Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, Ph.D., CRNP
Written by Jennifer Huizen
Eco-anxiety refers to a fear of environmental damage or ecological disaster. This sense of anxiety is largely based on the current and predicted future state of the environment and human-induced climate change.
According to a 2018 national survey, almost 70% of people in the United States are worried about climate change, and around 51% feel “helpless.”
Anxiety around environmental issues may stem from the awareness of a rising risk of extreme weather events, losses of livelihood or housing, fears for future generations, and feelings of helplessness.
This article discusses eco-anxiety, including what it is, the common symptoms, and how to spot and manage it.
What is eco-anxiety?
Researchers coined the term “eco-anxiety” to describe chronic or severe anxiety related to humans’ relationship with the environment.
In 2017, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) described eco-anxiety as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”
Eco-anxiety is not currently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), meaning that doctors do not officially consider it a diagnosable condition.
However, mental health professionals do use the term eco-anxiety within the field of ecopsychology, a branch that deals with people’s psychological relationships with the rest of nature and how this impacts their identity, well-being, and health.
The immediate effects of climate change — such as damage to community groups, a loss of food, and reduced medical supply security — can cause acute harm to people’s mental health.
The gradual impacts of climate change, including increasingly rising sea levels and changes in weather patterns, may even lead to chronic mental health symptoms.
The APA point out that a changing climate can affect mental health in several ways and manifest as:
- trauma and shock
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- substance abuse
- reduced feelings of autonomy and control
- feelings of helplessness, fatalism, and fear
For example, a loss of important places may affect some people. A loss of or threat to job security or livelihood can also have significant mental health effects.
Chronic or severe stress, whatever the cause, can increase the risk of several serious health conditions. This includes heart disease, high blood pressure, and depression.
With eco-anxiety, people may also experience general symptoms of anxiety.
Where does it come from?
Anxiety around environmental issues can stem from experiencing, being at risk of, or having loved ones at risk of climate-related extreme weather, including hurricanes, droughts, and wildfires.
Media coverage of environmental destruction can be overwhelming, and evidence for humans’ negative impact on the environment is increasing. Extreme weather events have fuelled civil wars and mass protests, impacted people’s homes, and destroyed habitats.
Scientific evidence is emerging that people are starting to experience extreme or chronic anxiety because they feel as though they cannot control environmental problems, especially climate change.
For some people, the increase in environmental crises is not only frustrating, frightening, and shocking, but also a source of constant or debilitating anxiety.
People may also feel guilty or anxious about the impact that their or their generation’s behavior may have on the environment and that of future generations.
Who does it affect?
Environmental damage does not affect all people equally. For this reason, some people may feel anxiety around ecological issues more intensely.
Some parts of the world are more vulnerable to the effects of extreme weather, including coastal communities and low-lying areas. Particularly, people whose livelihoods depend on the environment — such as those with jobs in fishing, tourism, and agriculture — are more likely to be affected.
Also, people who live in indigenous communities often rely on natural resources and tend to reside in more vulnerable geographic areas. They may face the fear of losing housing, their livelihood, or their cultural heritage, which can be damaging for their sense of identity, belonging, and sense of community.
People who work in environmental jobs or as first responders and emergency healthcare workers might also be more prone to eco-anxiety.
These groups face more physical and mental health effects from changing climates and environmental damage.
The following groups may also be more likely to experience eco-anxiety:
- displaced people and forced migrants
- people with preexisting mental or physical health conditions
- people of lower socioeconomic status
- children and young adults
- older adults
How do I know if I have eco-anxiety?
It is natural for a person to feel sad, angry, frustrated, or helpless about things that seem outside of their control, and it is easy to feel discouraged by bad news about the environment.
There is no medical definition of eco-anxiety. If a person is concerned that their worries about the environment interfere with their everyday life, their ability to work, or their ability to look after themselves, they should talk to a mental health professional.
