The "Fridays For Future" youth climate movement holds a march on November 5, 2021 to George Square in the center of Glasgow, where the United Nations Climate Change Conference, COP26, is taking place. (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Eco-Fear: Mental Health in the Age of Climate Emergency

As a climate student, I understand the isolation that comes with carrying a burden much of the world prefers to ignore—particularly those with the power to alleviate it.

Human beings today face climate challenges on an incomprehensibly enormous scale. Given the gravity of the situation we're in, the guilt we carry about our part in creating it, and infuriating, long-standing government inaction, it's no surprise that feelings of hopelessness and despair abound. This dark cloud has become so widely felt and acknowledged in recent years that it's even been given a name: "eco-anxiety," defined by the American Public Health Association (APHA) as "a chronic fear of environmental doom." While eco-anxiety can be ignited in anyone by events as small as watching the nightly news, those deeply involved in the climate space are more vulnerable than others. As climate activists, our work is needed now more than ever: we must begin learning to live with our eco fear by talking with each other, forging connections within our communities, and taking direct action to combat the climate crisis.

Although eco-anxiety is still the most widely-used term to describe this phenomenon, and is itself a relatively new idea, Professor of Psychology Craig Chalquist prefers the term "eco-fear." Far from arbitrary nit-picking over semantics, this change prompts a real question of perception: while "anxiety" insinuates "a cause within the mind" of the afflicted, "fear" implies "a genuine and realistic response to outer crisis." Given evidence that suggests our climate worrying is in fact an advantageous adaptive response to the climate emergency--an "alarm bell" alerting us to serious and imminent danger--the latter framing appears to be more accurate. It's therefore important that mental health professionals and climate organizers alike discuss the painful eco-fear our communities are experiencing without simply pathologizing mostly reasonable responses to our dire climate situation.

"Were an asteroid to be found heading directly for our planet, nobody would use the term "astro-anxiety" and go to therapy to talk about it. We would all get busy on how to avoid or prepare for the catastrophe, including voting out of office anyone in denial about the magnitude of the crisis."
--Linda Buzzell & Craig Chalquist

It doesn't take direct exposure to the effects of the climate crisis for one to experience eco-fear. According to one article, even "watching or reading about climate change and natural disasters on the news... can cause anxiety, depression, secondary trauma, and other psychological conditions." In these scenarios, eco-fear "stems... from uncertainty over what is yet to come," says Good Grief founder Aimee Lewis-Reau.

The acknowledgement that anyone may suffer from eco-fear doesn't imply that all individuals face equal risk. Groups with heightened vulnerability to the effects of the climate crisis, including indigenous communities, the poor, and those who are physically or mentally disabled, face higher risk of eco-fear than others. Another vulnerable demographic includes those who devote a considerable amount of time and energy to contemplating the climate crisis. While the most obvious members of this group are climate scientists, it's safe to say that climate activists, organizers, and students fall into this category as well. According to author and psychotherapist Linda Buzzell, these individuals' heightened risk arises from their "near-constant exposure" to the bleak realities of the climate crisis. "Their knowledge is a burden they carry with them on a daily basis and, as more and more news enters the public arena, there is no escape," another study concurs.

As a climate student, I understand the isolation that comes with carrying a burden much of the world prefers to ignore--particularly those with the power to alleviate it. I also understand that the present situation requires my efforts on the ground. Reasonable response to the climate crisis or not, we as climate activists and organizers must learn to live with our eco-fear if we can ever hope to cure it by means of healing our planet.

The first step in my journey has been talking with other climate activists, organizers, and students about the struggles we face as informed citizens of a suffering Earth. Our climate peers understand the eco-fear we feel in a way no one else does; these conversations remind us that the climate crisis is not a burden we shoulder alone, but one our community carries together. This sharing also provides opportunities to nourish our connections to each other as a network, strengthening both our individual support systems and the climate movement as a whole. On days when--despite our best efforts to connect with each other--our eco-fear threatens to consume us, action is a surefire cure. Whether taking to the streets with signs, organizing protests or educational events, or simply calling or writing to our representatives, action restores our feelings of passion and agency--and helps advance our movement in the process.

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