Updated: Dec 16, 2021
Article written by Dilvin Yasa
While eco-anxiety is not yet considered an official mental health disorder, the Australian Medical Association has declared climate a health emergency.
At a time when most kids my age were counting sheep, I was lying awake pondering all the ways the human race was likely to meet its end: tsunamis, melting icecaps, devastating (and unprecedented) weather events, burning wildlife …
More than 30 years later, the terror I’d experienced – a persistent worry about the future of our planet and the life it shelters – has a name, ecological or climate change anxiety. Perhaps best described by the American Psychological Association as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future and that of next generations”, eco-anxiety is making itself known to psychologists around the globe.
A 2018 study by the Australian National University reported that 89 per cent of Australian year 7 students reported being worried about climate change (63 per cent for adults). And while eco-anxiety is not yet considered an official mental health disorder, the Australian Medical Association has declared climate a health emergency.
In her Sydney practice, psychologist Dr Amanda Ferguson says patients presenting with climate-related anxiety are on the increase. “There’s depression and often a sense of resignation around it,” she says. “But the anxiety, too, leaps on particularly hot days, during bushfires, or when we’re experiencing unusually fierce storm activity.” Data shows that hot days are associated with increased hospital admissions for mental and behavioural disorders.
“It isn’t only in my practice, I see evidence of it through daily interactions, with younger people in particular,” adds Dr Ferguson, detailing a recent meeting with a teen at her local yacht club. “He was telling me how much pollution he sees on the waterways and his hands were shaking with emotion. He said he did as much cleaning up as he could to help make himself feel better.”
Symptoms of eco-anxiety vary, but those commonly reported include general anxiety, panic attacks, feelings of fear, obsessive thinking, insomnia, loss of appetite and depression.
“I used to hear young men and women say, ‘I’m on the fence about having children,’ ” explains Dr Ferguson. “Now it’s more likely to be, ‘There’s no way I want to bring children into this world.’ Their anxiety or sadness has either reinforced or helped them make the decision that they’re better off childless.”
Is climate-related anxiety starting to negatively impact your life? Here are proactive steps you can take to reduce your anxiety – and help save the planet:
Opt out of the 24/7 negative news cycle and complement your usual news consumption with positive environmental stories. You can do this by signing up to sites such as Happy Eco News and the Good News Network.
Immerse yourself in nature. Studies show that people who spend at least two hours each week in green spaces report improved mental and physical wellbeing.
Get involved in individual and collective action. Whether you organise a rubbish clean-up in your local area or join a climate action group, being a part of the solution can help to counter feelings of helplessness.
Take care of your physical health and seek professional help if you feel that eco-anxiety is threatening to overwhelm you.