top of page
  • louiseedgington

What are eco-emotions or eco-anxiety and how do we ‘manage’ them?

 

Eco-anxiety is officially in the public consciousness. In 2023 the BBC reported a 27-fold increase in climate anxiety search interest (in English since 2017, from Google Trends). One comprehensive global survey of 10,000 young people found that 72 % of 16 to 25-year-olds in the UK feel that ‘the future is frightening’ (Hickman et al, 2021). Personally, I have been amazed at the uptick in interest online, in professional settings, and even in casual conversations – it’s clear that many more people are understanding that climate change impacts our mental health.

 

However, one can’t talk about climate anxiety without acknowledging its complicated relationship with the actual life-altering, direct impacts of climate change. The impacts and trauma from experiencing displacement or loss from flood, fire, and drought (amongst others) are heartbreakingly unequal across geographical, age, racial, and socio-economic lines.

 

We are in the 'same storm system, with different boats', possibly all feeling eco-anxiety and climate distress. I say possibly, due to the following postulate:

 

Climate emotions arise from a sound education and good mental health.

 

To be unaffected by the current and future loss of biodiversity and human life indicates a disengagement with the world, with each other, or a state of denial and suppression of one’s own feelings.  Is it possible, then, to view the rise in climate anxiety as a positive sign? An indication that we are finally shifting out of our collective denial that has kept us stuck for so long?

 

I think so. Climate emotions are to be embraced. They show us what we care about and drive us to act. Feelings of anger have been associated with engagement in positive climate action (Stanley et al. 2021), while facing eco-grief may prevent the mechanisms of denial from kicking into action. The Climate Psychologists (Kennedy-Woodard & Kennedy-Williams, 2022) even suggest we say ‘thank you’ to our climate emotions.


Eco-emotions, climate anxiety, climate distress. You’ll notice a sloppiness in my terminology, reflecting the fluctuations and variability of experiences which include eco-anxiety, grief, hopelessness, and anger. Eco-anxiety, or climate anxiety is commonly defined as a ‘chronic fear of environmental doom’, but it normally refers to a wide range of complex feelings.

In fact, a whole lexicon has arisen (e.g. Coffey et al., 2021), giving us words like ‘solastalgia’ (grieving for ecosystems and place before it is lost) to describe the new experiences we are contending with.


Climate emotions might therefore be considered a potentially universal and normal experience – this has profound implications for how climate distress is conceptualized and ‘treated’.


Here, the medical mental health paradigm is both impractical and unhelpful (therapy and antidepressants for everyone?). Climate anxiety is not a ‘disorder’, but a sign of mental ‘order’. It’s a sign that we sense that something is fundamentally awry with our social systems. Thankfully, eco-anxiety is not in the DSM-V as a ‘mental disorder’ (the diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders), so it is not diagnosed. In the U.S., this can preclude access to mental health support services via insurance. But I see this as a good thing. It invites us to rethink how we engage with distress as a society. We need a culture of support for all.


The opportunity here is for us to embark on a process of creating a culture of emotional awareness, expression, and connection – innately human qualities that are often dismissed and denigrated in our patriarchal society. We need to learn to feel our feelings and allow them to pass through us, rather than numb-out and distract ourselves with phone scrolling, process and substance additions.


Most of us weren’t taught or shown how to do this. This should be in schools!

Yes it should, but my work (primarily focused on young people) adopts the approach that we need to support the care-givers. If young people are surrounded by climate-aware, emotionally-engaged parents, teachers, and even business and political leaders, they at least won’t suffer the additional climate distress of abandonment due the perceived inaction of governments (Hickman et al. 2021) and the school systems they inhabit.  It really does start with each of us, learning this balance of self-emotional engagement, often from scratch.


But I don’t want to embrace eco-anxiety, I want it to go away.

The paradox is that by embracing it (or any feeling, actually) it will lessen and loosen its grip on you in the moment. Trying to resist or suppress emotions is counterproductive. Much like holding a balloon underwater (a helpful analogy in Kennedy-Woodard & Kennedy-Williams’s book, 2023), feelings are stored as energy in our body which will either pop-up in an outburst (have you ever snapped at someone?) or will be held down so long that you lose energy required to ‘keep it there’: depression is suppression. Some people go to great lengths to keep difficult feelings at bay, never spending quiet time alone to sit with feelings or avoiding climate related conversations and news.


The avoidance of healthy engagement with climate emotions can therefore lead to ‘overwhelm’ and burn out, or to denial and avoidance, neither of which are good for our own health nor good for climate adaptation and mitigation efforts.


Generally speaking, if climate worry is affecting your daily functioning, sleep, relationships, or ability to feel joy – it is a problem. Paralysing fear or depression is not helpful for climate action, learning or general wellbeing. Nor is it helpful for a stable and functioning society. Frightened people make bad decisions and are at risk of falling prey to online misinformation and manipulation.


