It’s tough. You’ve got deadlines to meet, bills to pay, appointments to book and healthy lunches to pack (and you forgot to call your mom back yesterday). There are enough angst-inducing things to keep your brain fully occupied from morning to night—the last thing you need is another source of stress. But you may already be affected by one without realizing it: a vague, dark, niggling worry about the state of the planet. It’s called eco-anxiety, and it’s a thing.
The threat of climate change was once like the distant rumble of thunder on a sunny afternoon. But now those bright skies are hazy with smog and wildfire smoke. (Tuning in to the Weather Network these days is like watching a horror movie in which the killer is suddenly inside the house.) In 2017, the American Psychological Association reported that climate change is affecting our mental health and causing “a number of different emotions, including fear, anger, powerlessness and exhaustion.”
And that, says Ashlee Cunsolo, a social science professor at Memorial University, is eco-anxiety.
“Eco-anxiety is anxiety or stress specifically related to changes in the environment,” Cunsolo says. “People have trouble pinpointing a specific trigger or one thing to work on to relieve it—it’s huge. It’s climate change writ large, so it’s an anxiety without end.”
Eco-anxiety affects us all
Cunsolo first saw the impact of eco-anxiety while working in Labrador with Inuit who have witnessed and mourned the alarming effects of our warming planet for years. But, Cunsolo says, it’s only recently that experts have started to pay attention to the mental effects of climate change. “It can be disabling,” she says, “and it can affect people of all ages in all countries.”
Eco-anxiety can be hard to talk about, Cunsolo says, because we don’t have words in our language to adequately express feelings of grief related to climate change. But there is power in talking about it. “People tell me that they feel alone and didn’t know others felt the same way,” she says. “We only grieve what we love, and we feel this anxiety because we care. Coming together and talking about it is a huge step, and it can spark change.”
Harness your anxiety for good
Nancy Prober, a Vancouver psychologist, sees eco-anxiety as a normal response to a real threat and says worry about climate change can be “a precursor to action,” motivating us to make changes.
True, climate change is not a small problem, Prober says. But you can reduce your impact and mitigate future damage, which is also the best way to “treat” eco-anxiety. “There is hope in action,” she says, “and it gives our anxious energy a place to go.”
First, identify the actions you can take. “Focus on your interests,” Prober says. If you like to campaign, join an advocacy group. If you like to grow things, preserve some of your bounty so that you rely less on industrial agriculture. Or if you’re worried about plastic waste, decrease what goes to the landfill. “There are lots of options, which means there are lots of opportunities.”
Prober recommends breaking down your planet-protecting goals, and taking one step at a time. And talk to someone if you continue to feel overwhelmed. “It’s okay to feel anxious about climate change,” she says. “By recognizing our anxiety about the future, we can take steps to make that future less likely.”