Is eco-anxiety the new mental health crisis?
We know global warming is endangering our planet. But now experts are warning it may bring a new threat – to our mental health.
If you’re stressed about the state of the planet, you’re not alone.
But if drought concern keeps you awake at night, you spend hours doom-scrolling natural disasters, or you lose your appetite at the mention of melting ice caps, you may be suffering from the growing affliction psychologists around the globe have dubbed “eco-anxiety”.
- Eco-friendly: A-Z guide to living more sustainably
What is eco-anxiety?
Eco-anxiety – also known as climate distress or anxiety – is the chronic or severe fear of impending environmental doom.
Co-chair for the Doctors for the Environment mental health special interest groups, psychiatrist Dr Cybele Dey, says climate distress encompasses everything from sadness, guilt and grief, to frustration, fear and anger.
“This can be a healthy response to the very real and serious problem of climate change,” Dr Dey says.
“But when people are ignored and dismissed, when they are isolated, or if they do not see their leaders taking action, then that stress can become unmanageable and lead to serious mental health problems.”
While not currently classified as a mental illness, experts are becoming increasingly concerned, and a recent DEA report concluded climate change is already having wide-reaching impacts on the mental health of Australians.
- Positive action: How to talk to kids about climate change
What are the symptoms of eco-anxiety?
Clinical psychologist and Headspace App mental health expert for Australia, Mary Spillane, says symptoms can include obsessive thinking, panic attacks, loss of appetite and insomnia.
“It may disrupt your sleep, make you feel agitated or hopeless about the future, you may withdraw socially,” Mary says.
“Potentially, it can manifest physically, such as an upset tummy, headaches, those sorts of things.”
Dr Dey says climate distress rates are very high – particularly in young people.
“We know that well over 50 per cent of young people are seriously concerned about climate change,” she says.
- Make a difference: 5 habits that are good for you and the planet
How can you manage eco-anxiety?
Dr Dey says there are a number of coping mechanisms and resources to help you get a handle on climate distress.
“Research shows taking positive action on climate change and connecting with others can be a source of energy, and improve rather than worsen your mental health,” she says.
Mary recommends being deliberate, not obsessive, about the information you consume.
“When you’re anxious the urge to look can be overwhelming, but this can also become really distressing and destabilising,” she says.
Having regular mindfulness practise is helpful, and Mary says the new Headspace app will feature climate anxiety meditation courses and content from June 23.
“The app has meditations to help people tolerate the pain of the present moment and the lack of control, which can help manage that anxiety,” she says.
- Anxiety busters: 7 expert-backed tips to calm your mind
If you or someone you know needs help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or www.lifeline.org.au
Written by Dimity Barber.