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Eco-anxiety and how to cope with it

Around the world, fears about the fate of the environment are having profound effects on mental health — particularly among young people. We spoke to the therapists and influencers helping to tackle the problem

With heatwaves, storms, floods and wildfires spreading across the world, the climate crisis is impossible to ignore. So are the concerns of many young people, whether they are protesting outside COP26 sessions or posting their frustrations on social media. In fact, there’s a whole new term for these ever-present worries.

Eco-anxiety is the term being used to describe a deep-seated fear of environmental meltdown now being experienced by a growing number of people. According to psychologists, it can have profound effects on mental health and is particularly prevalent among young people. 

In response, a growing number of mental health professionals are taking a “climate-aware” approach to the treatment of a range of conditions. Young people are also creating online communities to share their experiences and tips on how to deal with feelings of stress related to ecological issues.

As psychotherapist Caroline Hickman explained, the phenomenon “doesn’t just stop with anxiety, it extends into depression, despair, frustration, guilt, grief, shame. It’s a real combination of emotional responses.”

“It’s not just what’s happening to the planet,” added Hickman, who is a member of Climate Psychology Alliance and a lecturer at the University of Bath in the U.K. “What we also feel is frustration and abandonment and betrayal, because people in power are failing to act on science.”

Hickman has co-authored a global survey, led by the University of Bath, which will soon be published in the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet. Questioning 10,000 people aged between 16 and 25 in 10 countries, it found that more than half of respondents said that stress over climate change was affecting their daily lives. But some go even further than that. 

“One trend that’s troubling is the tendency of what’s been called doomism: the stance that it’s too late, there’s nothing we can do, that we’re past the point of making a significant impact toward a healthier world,” said psychologist Leslie Davenport, who has written a book for young people titled “All the Feelings Under the Sun: How to Deal with Climate Change.”  

Far from being a mental illness, Davenport and Hickman believe that eco-anxiety is a rational and healthy response to what’s going on in the world today, but that it should be channeled constructively and not spill over into nihilism. 

Fighting climate doomism is precisely what sustainability scientist Alaina Wood, 25, has been doing on TikTok for the past few months. She’s a member of EcoTok, a TikTok account, run by a team of environmental educators and activists, that provides climate education to over 100,000 followers.

Wood says that, while we all need to be aware of the threats to our world, the non-stop stream of terrifying headlines about the climate crisis can leave people feeling overwhelmed. She believes that shifting focus to possible solutions helps relieve eco-anxiety and gives a sense of agency to people who may have felt powerless to act. 

The biggest thing that helped me was finding a counselor,” she said, speaking of her own previously debilitating fears. “They recommended that I seek out resources and people who weren’t just talking about the doom.” 

“It helped my eco-anxiety to know that I could fix things.” 

Along with a sense of pessimism, a lot of young people describe a profound sense of guilt over their individual actions, such as eating meat, or driving a car. 

Henry Ferland, a 19-year-old student and TikTok content creator stresses that individual guilt is largely misplaced — after all, corporations and governments that have failed to act are the ones to blame. However, he does believe that taking small steps with tangible effects is important both for the environment and for our mental health. 

And that’s exactly what helped him to tackle his own eco-anxiety.

Ferland, known on TikTok as Traashboyyy, tasked himself with picking up litter every day, then ended up setting himself a target of 50,000 pieces of garbage. “Doing little personal actions where you can see the good impact that you’re having on the environment really helps me,” he said.

After meeting his goal a month ago, he bumped it up to 500,000 and asked his followers to join in, using the hashtag #trash500k on social media. 

“It’s so much fun seeing people clean up in Germany and in Mexico and in Oregon,” he said. 

Like his teammates at EcoTok, Ferland believes that building communities and a wider awareness of eco-anxiety is extremely important. “You are not alone,” he said. “People who know that climate change is real have feelings of stress about it.”

Alaina Wood agrees wholeheartedly. “At the end of the day, it’s really about finding somebody you trust, who you can talk to about it and who also understands what it is,” she said. “I was running into a lot of young people saying that their mental health professionals didn’t know what eco-anxiety was.”

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