Eco-Anxiety: A Gift or a Curse?

Jan 25, 2023

Breathing in the fresh air, feeling the grass tickle our toes, and enjoying beautiful coastal views; we experience nature’s greatness in many different ways. These moments can leave us feeling clear-headed, peaceful, energized and grounded. Some may even feel a sense of belonging or like they’re home. We feel this connection with nature because we are part of nature, not above it. She will take care of us if we take care of her. 

Being connected with nature during the climate crisis can be difficult. Keep reading to learn more about the impacts of climate change on our mental health, as well as my personal experience dealing with these emotions. 

Let’s talk emotions 

Climate change and its effects can be a painful experience for many individuals. They may experience a wide range of emotions including but not limited to  

  • Anxiety 
  • Sadness 
  • Frustration 
  • Guilt 
  • Hopelessness 

In an environmental context, these feelings translate to what we call eco-anxiety. A person is considered eco-anxious when they experience constant or temporarily overwhelming low-vibrational feelings facing climate change as well as the current and future state of our planet. It is rational anxiety given the facts that urge us to take action, and like generalized anxiety, it can be experienced in different ways, through different emotions and to different degrees. 

A phenomenon on the rise

As climate change progresses and its effects become more visible, eco-anxiety rates climb, particularly in the younger population. Data collected from a survey conducted by the University of Bath in the United Kingdom has shown how young people feel in the face of climate change. In fact, out of 10 000 young people aged 16-25 from various countries, 75% felt frightened by the future and 65% felt their governments were failing them. 

On the bright side, as eco-anxiety rates rise, the phenomenon becomes a topic of interest among many professionals. More research is being done on the subject, and mental health professionals are becoming aware of the situation. In consequence, they adapt their practice to better help their clients overcome these difficult feelings. With or without the help of a professional, there are different things you can do to cope with eco-anxiety. 

My experience with eco-anxiety

There have been traces of eco-anxiety throughout my whole life. For example, not wanting children because of negative, fear-based thoughts about the future. However, my relationship with eco-anxiety heightened during my first years of University. I developed a deeper, more spiritual relationship with nature which increased my love and appreciation for our planet, but also made me feel deep sadness and frustration toward the climate crisis and the inaction of many individuals. 

Eco-anxiety is complex and diverse. People may experience eco-anxiety differently from one another, but one person can also experience it in various ways throughout their life. Personally, when thinking of climate change and its effects, I’ve mostly experienced anxiety, sadness, guilt and anger, the latter being a powerful tool if used correctly. These low-vibrational feelings can affect our well-being, daily routines, relationships and responsibilities if not dealt with, so it is important to find healthy ways to cope. 

Coping with eco-anxiety

Here are 3 different ways that helped me cope with my eco-anxiety: 

  • Spending time in nature 
  • Find a community of like-minded people 
  • Take action 

Spending time in nature

Spending time outside in nature has many benefits for our physical, mental and social well-being in general. For example, it can improve your sleep and immune system, lessen anxiety and improve your mood, as well as leave you feeling more energized. On top of mental health benefits, spending time in nature (preferably out of the city if possible) can help show us nature’s beauty and hidden treasures, remind us how resilient nature can be, and help alleviate your eco-anxiety. No matter where you choose to go, whether it be in the forest, near the ocean or in your backyard, the important thing is to get outside and spend time connecting with nature. 

My top 3 ways of connecting with nature: 

  • Wandering in the forest and foraging 
  • Kayaking 
  • Birdwatching 

Community of like-minded people

Eco-anxiety can be very scary, especially without any support; when we feel alone in this situation, it is easy to experience sadness, hopelessness and become overwhelmed. I’m telling you now and I will most likely tell you again: you are not alone. There are many others living this experience too. People of all ages, ethnicities and socioeconomic statuses are experiencing eco-anxiety, looking for different ways to cope and ensure their wellbeing. Finding a community of like-minded people where you can share your thoughts and feelings without judgment or dismissal is a great coping method because we feel heard, understood and supported. 

Two students attending a youth leadership event and committing to take climate action together

Two students attending the Student Leadership Conference in Fredericton, pledging to take climate action together

I started meeting like-minded people through my education and met many more in a snowball-like way. After my social work degree, I pursued my education with a master’s degree in environmental studies, where I met individuals who cared deeply for the environment and wanted to make a change. My favourite part: we all had different educational backgrounds, which meant we all had different ideas and perspectives even though we shared the same values. It showed me the magic of interdisciplinary work. From there, I met multiple researchers, environmental activists and non-profit professionals, and continue to network to this day. 

How to find these people?

  • Start the conversation; it can help you find like-minded individuals and may even ignite the ecological spark in others 
  • Find local groups and committees: if there aren’t any, why not start your own at school or in your community?  
  • Connect with environmental advocates and non-profits: Check out this list of environmental groups in New Brunswick 
  • Explore online resources and forums: Eco-Anxious Stories is an online creative forum focused on eco-anxiety that provides a safe space for people to share their stories and get information on the subject 

Take action

Taking action against climate change and/or climate injustice is a great way to help alleviate your eco-anxiety, all while helping the cause and making an impact. This can be done individually or with a group, whether it be your friends and family, a committee at school or work, or with an environmental advocacy group. 

