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What is eco-anxiety?

Eco-anxiety is a new term to describe an old phenomenon: all of the emotions we feel in response to current and future environmental upheavals.

According to some psychologists, it could turn out to be the biggest disease of this century. Dubbed "eco-anxiety", it is already affecting countless people across the globe, and is likely to grow as our environment deteriorates. Because, as you can imagine, the two things are closely linked… So, if we're going to better protect ourselves from eco-anxiety, it helps to first understand what it is.

Eco-anxiety: definition

Eco-anxiety – a portmanteau of the words ecological and anxiety – refers to a set of painful emotions and distress felt in response to current and future environmental upheavals.
In practice, it means feeling sad, depressed, anxious or even distressed in the face of the environmental crisis and its consequences. Unfortunately, there's no lack of these, from megafires to floods, soaring temperatures, species going extinct, rising sea levels, and more.

Eco-anxiety is a relatively recent concept, but one that's receiving increasing attention from researchers (particularly psychologists). As yet, there's no single definition. But it's worth taking a look at the one drawn up by a team of Oceanian researchers (University of Canberra, Australian National University and Victoria University of Wellington) in their study published in November 2021 entitled The Hogg Eco-Anxiety Scale: Development and validation of a multidimensional scale.

For these psychology researchers, eco-anxiety "is a term that captures experiences of anxiety relating to environmental crises. It encompasses 'climate change anxiety' (anxiety specifically related to anthropogenic climate change, including global warming, rising sea levels and increased incidence of natural disasters and extreme weather events) [...] as well as anxiety about a multiplicity of environmental calamities, which may or may not be directly caused by climate change, including the elimination of entire ecosystems and plant and animal species, global mass pollution and deforestation."

Eco-anxiety in the world (and among young people)

At the moment, it's hard to measure exact levels of eco-anxiety around the world. But what's for certain is that it exists (more and more people are reporting it), and it affects young people the most.

The most robust study into the phenomenon was published in September 2021 in the scientific journal The Lancet Planetary Health. It surveyed
10 000 young people aged 16 to 25 in ten countries (Australia, Brazil, Finland, France, India, Nigeria, Philippines, Portugal, the UK, and the USA), and found that eco-anxiety was far from being a fringe issue: 45% of respondents said that their feelings about climate change negatively affected their daily life. Their perception of the state of the world is particularly bleak, with 75% seeing the future as "frightening" and 56% believing that "humanity is doomed".

The study in The Lancet also showed that eco-anxiety can take different forms, including hope. "Climate anxiety can be connected to many emotions, including worry, fear, anger, grief, despair, guilt, and shame, as well as hope. [...] Complex and sometimes competing feelings are often experienced together and can fluctuate in response to personal and world events."
Guilt, in particular, was often cited, with 83% of those surveyed feeling that people had failed to take care of the planet.

And the younger you are, the more likely you are to be affected by eco-anxiety. The reason is simple: younger generations are more concerned about the environment than older generations; they're also more pessimistic. The latest research by the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME) revealed that French people over the age of 65 were almost twice as likely as 15- to 17-year-olds (39% versus 21%) to think that we'd adapt without too much trouble to the new ways of life brought about by climate change.

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Is eco-anxiety something you'd see a therapist for?

Not really, and for a good reason: eco-anxiety isn't a disease. According to psychologists, it's a perfectly reasonable reaction to the serious, brutal and wide-reaching environmental crisis that's unfolding. It features on neither the WHO (World Health Organization) list of diseases, nor in professional manuals of mental illness.

In other words, being sad and anxious about forests being burned, animals dying and ecosystems disappearing isn't an illness. But some people would argue otherwise! The study in The Lancet explains that eco-anxiety feelings are "congruent, and healthy responses to the threats we face".

In other words, sufferers are merely one step ahead of the rest of us, with more awareness than others about the gravity of the situation.

Eco-anxiety isn't a disease. According to psychologists, it's a perfectly reasonable reaction to what's currently unfolding around us.

What to do about eco-anxiety and how to manage it

All the same, psychologists point out that living with eco-anxiety long term clearly presents a risk to our mental health. They recommend tackling this stress head on, but without denying our legitimate emotions. How? The main tip is to remember that nobody can do the impossible (in this instance, saving the planet all by yourself) and accept that it doesn't all depend on you.

What's the difference between eco-anxiety and solastalgia?

As you'd expect, the phenomenon first emerged as individuals began to be more aware of the scale of the environmental crisis and perceive it as a threat. It could probably be dated to the 1970s or 80s. But it took until the late 90s before it had a name. The term eco-anxiety was invented and became a recognised concept thanks to Belgian-Canadian psychiatrist and public health researcher Véronique Lapaige.

Later on, in the 2000s, another word for a very similar experience was coined: solastalgia. The term was invented by Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht. It describes the distress felt by an individual when the environment around them – the one that they interact with on a daily basis – is breaking down. Albrecht studied how residents of Hunter Valley, Australia, became depressed as
their region was devastated by a large open-pit mine. "Solastalgia," wrote Albrecht, "is the existential and 'lived experience' of negative environmental change, manifest as an attack on one’s sense of place" (Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World, Glenn Albrecht, 2020).

Although long overlooked by the public discourse, eco-anxiety and solastalgia have seen increasing general interest in recent years. Indeed, they've been recognised as hard facts and serious public health, psychological and sociological issues, with newspaper articles, TV and radio shows, scientific research and medical consultations all dedicated to them.

One last tip: take action. Get involved so that you're not just standing idly by while consumed by your anxieties.

This might mean joining an environmental protection organisation, getting the people you know to take simple actions (buying less stuff, choosing an ethical bank, using their bike more often, going plogging, buying local food, etc.), being active politically, or even going on climate protests.

The idea is to beat the feeling of helplessness (which is very anxiety-provoking) by doing something useful and making yourself feel useful.

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Content writer specialising in the environment and fascinated by living things in all their forms, from birds to great apes, trees and marine mammals, not to mention human beings. 

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