‘Managing’ our climate emotions is therefore not a ‘nice to have’ but an essential aspect of tackling the climate and ecological crisis.

 

Researchers are developing scales to try to capture the problematic aspect of ‘eco-emotions’ (e.g. Clayton & Karazsia, 2020; Hogg et al. 2021) and these can be a helpful reality check for some. However, given the fast pace of change of the context of climate change, it seems unlikely that the concept will ever be meaningfully standardised. As climate impacts worsen, we’ll feel it more. Let’s not get too hung up on measuring and pathologising climate anxiety, but instead focus our energies on maintaining a healthy awareness, balanced with action and enjoyment of life.

 

So how do we manage eco-anxiety?

Manage is perhaps the wrong word, because it implies that the anxiety can be managed ‘away’. But it is possible to practice skills of awareness and emotional regulation so that the anxiety doesn’t impact on our functioning and general mental health. It might be helpful from the outset to acknowledge that we might always experience ‘flare-ups’ of anxiety or grief, but with full confidence that we can handle these feelings – removing the fear of fear.


Here I share 3 tried-and-tested areas to consider eco-anxiety care:


1.    Regulating emotional ‘flare-ups’

When an existential threat is perceived, our sympathetic nervous system is triggered (fight, flight, freeze response). While this system is useful to respond to imminent threat (like an attacker), it does not help with taking the positive action and decisions needed to tackle climate change. Being in this state long term can lead to mental health difficulties and a lack of action.


Sometimes the knowledge that climate change is an existential threat can serve to prolong or maintain anxiety cycles. We cling onto the anxiety thinking it is necessary to ‘solve’ the threat. However, an anxious brain almost always thinks less clearly.


We also need to distinguish the threat right now and threat more generally. It can be helpful to run through the ‘self-talk’ in the flow chart below before self-regulatory /grounding activities.



Once you have given yourself permission to regulate your nervous system, how you calm the body is up to you. These techniques all mimic the body’s parasympathetic nervous system when calm and relaxed, so send signals to the brain to get back into that state:

·       Breathing techniques (e.g. box breathing, guidance from the NHS)

·       Cognitive and sensory distraction (e.g guidance from Mind)

·       A nice observant nature walk

·       Progressive muscle relaxation (e.g. guidance from Mind)

Have a go at different methods while you’re feeling calm, so you can access your preferred ‘method’ quickly and easily when you really need it.


2.    Avoiding thinking traps

While it is acknowledged that eco-anxiety isn’t due to ‘faulty thinking’, there are some thinking habits that can reinforce the anxiety and make it worse than it needs to be.


Thinking traps are often shortcuts that oversimplify a complex situation, rather than reflect reality.  It can help to look out for these and then let go of some of these anxiety driving thoughts as they arise. Meditation can really help as a practice to develop the skill of conscious awareness. Have you come across the Insight Timer app yet? I love it.


 

What a lot of these climate thinking traps have in common is that they inhabit the extremes of our thinking. When situations are complex and nuanced, our brains naturally attempt to label, judge and categorise them as a processing shortcut to help us make sense of the world. This is how we end up with the oversimplified, ‘black or white’ thinking.


If you manage to catch an ‘all or nothing’ statement in your thoughts e.g. "the CoP process is pointless" – see if you can’t challenge, soften, or modify it to better reflect the truth. e.g. "the CoP process is hampered by the need for unilateral agreement between nations. Progress is being made year on year, although it does need to be faster".


One of the biggest traps is emotional reasoning – confusing an emotion with the actual likelihood of something happening. I would argue that makes up much of the unnecessary eco-anxiety that we experience. The scenario that our brain serves up when we picture the worst of climate impact consequences probably says more about our own personal fears, that the actual most likely outcome. Just because we fear something, it does not make it likely.

 

 ‘Vicarious emotional reasoning’, is term I use to describe our tendency to make conclusions about reality from others’ emotions. This might be particularly relevant for people who spend a lot of time in ‘climate-circles’, or indeed in the context of a climate café (a safe space to express climate emotions, offered by Climate Psychology Alliance). If you come away from climate conversations feeling anxious, it might be worth pausing to consider if you have misinterpreted another’s anxiety as a reason to be anxious yourself. It’s ok to let others’ emotions go.


For those who are deeply engaged in action, it can be easy to get caught up in a sense of having to devote ‘your all’ to climate action. Foreboding joy (Brown, 2015) is the nagging sense that we can’t allow joy or enjoyment in life, when there is risk and suffering in the world. Similarly, the saviour complex puts us into overdrive mode, over-assuming responsibility and action that can lead to burn out.


Self-care, down time and a healthy work life balance is an important part of climate action – it keeps us functioning and useful.


3. Habits for preventing ‘flare ups’

It is inevitable that there will be ‘triggers’, that provoke a flare-up in climate anxiety or grief. While it’s not advisable to disengage from the world, we can consciously chose the information we consume to avoid getting locked into a doom-scrolling echo chamber. It is healthy to:

·       limit our news content (e.g. to 10 mins per day)

·       conduct an ‘audit’ on the people we follow on social media.

