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How Climate Change Can Affect Anxiety

How Climate Change Can Affect Anxiety

Eco-anxiety should not be ignored.

Josh Teal

Josh Teal

When we think about anxiety and its triggers, we think of job insecurity, bills, relationship and friendship troubles. We don't usually associate the environment as a contender. Moreover, the fragility of the environment.

The idea or reality of someone suffering anxiety due to the wrongdoings of the public when it comes to chucking a McDonald's coffee cup in a wrong bin at a train station might seem outlandish, but it exists to a bigger degree than you might have thought.

Firstly, and obviously, it's not just the little things that do it: leaving the lights on, running the tap while your toothbrush is not in need of a rinse, sawing down a tree. It's more to do with the concept of global warming and climate change. The lurking fear that we are only years away from irrepressible disaster.

The term 'eco-anxiety' is not exactly a new one. It refers to negative valence related to the unwanted consequences of climate change and it denotes emotional distress stemming from eco-consciousness.

Dr. Neil Dagnall, a cognitive and parapsychological researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University, tells me that awareness for eco-anxiety has risen recently despite the term having appeared way back in a 1990 Washington Post article.

Climate Change
Climate Change

Image Credit: H._B._

"As the media have focused increasingly on climate change, interest has grown and the prevalence of eco-anxiety has increased," says Dr Dagnall. "Concurrently, academic attention has concentrated on the impact of eco-anxiety from an individual and societal perspective."

Eco-anxiety is not an issue exclusive to, say, young Americans. The WWF recorded that 80 percent of Sweden's young (15 - 25) fret about the role climate change will play in their future. Meanwhile, a 2013 study showed that 73 percent of Nigerians responded positively when asked whether they thought climate change had affected them.

As to the specific cause of this, researchers have contended there is a direct link with some factors and not simply one.

"The consensus is that eco-anxiety arises from numerous potential factors," explains Dr Dagnall. "One key variable is interest in environmental issues. Individuals who are very concerned about climate change will tend to strengthen their pre-existing beliefs based on personal experience. Articles and information about ecological issues and concerns will fuel further interest, create anxiety and perpetuate worry. This can become a classic, self-reinforcing, negative, feedback loop. Anxiety about climate change feeds further worries and concerns. If climate change is consistent with the individual's worldview then the issue will be of great importance and act as a central focus for anxiety."

I asked, rather naively, whether this genre of anxiety should be taken as seriously as generalised anxiety disorder (GAD) as it has a direct and understandable reason to justify it, thus making it 'normal'. Dr Dagnall argued that if eco-anxiety has a profound and debilitating effect on an individual or community then of course it should.

Climate Change
Climate Change

Image Credit: @Mikemezphoto

He added: "As with many mental health issues, it is a matter of degree. Interventions/professional help is required if the worries, fears, or anxiety attacks become so great that they cause extreme distress, or disrupt daily living/routines. It is a matter of degree.

"If you look at the characteristics of GAD, this represents an acute form of non-specific anxiety. Eco-anxiety by definition is a specific form of anxiety. Anxiety is often co-occurring or co-morbid with other anxiety disorders, such as panic disorder, and depressive disorders."

'Environmental anxiety', he says, entails obsessive and potentially disabling worry about health risks that aren't significant in comparison to dangers like motor vehicle accidents and smoking. "Given the evidence and predictions about climate change and the scale of impacts, what constitutes an appropriate level of worry remains in questionable," thinks Dr Dagnall.

So, fewer people will suffer eco-anxiety than GAD, yet that isn't to take away from its significance when it comes to mental health. Just like any others, it has to be treated. But how?

Eco-anxiety can be treated by typical anxiety and specialist therapeutic interventions such as ecotherapy, a nature-based method of physical and psychological healing. A new form of psychotherapy, ecotherapy addresses the human-nature relationship and, in turn, the vital role of nature in the individual's life, which it views as inseparable.

"Acknowledging this link facilitates tailored repair/healing of dysfunction human-nature interactions and damaged human psyches," says Dr Dagnall. "Ecotherapy draws on the premise that whatever happens in nature will affect people and vice versa. Part of ecotherapy is reorientation of the individual's relationship with the Earth and fellow people."

Featured Image Credit: MarkUsRuci

This week we are taking a look at the causes and effects on our planet with our Climate Change editorial initiative. Read more here:

Climate Change: A Look At The Causes And Effects On Our Planet

Myth vs. Truth: What's Really Happening With Climate Change?

A Quarter Of A Billion People Could Be Displaced By Climate Change

The Shocking Impact Of Climate Change: Before And After

We're also partnering with National Geographic to live stream Leonardo DiCaprio and Fisher Stevens' environmental film, Before The Flood, on TheLADbible's Facebook channel and on Sunday 30th October at 9pm GMT. Check out more information.

Climate Change is a crisis for this generation and generations to come. We want to know where you stand on the issue. What can you do? How can we all stop destroying the world? Filling in this poll will help us try to make a difference.

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Topics: climate change, Mental Health