What Is Eco-Anxiety?

Claire Killian

Over break I made a point of tuning out the news. On any given day, I watch the morning and evening news, then read intermittent articles throughout the day, which means that I’m consuming a pretty constant stream of media. Even as I was whisked away to the beautiful Bahamas, I couldn’t fully detach myself from the modern panic. While I wasn’t necessarily obsessing over every new breach of precedent, or judicial rule, I was constantly stressing about the impact my vacation had on the environment. From the plastic water bottles regularly given to guests of the hotel, to the immense water and electrical consumption a huge building like that would use.

This phenomena is not exactly new. In 2017 The American Psychological Association identified a new mental health epidemic called eco-anxiety, defined as being “a chronic fear of environmental doom.” This generation is disproportionately affected by climate change, and it feels like we are bearing the entire weight of a global issue. Most of the protests, and many of the key lawsuits, confronting climate change are led by young adults, and more often, teenagers. Eco-anxiety is not like clinical anxiety, it doesn’t stem from something biological or chemical, but rather a pervasive, apocalyptic fear that the world is ending around us and we are doing nothing to stop it.

We drill ourselves so hard to protect the environment. We don’t use plastic bags, and if we must, then we save them, we all but killed plastic straws, we’re turning to renewable energy, and buying fewer cars. Every day we try to do right by the environment, and feel an inordinate amount of guilt over little things. There is a sense that if I do everything right, then maybe that can make up for someone who isn’t perhaps as environmentally conscious as they need to be. 

It doesn’t help that this is very literally a matter of life or death. The language surrounding climate change is so extreme, we’re essentially talking about total extinction. While such strong words may be warranted, they only perpetuate feelings of anxiety, helplessness, and fear. These worries, to a certain degree, can be channeled into action, and used to fight the forces which don’t acknowledge climate change as a legitimate threat, or even a thing that exists. However, it is important to understand that while taking care of the planet, you have to take care of yourself as well, and that may mean taking a break.

Extinction Rebellion, one of the more active climate defense organizations, known for their marches and protests, has been vocal about their support for mental health in the age of climate change. They hold ‘meditation rebellions’ where groups of environmental activists can come together and clear their heads. Extinction Rebellion also posts regularly on social media, reminding followers to take care of themselves, and sometimes prioritize mental health.

In a day and age where there is so much constant information about every little fight and every little problem in the world, it is hard not to get overwhelmed. When you have to care so much about everything all the time, there’s a certain point where you either become numb or sacrifice your sanity. It’s hard to maintain some semblance of calm, and even when you feel far removed from the chaos surrounding climate change, there are lasting psychological impacts. The good news is that on both a national and global level, organizations, like The Good Grief Network and The Climate Psychology Alliance, are rising to meet this new mental pandemic. In an age of activism, it is important to defend your mental health as fiercely as you would the planet.