A growing number of psychologists and other mental health workers are receiving training on how to help detect and manage fears linked to the environment and climate.
How to manage it
Although solving environmental issues relies on societal change, governmental input, and corporations taking responsibility for their contributions to climate change, people can usually manage their own responses to environmental issues using a range of strategies.
Some tips for handling eco-anxiety include:
People may find that taking positive action can help reduce feelings of anxiety and powerlessness. Helping others has well-established psychological benefits.
Some positive actions may include:
- talking to others about good environmental practices
- volunteering with an environmental group
- making greener choices, including recycling and following a sustainable diet, such as eating less meat and dairy
Mental health professionals can help people identify the problems that concern them the most and develop a plan that allows them to feel more in control of the issues.
Getting accurate information about the environment can empower communities and help them feel prepared and resilient if a crisis occurs.
Relying on inaccurate information or having a lack of information can make it hard to understand and process abstract problems such as climate change.
People may therefore find relief in educating themselves on environmental issues using trustworthy, credible information.
Focusing on resiliency
People who feel positively about their ability to overcome stress and trauma may handle anxiety better than people with less confidence in their resiliency skills.
For example, someone’s belief in their own resiliency may reduce their risk of depression and PTSD following natural disasters.
To boost self-resiliency, the APA recommend:
- fostering caring, trusting relationships that provide support and encouragement
- not viewing problems as unsolvable
- making achievable goals and moving steadily toward them
- looking at problems in a wider context
- practicing good self-care and focusing on a positive self-image
- keeping personal connections with places and cultural ties when possible
- avoiding isolation and trying to connect with like-minded people
Trying to stay optimistic
Having a healthy degree of optimism may help a person grow and adjust after experiencing stressful events such as natural disasters. People who try to reframe things in a positive way may find that this helps them handle anxiety better.
Positive thinking may also help break negative thinking cycles associated with chronic or severe anxiety.
Fostering a stronger connection with nature
Spending more time outdoors or with nature may help alleviate eco-anxiety by encouraging a positive personal connection with the environment.
Some people even recommend keeping a rock, twig, dried flower, or other natural object that they can look at and touch when feeling disconnected or overwhelmed. This may work in a similar way to grounding techniques that some mental health professionals recommend for managing anxiety.
Regular exercise can help reduce most types of anxiety.
Walking, running, or cycling instead of using fossil fuel-based sources of transit, when realistic and safe, encourages frequent exercise and reduces individual greenhouse gas emissions.
People who regularly cycle or walk to work also seem to experience lower levels of commuting stress.
Knowing when to disengage
Without realizing it, people can be very influenced by the information they see each day in the media, politics, advertising, and on social media platforms. Seeing this information over and over again can cause stress, especially if it is inaccurate, biased, or presented in a certain way.
Although people can benefit from educating themselves about environmental issues, being exposed to an overwhelming amount of information or lots of untrustworthy information can create anxiety.
Reevaluating sources of environmental information or cutting back or unplugging from media sources, at least temporarily, may help reduce immediate stress levels.
Seeing a doctor
A growing number of mental health professionals are receiving training in how to help people manage their relationship with nature and cope with modern-day environmental problems.
People with severe eco-anxiety, or anxiety that does not respond to at-home management tips, may need professional help handling their anxiety.
To get professional help for eco-anxiety, a person can talk with a family doctor or other healthcare worker who can provide guidance on how to connect with an appropriate mental health professional.
The Climate Psychology Alliance offer individual and group support to people experiencing eco-anxiety, plus education for therapists and counselors, including three free face-to-face sessions via phone or Skype.
At the moment, eco-anxiety is not an official medical diagnosis. Mental health professionals may instead describe it as a chronic sense of environmental doom, usually based on feelings of powerlessness about environmental damage or climate change.
A person may be able to relieve this form of anxiety using coping methods or by seeking professional counseling, especially from a professional trained in climate psychology.