Climate change is causing us to be more anxious than ever. What does this mean and how can we combat climate anxiety?

Climate anxiety or eco-anxiety is experienced as stress, fear, and worry about current and future effects of climate change. It is based on a real threat and is a rational response to the world we live in. Floods, fires, heat waves and massive storms have already caused hundreds of thousands worldwide to lose their homes, loved ones, pets and livelihoods. Climate anxiety can cause guilt, anger, grief as well as the inability to cope with changing circumstances.

According to the American Psychological Association, over two-thirds of Americans have climate anxiety. According to a study published by the medical journal Lancet, 84% of children and young adults aged 16-25 are worried about climate change and some 69% are very worried. They are the age group that will bear the effects of older generations’ failure to act to stem the challenging and possibly apocalyptic climate future they will face. Seventy-five percent of the children participating in the Lancet study said the future is frightening. Half feel their ability to concentrate, eat, sleep, study and enjoy relationships is affected.

And according to Stephanie Collier writing for Harvard Health Publishing at Harvard Medical School, it is more than anxiety about natural disasters and heat increases. “Rising temperatures have been associated with increases in emergency department visits for psychiatric reasons and may impair cognitive development in children and adolescents.” “Furthermore”, she adds, “food insecurity is associated with depression, anxiety and behavioral problems.”

Stanford researcher Britt Wray, author of Generation Dread – a book that shares strategies for coping with climate stress, emphasizes “climate anxiety is not itself a problem. It’s actually a very healthy and normal response to have when one understands the escalating civilization threat that we are dealing with.” But she adds, “it can become a huge problem if the feelings become so severe that a person starts to lose their ability to function and access well being and get through the day.”

BBC writer Georgina Rannard reporting for BBC states that, according to experts, climate fears can actually be good news for the planet. She cited research by University of Bath environmental psychologist Lorriane Whitmarch, who found a link between climate concerns and taking effective action. “People who are really aware of climate change may be more motivated to take action,” she states.

What about the rest of us? Certainly paying attention to what is happening is a healthier response than denial. Surely it is not just the younger generations, first responders, scientists and activists who understand the consequences of inaction. What is wrong with the rest of us? According to Joseph Dodds writing for the BJPsych Bulletin at the National Library of Medicine, there are four hypotheses:

• Humans have a faulty alarm system. A cognitive bias has evolved in our risk detection system. We have primarily evolved to respond to immediate threats. Something that happens more slowly does not generate enough anxiety for us to act.

• The bystander effect. There is a conflict between individual self-interest and collective self-interest. “We may need to cut fossil fuel use but I am not giving up my truck!”

• We have disconnected with nature and many modern humans do not care enough about the natural world to want to protect it, nor do they understand we are all threatened by damage to the natural world.

• Denial and apathy are defenses the ego uses to defend against anxiety, fear and conflict. Instead of responding to fear and guilt with healthy responses we rigidify our defense mechanisms.

As Dodds says, “all major defense mechanisms are clearly visible with relation to climate change focused on two emotional threats: denying the reality of climate change – if it does not exist it is a conspiracy, or denying our losses, dependency or responsibility – nature may die but we will be fine.”

The answer he suggests lies not in pathologizing our anxiety, but in developing strong social networks and a living relationship with the natural world.

An asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs. Our denial, disconnect, and disassociation may be our own asteroid.

Original source: https://www.abqjournal.com