Eco-Anxiety: The Psychological Strain of Climate Change

Eco-Anxiety: The Psychological Strain of Climate Change


As climate change accelerates and becomes more of a serious concern, many people are struggling under the weight of eco-anxiety. This emerging psychological phenomenon describes the climate distress, grief, and worry plaguing those individuals who are trying to comprehend the environmental catastrophe unfolding right in front of their eyes (Clayton, 2020).  With lives and stability threatened by climate disruption, experts consider eco-anxiety an understandable response. However, its prevalence has exceeded far enough to also signal the urgent need to address the mental health toll of the ecological crisis. Understanding barriers to the public’s climate engagement can be the first step towards widespread action to deal with climate anxiety.

The Rise of Eco-Anxiety 

While worry over environmental issues isn’t new, today’s eco-anxiety differs with the scale and urgency of climate threats. Watching sudden fires, floods, and heat waves in the news, climate distress now stems from the unforeseen and likely confrontation with disaster, not does not just remain as an abstract concern. Surveys by the American Psychiatric Association show Gen Z ranks climate change as its top anxiety-producing issue, even over personal dilemmas like affording college (American Psychiatric Association, 2021).

Over 50% of another survey reported their emotional well-being is being affected by eco-anxiety to some degree. Eco-anxiety especially burdens activists and scientists witnessing climate damage firsthand. Many even report symptoms resembling PTSD due to confronting climate change’s disastrous consequences. For a growing number, indifference towards climate change is no longer possible amidst the psychosocial strain of a crisis that threatens life as we know it. 

The Avoidance Paradox  

Yet surveys show the majority of the population still don’t prioritize climate change despite reporting high levels of eco-anxiety when directly asked. This avoidance paradox suggests eco-anxiety also meets repression, denial, apathy, and paralysis for many struggling with the issue. Research has attributed climate avoidance to the perfect form of psychological bias we adopt to cope with eco-anxiety. To confront climate’s dreadful realities could overwhelm anyone, making avoidance enticing and preferable. We crave the comforts of normalcy bias, denial, and the illusion of control.

When something scary happens that is related to climate change or the environment, people often try to ignore it or pretend it’s not real. This makes them feel better in the short term because they don’t have to think about the scary problem. But in the long term, ignoring climate problems makes people more worried and anxious. Every time there is a new climate crisis, like a hurricane or heat wave, people feel bad if they have been ignoring climate change. They may feel helpless or full of regret that they didn’t pay attention sooner. Over many years, ignoring many climate disasters can make people extremely worried, anxious, sad, or even depressed about the environment.

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Scientists who study human thinking and emotions explain why people ignore climate crises. When people learn how much damage climate change can cause, they naturally feel overwhelmed with fear. No one likes to feel afraid all the time. So people try to think about normal day-to-day things instead of the scary problem. Some people even pretend climate change is not real so they don’t have to worry about it. This helps them cope with the fear in the short term. However, ignoring scary problems related to climate change just makes the worry build up inside people over the years.

After each new climate crisis, the buried fear and regret get even stronger. By ignoring many climate disasters over many years, people get closer and closer to extremely high anxiety, panic, sadness, and health problems related to the climate. The best way to prevent these mental health problems is to pay attention to the reality of climate change. Even though the facts may be scary, ignoring reality always makes negative feelings increase over the long term. Facing climate problems directly, and thinking about solutions, can help people avoid buried climate fears that hurt mental health.

Overcoming Barriers in the Green Mind 

While climate anxiety may never disappear given ecological instability, cultivating a “green mind” could help control its severity. The green mind signifies psychological readiness to engage in climate change through several pro-environmental mental shifts. While some degree of climate worry may persist in an unstable world, nurturing a “green mind” can be helpful. This psychological concept describes preparedness to appropriately understand the truth and changing nature of the climate. (Ojala, 2016).

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At its foundation lies climate acceptance, not avoidance. The green mind understands repression only harms, while truthful acceptance of challenges (in this case, the worsening climate) offers opportunities to grow. It also accepts personal responsibility to counteract rather than rationalize climate avoidance tendencies in our brains.

The green mind further internalizes eco-conscious values by reshaping social norms, bonding through eco-communities, and continually educating ourselves on sustainability skills.  Finally, climate distress is balanced with climate joy by celebrating nature, revelling in activism victories, and visualizing a happy green planet in the future. Hope for a better future sustains the green mind’s motivation long enough for change.

Additionally, an empowered identity committed to sustainability develops through reshaping social norms, joining eco-communities, and continually educating ourselves about climate literacy (Fritze et al., 2008).

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From Climate Anxiety to Climate Action

Helping everyone in society pay more attention to nature and the environment requires getting rid of obstacles that stop people from thinking about climate change. One idea is to make information about environmental problems much easier to access for all people. When people learn how pollution and gas emissions hurt certain communities more than others, they get motivated to make a difference. Governments and companies also need to fully share all data and facts they have about greenhouse gases and lobbying. Right now they hide lots of facts. Accessible information reduces ignoring the problem.  We also need to make sustainable products the normal and default choice for everyone. Products should be affordable, high quality, and available for all.

Governments can pass laws to motivate companies to make sustainable changes through tax incentives and penalties. When green products are standard rather than special luxury items, citizens find it easy to make Earth-friendly choices. In addition, social media groups and forums that bring advocates together are needed. These digital spaces allow eco-conscious citizens to share ideas and turn their vision for society into reality through coordinated activism. With enough voices united and speaking loudly to leaders, major positive systems change can happen. But currently, people who care about the environment lack unity and influence compared to giant lobbying groups working against climate action.

In summary, everyone ignoring climate change is not just an individual failure. Our whole infrastructure needs a redesign to remove barriers and bring environmental choices into the mainstream. Shared data, financial incentives through laws, and online activist networks are key to helping citizens prioritize sustainability in their lives and work. With less obstruction from powerful opposition groups, mindful green living can become the norm. Psychology and the climate movement should collaborate to heal eco-anxiety by both growing empowered green minds and dismantling external barriers for collective climate action. With environmentally conscious minds unlocked, we can pull ourselves back from the brink through a societal shift toward sustainability.  

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References +
  • Clayton, S. (2020). Climate anxiety: Psychological responses to climate change. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 74, 102263.
  • American Psychiatric Association (2021). Stress in America 2021 Survey.
  • Hayes, K., Blashki, G., Wiseman, J., Burke, S., & Reifels, L. (2018). Climate change and mental health: Risks, impacts and priority actions. International Journal of Mental Health Systems, 12(1), 1-12.
  • Cunsolo, A., Harper, S. L., Minor, K., Hayes, K., Williams, K. G., & Howard, C. (2020). Ecological grief and anxiety: The start of a healthy response to climate change? The Lancet Planetary Health, 4(7), e261-e263.

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