
“If you focus just on individual action, you won’t get anywhere very quickly. The fatigue that comes from trying and not seeing any results is enough for many people to succumb to eco-anxiety – it’s exhausting. So, find a community and get involved. Do a Google search for not-for-profit climate action groups to find other people in your area who are already doing stuff.”
“You’ve got to get back into nature and reconnect with what you value and what you want to save. Get out into the bush, under the sky and into the waters. Get your body moving. When the feelings of being overwhelmed and hopeless tell you to hide in bed, put your shoes on and go for a walk. It can be easier said than done when you’re feeling anxious so do it in community. Connect with other people who see things like you and are taking action as well.”
Divest From Fossil Fuels
“Put your money into ethical options. Check where your bank and superannuation funds invest your money and if they are investing in fossil fuels, take your dollars elsewhere.”
When should you seek professional help?
“If eco-anxiety is overwhelming you or you’re starting to feel hopeless, do also go and talk to a professional. Make sure your GP connects you with a mental health professional who will help you. Some psychologists may say ‘you need to avoid everything to do with climate so don’t watch the news, just look after yourself.'”
“However I say that is not enough. If you’re depressed about the climate, that’s no surprise because it does feel like a pretty depressing situation. You need a psychologist who’s going to help you manage that, to not help you feel better now, but to rediscover your hope in ways that let you stay connected to reality. Because it’s only in being connected to reality that can actually bring about change in the situation.”
“Make sure you go to someone who understands eco-anxiety and is prepared to look towards the long term rather than just at a short term reduction of symptoms.”