A hand squeezes an earth stress ballBBC Three

'Eco-anxiety': how to spot it and what to do about it

Feeling overwhelmed by the existential challenge of climate change? You’re not alone

Dave Fawbert
Share this:

The headlines detailing extreme weather events seem to come at you day after day. Your social feed - and just stepping outside - alerts you to record temperatures being set. And yet, still, some people in positions of power deny its full impact.

Meanwhile, an academic paper on climate change - that is so grim it apparently resulted in people going to therapy - has gone viral, with some reports suggesting it has been downloaded more than 110,000 times.

In the words of the 16-year-old Swedish climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who founded the school strike for climate movement in 2018: “Adults keep saying, we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope, I don’t want you to be hopeful, I want you to panic.”

And, it seems, some people are indeed panicking, but, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issue and mindful of their position as just one person on a planet of billions, they feel powerless. This has led to the phenomenon of ‘eco-anxiety’, described by Psychology Today as “a fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis”.

Anxiety disorders more generally vary in severity and, according to Anxiety UK, more than 1 in 10 British adults are likely to experience a "disabling anxiety disorder" during the course of their life.

No stats are available on the prevalence of eco-anxiety, but some experts have noted an increase in public anxiety around climate change. Professor of psychology and environmental studies at the College of Wooster, Ohio, Susan Clayton, co-authored a 2017 report titled Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications, and Guidance. She says: "We can say that a significant proportion of people are experiencing stress and worry about the potential impacts of climate change, and that the level of worry is almost certainly increasing.”

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders - the guide mental health professionals use to make diagnoses in the US - does not yet include ‘eco-anxiety’ as a specific condition, but the American Psychological Association produced a 2017 report detailing the impacts of climate change on mental health which made reference to the term ‘eco-anxiety’. The glossary describes it as "a chronic fear of environmental doom".

A woman stands in front of melting ice fieldsiStock
Melting ice fields in Iceland

It describes it as a source of stress caused by “watching the slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and worrying about the future for oneself, children, and later generations”. It adds that some people “are deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change.” 

It's possibly unsurprising, since it's hard to read the landmark 2018 report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) which called for “urgent and unprecedented changes” to achieve a reduction in carbon emissions of 45% by 2030 (11 years from now) without feeling some degree of uncertainty. That's the minimum we need to do if we want to keep the increase in global warming to 1.5C, beyond which the report warned of catastrophic results including flooding, extreme weather events, drought and famine. 

Debra Roberts, lead author of the IPCC report, said at the time: “It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now... I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency.”

"I’ve noticed a great increase of clients needing to talk about eco-anxiety since the IPCC report at the end of last year," says Mary Jayne Rust, a British eco-psychologist. "Mostly, they are in need of talking it through with a therapist who is knowledgeable about the issues. I think it is a massive thing to live with the suspicion that (as some of my younger clients have said), ‘We’re completely screwed’. I suspect it might be part of the reason for binge-drinking epidemics, and other addictions, for example. There is a general feeling that the future is so uncertain and it’s extremely hard to live with."

Hilda Burke, an UKCP and BACP accredited psychotherapist, added that she has also “noticed an increasing number of clients expressing anxiety over the state of the planet, and indeed its survival.”

Among sufferers of eco-anxiety, there is certainly not a mood of complacency, but more of frustration.

Sam JohnstonSam Johnston
Sam Johnston suffers from eco-anxiety

Sam Johnston, from Manchester, spoke to BBC Radio 1 for a documentary about eco-anxiety: “When you go to sleep, but you start thinking about everything - the state of the planet, really, and the potential future of it - and knowing that there's only so much you can do as one person. I think that's the anxiety - because you just feel a bit powerless in it all.”

It can even affect professionals working in the field. Tim Gordon, a marine biologist at the University of Exeter, embarks on trips that many would dream of: studying life in incredible settings like the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, or the middle of the Arctic Ocean.

However, for him, it’s tinged with sadness, because "what we find is that we're documenting the rapid decline of these places. A lot of the time, you're kind of numb to it." He continued in his interview with BBC Radio 1: "You've spent so many months doing it and you just get on with it - you know, you've got a job to do. But then occasionally, for no particularly good reason, it'll strike - you just float into the middle of the water, look around you and think: ‘Wow, it's all dying’.

“There's been times that you cry into your mask because you look around and realise how tragic it is.”

For Sam, the anxiety manifests itself in physical ways. “Recently, I'm struggling to fall asleep naturally,” he says. “I probably get a bout of heart palpitations - like, once a year.”

So, if you feel ‘eco-anxiety’ might be impacting your mental health, what steps can you take to counteract it?

The NHS offers advice on treatments for Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD), including Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and medication.

However, scientists such as Owen Gaffney, co-author of a paper which details achievable steps and suggestions for governments, businesses and individuals to change their behaviours to slow warming, believes that people should not feel hopeless about the situation and that individual choices can have a positive impact on the planet.

An illustration a person sat holding their knees in front of the Earth circled by polluting factoriesBBC Three

He told BBC Three: “Eco-anxiety is the right response to the scale of the challenge. But I am an optimist. We live in an age where individuals have more power than at any time in history. Look at your sphere of influence - employer, networks, family - and influence them. We don’t need to convince 100% of people, only 25%, then an idea can go from marginal to mainstream.”

He insists that people should remain positive, saying: “The science is loud, clear and simple: we need to halve global emissions of greenhouse gases by 2030. All the solutions exist to do that, and if we implement them then more people will be living in cleaner cities, eating healthy diets and working in resilient, buoyant economies.”

Duncan Geere, who edited the report, adds: “I totally understand why people might feel powerless in the face of climate change. It feels like anything you do is totally insignificant compared to the scale of the challenge we face. And it's true that political leaders and big businesses bear the bulk of the responsibility.

However, while acknowledging that “political leaders and big businesses bear the bulk of the responsibility,” he outlines three things that you can do, as an individual, to help make a change, and to reassert control over your feelings.

Earth stress ballBBC Three

“Firstly, make climate change a factor in the decisions you make around what you eat, how you travel, and what you buy. Secondly, talk about climate change with your friends, family and colleagues. Finally, demand that politicians and companies make it easier and cheaper to do the right thing for the climate.”

As marine biologist Tim says: "I'd be lying if they said that there wasn't a lot of time when you think, ‘Why do we bother’? But, when you sit down, chat to other scientists and have a bit of a think about it, you realise that there's a huge amount that we can still do. Yes, these places are in trouble. But it's in our power to protect what's left and make a meaningful difference. And that's why we do this. That's why we carry on.” 

This article was produced in collaboration with BBC's Our Planet Matters.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, information about help and support is available here.