Students planting trees with The Gaia Project

As an individual, you can:

  • Reduce your meat consumption: this doesn’t mean you need to be vegan (although if that’s what you choose, great!). If you eat meat every day, reducing it to 2-3 times a week can make a huge difference. 
  • Sort your garbage accordingly, recycle, and minimize waste 
  • Shop local and ethical: agriculture and international transportation of merchandise are major greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions contributors 
  • Choose sustainable modes of transportation: walking, biking, public transportation and electric vehicles 
  • Invest in renewable energy sources for your home and business 
  • Volunteer with an environmental advocacy group or non-profit 
  • Create educational, environment-oriented content to help raise awareness on the issues 

 

As a group, you can:

  • Organize and host events, such as conferences, panels, community clean-ups, education-based family activities, etc. 
  • Protest peacefully 
  • Start a petition 
  • Organize a sharing circle where members can express how they are feeling without judgment, and receive support from other members 
  • Set up a community garden and/or green space 

A group of protesters hold a sign that says “save our planet”
Kelly from The Gaia Project coordinated her own climate rally

 

 

A group of protesters gather to raise awareness about climate change

As you can see, there are many ways that you can take action, which can help dissipate any feelings of anxiety, guilt or frustration you may be experiencing. Taking action with a group might make you feel less alone, or give you a bit more hope. No matter what you choose, the key is to do something for the environment that makes you feel good and proud of yourself. 

When it comes to taking action, I started out small by picking up garbage during my walks and disposing of it properly, and I also started recycling. They may be small actions, but I was proud of myself for starting somewhere. It’s important to celebrate the small victories. As time progressed, I started buying organic and local products, reduced my meat consumption, and volunteered with non-profits. Today, I try my best to educate as many people as I can on the state of our planet, climate justice, eco-emotions and the importance of connecting with nature. I’m aware that there is still much more that I can do, but I am proud of myself for making changes in my lifestyle for the sake of our planet and all the beings that call Earth their home.    

Eco-anxiety: a good thing?

Eco-anxiety won’t fully go away until the climate crisis is solved. This may seem bad, but once you’ve learned to maintain these feelings, you can use them to fuel your actions. For example, anger can be a powerful tool. Harness that anger and using it to fuel your actions in a meaningful way! This is NOT an encouragement to use aggression or violence, but an invitation to channel your strong feelings and use them as motivation to inflict changes in a healthy, peaceful and socially just way.

Now that I’ve learned to cope with my eco-anxiety and it doesn’t debilitate me, I’ve learned to appreciate it in some way. Let me explain. As an eco-anxious individual, I want to protect the Earth and its resources and fight for justice, equality and a sense of community. I think this shows a strong sense of care and compassion toward others, including the Earth and all its beings. 

Takeaways

  • Eco-anxiety is normal and rational 
  • Eco-anxiety can be experienced in different ways and at different degrees 
  • There are ways to cope with your eco-anxiety 
  • You are not alone; don’t be afraid to seek help and support when needed 
  • Be proud of yourself and the efforts you make 

 

Reference List: 

  1. Adutt, S. (2022). What is Eco-Anxiety? Young Upstart. https://www.ecoanxiety.com/what-is-eco-anxiety/
  2. Berman, R. (2021). Eco-anxiety: 75% of Young People Say “the Future is Frightening”. Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/eco-anxiety-75-of-young-people-say-the-future-is-frightening#A-generation-betraye
  3. Eco-Anxious Stories. (2022). Eco-Anxious Stories. https://ecoanxious.ca/
  4. Lynch, J., Cain, M., Frame, D. & Pierrehumbert, R. (2021). Agriculture’s Contribution to Climate Change and Role in Mitigation is Distinct from Predominantly Fossil CO2-Emitting Sectors. Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.
    https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2020.518039/full
  5. New Brunswick Environmental Network. (2022). Eco-Directory: Search for NBEN member and associate groups. https://db.nben.ca/
  6. Oakes, K. (2021). 8 Ways to Connect with Nature in your Everyday Life. Bearfoot Theory. https://bearfoottheory.com/how-to-connect-with-nature/
  7. Permaculture Research Institute. (n.d.). What is Permaculture? https://www.permaculturenews.org/what-is-permaculture/
  8. Statista. (2022). To What Extent are you Worried About Climate Change? https://www.statista.com/statistics/1248741/climate-change-worries-canada/
  9. Swiner, C. (2021). Health Benefits of Getting Outside. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/balance/ss/slideshow-health-benefits-nature
  10. Wang, S. & Ge, M. (2019). Everything You Need to Know About the Fastest-Growing Source of Global Emissions: Transport. World Resources Institute.
    https://www.wri.org/insights/everything-you-need-know-about-fastest-growing-source-global-emissions-
    transport#:~:text=How%20big%20a%20problem%20are,emissions%20from%20burning%20fossil
    %20fuels
    . 


Author:
Gab Bourque, Student Intern, The Gaia Project

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