April 22 is Earth Day and this year the annual event is taking a look at the fear and stress brought on the minds of earth’s residents in the face of the predicted changes to the environment due to human impact.
Researchers say that up to 70% of respondents felt worried about climate change and about half reported feeling “helpless” when it comes to climate change.
This is being described as ‘eco-anxiety’, and is the focus of this year’s Earth Day.
The American Psychiatric Association describes eco-anxiety as a “chronic fear of environmental doom”.
“The impacts of climate change on people’s physical, mental and community health rise directly and indirectly. Some human health effects stem directly from natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, like floods, storms, wildfires and heatwaves. Other effects surface more gradually from changing temperatures and rising sea levels that cause forced migration. Weakened infrastructure and less secure food systems are examples of indirect climate impacts on society’s physical and mental health,” this from a 2017 study by the APA on how mental health is impacted by climate change.
The report says that as climate change contributes to traumatic weather events, compounding stress can bring healthy people to a place of mental illness. That trauma can drive people to substance abuse, depression, PTSD and a slew of other vulnerabilities that are directly the result of climate change.
Because climate change is a phenomenon that affects us regionally, communities are likely to feel the brunt of the pain as well — meaning there is an inherent risk to communities experiencing climate related emergencies and disasters to see an increase in violence, crime, aggression and social instability.
Eco-anxiety can also be present among individuals who have a heightened sense of awareness or responsibility about what is happening with the state of the environment and it’s predicted trajectory if corporations and governments don’t act now to make positive change.
The fear of an impending ecological disaster can leave people feeling helpless, guilty and angry with the past, current and future generations dealings with the environment.
Researchers also found that indigenous communities are at a greater risk of vulnerability when it comes to eco-anxiety as those communities tend to be more connected to geographic areas where their homes, livelihood and traditions are tied to lands that may be severely affected by climate change.
But there are ways to manage eco-anxiety. Volunteering to raise awareness about how to mitigate climate change in your community can help. Making good choices to do business with companies that are environmentally responsible with their production practices, waste management and carbon footprint can help. Even choosing to follow a sustainable diet with less dairy and meat can balance your individual impacts on climate change and bring a sense of individual control and positive contribution back into focus, and alleviate eco-anxiety symptoms.
It’s also important to remain positive and remember that the earth, and mankind are resilient. Spending time outside with nature, connecting with the earth and bringing that practise into your everyday life can help shift your energy and focus. In turn, that can bring inspiration and new perspectives on how you can help your family and others make better choices for the earth.
If feelings of anxiety directly connected to the environment, climate disasters or fear of the future are overwhelming and disrupting your everyday life — it is important to seek professional help. Your family doctor, a local counselling service or traditional teachers can provide you guidance on where to find help. Also reaching out to community groups can be a huge assistance for those feelings of eco-anxiety. The Climate Psychology Alliance offers help for individuals, training for professionals, a podcast and other resources connected to help people cope with feelings of eco-anxiety.