·       seek out positive, balancing new stories like those offered by Cipher for climate tech solutions


We can also practice healthy habits in how we respond to distressing news and images.

The first thing we can do is set an intention and practice to not ‘feed the fears’ with additional thoughts (often thinking traps). Nor do we want to avoid them – the aim is to ‘feel the feelings’ but not cling onto them.


If you actually ‘sit with a feeling’ and experience it as a physical sensation in the body (without wishing it away, or thinking it’s terrible), a feeling ‘cycle’ is believed to only last 90 seconds (Rosenberg 2019). Tara Brach’s Recognise, Allow, Inquire, Nourish meditation (‘R.A.I.N’) is particularly helpful for this.


Try practicing ‘feeling the feelings’ with the lower level, (non-climate) feelings as they arise to build up your confidence. It’s uncomfortable at first, but like exercise, gets easier the more you do it.


As well as grief and anxiety, it’s helpful to sit with the sense of discomfort (which often turns to anxiety) at uncertainty. We live in a time where we make schedules, buy insurance, follow regulations, and research reviews, all to make our lives more predictable and ‘safe’.


However, even with the best planning and preparation, life is inherently uncertain. This is going to become even more the case as the impacts of climate change and A.I. make uncertainty and change the norm. See if you can stretch your tolerance of uncertainty by signing up to a new activity or visiting a new town without a plan.


The intensity of all the aforementioned feelings can also be somewhat reduced by adopting general well-being habits. It might sound obvious, but being tired, too hot or cold, hungry, dehydrated or in pain can really make it harder to manage feelings. Taking care of ourselves matters.


As well as attending to our basic needs, we have physical, psychological, and social needs that the New Economics Foundation have identified as being key to wellbeing:

1. Connect

2. Be Active

3. Take Notice

4. Keep Learning

5. Give


When this active and open approach to life is combined with climate action (e.g. tree planting volunteering day, litter pick, or clothes mending workshop) you’re not only ticking several of the 5 ways to wellbeing, but also taking climate action, which is fantastic for combating the sense of powerlessness.


While it might feel as though small acts don’t make a difference – small individual acts are exactly what we need to build support for the social change required at the scale required.


I’m a big believer in the power of social comparison – your tiny actions (like bringing a reusable cup or mentioning climate in social conversations) influence others at the subconscious level, planting seeds of new ‘social norms’ which then translate into their own actions. As Greta says, ‘no one is too small to make a difference’.

 

Dr Louise Edgington, March 2024

Louise is a chartered Educational Psychologist, working on bringing climate wellbeing into education via her independent practice ClimatEdPsych and the British Psychological Society’s Climate and Environment Action Coordinating Group.

Louise consults on national projects for climate wellbeing and eco-anxiety and offers workshops and training for professionals.

 

 

References

Aked, J. , Marks, N., Cordon, C., & Thomson, S. (2008). New Economics Foundation Five Ways to Wellbeing. https://neweconomics.org/2008/10/five-ways-to-wellbeing


Coffey, Y., Bhullar, N., Durkin, J., Islam, M. S., & Usher, K. (2021). Understanding eco-anxiety: A systematic scoping review of current literature and identified knowledge gaps. The Journal of Climate Change and Health3, 100047. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joclim.2021.100047 


Clayton, S., & Karazsia, B. (2020). Development and validation of a measure of climate change anxiety. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 69. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2020.101434


Gilder, L. (2023). Climate change: Rise in google searches around 'anxiety' https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-67473829


Hickman, C., Marks, E., Pihkala, P., Clayton, S., Lewandowski, R. E., Mayall, E. E., ... & van Susteren, L. (2021). Climate anxiety in children and young people and their beliefs about government responses to climate change: A global survey. The Lancet Planetary Health5(12), e863-e873. https://doi.org/10.1016/s2542-5196(21)00278-3


Hogg, T. L., Stanley, S. K., O'Brien, L. V., Wilson, M. S., & Watsford, C. R. (2021). The Hogg Eco-Anxiety Scale: Development and validation of a multidimensional scale. Global Environmental Change71, 102391. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2021.102391


Kennedy-Woodard, M., & Kennedy-Williams, P. (2022). Turn the tide on climate anxiety: sustainable action for your mental health and the planet. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


Kennedy-Woodard, M., & Kennedy-Williams, P. (2023). You are unstoppable. How to understand your feelings about climate change and take positive action together. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.


Rosenberg, J. (2019). 90 Seconds to a Life You Love: How to Turn Difficult Feelings Into Rock-solid Confidence. Hachette.


Stanley, S. K., Hogg, T. L., Leviston, Z., & Walker, I. (2021). From anger to action: Differential impacts of eco-anxiety, eco-depression, and eco-anger on climate action and wellbeing. The Journal of Climate Change and Health1, 100003. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.joclim.2021.100003

5 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page