[Editors note: this article was first published in on 5th July. We have republished today because the brilliant video below has just been added. Eileen talks about her eco-anxiety because of climate change fears but ends on a note of hope…. ]
It was on waking in the middle of the night that the thought first came to me. Like a flash of lightning, I suddenly realised why I was so keen to seek out the good news of what people are doing to bring us to a better world. Yes – I am suffering from eco-anxiety and need to find a way to deal with the gloom and doom which seems to invade my every day.
This mental condition has recently been recognised and named by psychologists who have in recent months seen a huge increase in the number of people seeking help for their anxieties about the state of the world, especially the climate crisis.
From The Guardian, I learned: until two years ago Dr Patrick Kennedy-Williams, a clinical psychologist from Oxford, had spent his career treating common mental health difficulties including anxiety, depression and trauma. Then something new started to happen. Climate scientists and researchers working in Oxford began to approach him asking for help.
“These were people who were essentially facing a barrage of negative information and downward trends in their work … and the more they engaged with the issue, the more they realised what needed to be done – and the more they felt that was bigger than their capacity to enact meaningful change,” he said. “The consequences of this can be pretty dire – anxiety, burnout and a sort of professional paralysis.”
Kennedy-Williams began to research the topic and realised it was not just scientists and researchers who were suffering.
“There is a huge need among parents, for instance, who are asking for support on how to talk to their kids about this.”
From the Climate Psychology Alliance (CPA) I learned that eco-anxiety among children “escalated” over the summer last year. The organisation has since been campaigning for it to be recognised as a psychological phenomenon caveated, however, that it shouldn’t be classed as a mental illness as the worry is a “rational” one.
Eco-anxiety is increasing
Although there are no official statistics on how many people are struggling with eco-anxiety, as it is a relatively new term, counsellors have been reporting that it’s something they’ve seen impacting more and more clients over the past few years.
As part of her research into eco-anxiety, Caroline Hickman from the Climate Psychology Alliance has interviewed children in the UK and in the Maldives – one of the parts of the world already severely affected by climate change. She facilitates workshops in the UK for young people to share their concerns about the climate and ecological emergency, including going into schools; and for parents and teachers looking for advice on how to support children.
So it seems that in feeling eco-anxious I’m not alone!
Trying to understand why I’ve suddenly become far more aware of, and anxious about, the climate crisis we face, I remind myself that George Marshall in his book ‘Don’t Even Think About It: Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change’ said that we block out aspects of the bigger world which might make us feel overwhelmed and powerless.
I’ve long been interested in why people don’t seem to be actively interested in the climate crisis and in my blog on Sept 12 Dare we even think about what is happening in our crazy world? I described the many writers and activists who have found answers to why we don’t see the bigger picture.
Having overcome all the obstacles to my seeing the seriousness of what is going on, I’ve taken off the blinkers and can see that unless we bring about worldwide change pretty urgently we are in for pretty catastrophic times ahead. No wonder I’m feeling anxious!
Help is at hand in dealing with eco-anxiety
So, what do I do to alleviate my anxiety? Well, there are lots of helpful suggestions out there …
First up is psychotherapist and lecturer Caroline Hickman who, over the last 5 years has been researching how children and young people feel about the climate emergency.
‘We should be wary of suggesting that someone anxious about the climate crisis is in anyway “mentally unwell”. Eco anxiety is not a mental health problem that needs to be fixed or cured, rather it is a healthy response to the situation we are facing. Anxiety, whilst uncomfortable, is at least an awareness of the reality of the situation that we face. And the good news (if I can call it that), is that once aware you can then at least do something about it. Or start to face the difficult, uncomfortable truths of what the future looks like.’
She adds that:
‘Feeling this anxiety is an emotionally mature state to be in, which shows that you are aware of the crisis that we are all facing. So, whilst it can be unpleasant, I would firstly say that this is a sign of willingness to face painful truths and facts, and that should be acknowledged and almost (though not quite as simple as this) be celebrated. But how? First of all, try to recognise your feelings as completely reasonable and necessary, rather than push them away. Taking time to acknowledge my feelings helps me maintain a healthy relationship with them, and often motivates my work and activism’
Eco-anxiety is rational and necessary
So there I have it: By acknowledging my eco-anxiety as a mature, rational and necessary response to the environmental crisis we face, I will be able to go on to bring about changes in my life and join with others who feel similarly and are taking action ….
‘The ideal is to find balance between feeling these emotions, and then using them in different ways to create meaningful change, better relationships with your family and friends, maybe even more meaningful work and activism of some kind. At least know that you are not alone with your fears.’
‘Finding your place in a community can also be a huge help with feelings of despair and anxiety. There are a lot of support and activist groups you can join. The shared belonging and concern can be a great support, and working towards tangible solutions can give a much greater sense of control in overwhelming circumstances.’
I can vouch for the truth in her suggestion that ‘The shared belonging and concern can be a great support’ because I’ve found a supportive refuge in our local Extinction Rebellion group. I wrote about my XR extinction in my blog on April 29 last year.
Facing up to our eco-anxiety and turning hope into action for change is central to the work of Christiana Figueres who was the UN Executive Secretary for Climate Change between 2010 and 2016 and Tom Rivett-Carnac who was senior political strategist for the Paris Agreement.
In their must-read book ‘The Future We Choose’ Figueres and Rivett-Carnac make it very clear that we can all play a part in creating a better, fairer, more sustainable world if we choose to do so. The book describes 10 ways we can all act NOW.
They have established an organisation – aptly named ‘Global Optimism’ – which focuses on creating environmental and social change.
Global Optimism’s central message is that hopelessnesses is the biggest barrier to change and they extol us all to adopt ‘stubborn optimism’.
So I move forward in a spirit of optimism, carrying with me what I learned from ‘The Future we choose’ –
‘We are all weavers of the grand tapestry of history’
‘The time for doing what we can is past. Each of us must now do what is necessary.’
To strengthen my ‘stubborn optimism’ and help control my eco-anxiety, I’m searching for all the good things which are happening worldwide to bring us to a better place and plenty of good things I’ve found ….