The changing climate and associated climate disasters can cause chronic mental health disorders due to trauma, anxiety, and depression. A 2020 study showed that 55% of the UK population’s well-being and mental health had been impacted by climate change. The media is overwhelmed with news of climate change issues, including soaring temperatures, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, warming oceans, and storms. All of which pose a critical threat to humans, wildlife, and the planet. This can be overwhelming and results in feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.
A well-publicised 2018 report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested that there would be irreversible damage caused due to climate change by 2040, resulting in a mass die-off of coral reefs, food shortages, mass drought, flooding and wildfires. Reports such as these bring our existential fears to the fore; with the understanding or belief that there is little we can do to prevent these catastrophes, our anxieties increase.
The Environment’s Impact on Mental Health
There is a wealth of research on how natural disasters, including floods, hurricanes, heatwaves, and wildfires, lead to psychological issues. This is due to the traumatic experiences these disasters result in; fearing for one’s life, loss of loved ones, loss of home or job, or a loss of or disconnection from community. This can cause hyper-vigilance, increased levels of anxiety and depression, and anger and aggression.
However, climate change also leads to long-term psychological effects, including environment anxiety, eco-anxiety, climate distress, climate change anxiety, or climate anxiety. Although The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not recognise environment anxiety, The American Psychological Association (APA) describes it as a “chronic fear of environmental doom.”
With the prevalence of environmental issues across many aspects of our daily lives, understanding this emerging psychological condition is of paramount importance if we wish to address the mental health needs of those suffering.
Anxiety is an appropriate reaction to climate change’s effects on the planet and humanity. However, if this anxiety transitions into a problematic mental health disorder, the effects can be long-lasting and debilitating.
It has been evidenced that there has been an increase in those suffering from environment anxiety both through direct and indirect experiences of environmental catastrophes and climate change.
Witnessing natural disasters on the news or living through them both cause psychological distress, with people experiencing anxiety, nightmares, depression, loss of general well-being, and socio-ethical paralysis.
- Feelings of helplessness, fear, and fatalism
- Panic attacks
- Loss of a sense of control and autonomy
- Insomnia or nightmares
- Obsessive thoughts
- Interpersonal issues including anger, aggression, and hostility, as well as loss of social identity
These distressing symptoms can consume people’s daily lives and have a long-term effect on someone’s well-being, leading to stress-related problems such as anxiety disorders, substance abuse, and physiological issues such as chronic pain, chronic fatigue, and a weakened immune system.
Environment Anxiety and Young People
Youths and young adults have been found to be more affected by environment anxiety than older adults. A public perception survey conducted by YouGov found that 61% of 16-24 year-olds and 60% of 25-34 year-olds were most likely to say that their mental health had been affected by climate change. The concerns of those affected by environment anxiety were as follows:
- 65% were concerned about the impact on the natural world
- 63% were worried about the increased frequency of natural disasters
- 58% were concerned about what the world would be like for future generations
- 30% were worried about how their life would be affected
As young people have many more years ahead of them and may be considering raising children at some point, it makes sense that their concerns for the future are heightened. However, studies additionally show that youths are more likely to experience the psychological effects of environmental anxiety and climate change as they are at a vulnerable stage in both their physical and psychological development. It has been evidenced that the presence of chronic stress during these crucial developmental years can result in permanent alterations within brain structure and increase the risk of mental health disorders in adult life.
Coping with Environment Anxiety
As environment anxiety stems from a sense of powerlessness, effort must be made into any avenue where a sense of control is re=established.
Mindfulness, meditation, and bodywork can help reduce stress and feelings of anxiety. In addition, these activities help a person become more in touch with the present moment, allowing them to ground, feel calm, and increase positive emotion.
Through therapeutic treatment, psychologists can encourage their client to build resilience, and a sense of autonomy and empowerment, so they can be free of the feelings of helplessness and despair which environment anxiety induces.
For youths and young adults, it would be most beneficial for their concerns to be addressed and listened to from a young age. If parents, teachers, and other adults in general, acknowledged their fears, discussed their concerns, and encouraged them to act in a positive sense, they will feel more autonomous and confident in the face of the climate situation.
For adults suffering from environment anxiety, positive action is also essential. They can likely shift feelings of guilt and distress through the following positive actions – bringing a sense of purpose and cohesion to their lives:
- Making an effort to ‘do their part’ such as reduce plastics, reduce energy consumption, or go ‘zero waste’
- Joining local or online conservation groups
- Having an ‘environmentally friendly’ diet
- Becoming more conscious of the reality of their immediate surroundings
The shift from a general sense of concern for the welfare of our planet to the overwhelming psychological distress of environment anxiety can happen quickly and be extremely distressing for the sufferer. If you think that you, or a loved one, is suffering from environment anxiety, please do not hesitate to get in touch with us today.
If you have a client, or know of someone who is struggling to heal from psychological trauma, reach out to us at Khiron Clinics. We believe that we can improve therapeutic outcomes and avoid misdiagnosis by providing an effective residential program and out-patient therapies addressing underlying psychological trauma. Allow us to help you find the path to realistic, long-lasting recovery. For information, call us today. UK: 020 3811 2575 (24 hours). USA: (866) 801 6184 (24 hours).
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