While most news right now focuses on the worldwide emergency response to COVID-19, climate change remains an escalating threat. The current coronavirus pandemic requires immediate action to save millions of lives, but climate change could have even greater devastating effects in the decades to come, intensifying weather patterns, raising sea levels and decimating wildlife.
Stay-at-home orders throughout the nation are giving us a glimpse of what a world without humans’ constant over-indulgence might look like. Polluted skies have cleared, giving new attention to the effect of reducing emissions. And as cities emptied, rogue wildlife returned, from wild boar in Barcelona to coyotes in San Francisco.
Regardless of coronavirus’ status this summer, we will likely see more deadly heatwaves, intense wildfires and torrential rains — all pieces of broader climate change patterns taking a toll not only on the planet but on people’s psychological well-being.
The American Psychological Association (APA) has a term for how climate change affects mental health: eco-anxiety — defined as a chronic fear of environmental doom. However, the condition is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) — the industry’s main diagnostic reference book.
Yet, eco-anxiety is a common phenomenon. Some 68% of adults say they have at least a little eco-anxiety or anxiety about the effects of climate change. And 47% of young adults (ages 18 to 34) say the stress they feel about climate change affects their daily lives, according to a December 2019 Harris Poll given on behalf of the APA.
Worry and well-being
Symptoms of eco-anxiety include hopelessness, depression, fear, anger, powerlessness and exhaustion, according to a 2017 APA report on mental health and the changing climate.
Kaara Kallen, who lives in Chicago with her husband and their almost 2-year-old daughter, first experienced eco-anxiety more than a decade ago when she read about the acidification of the ocean and the negative impact it was having on marine life. A few years ago, her daily eco-anxiety intensified into an “unceasing burden,” she says, when she read warnings that 75% of animals would go extinct and that we had 12 years to limit global warming.
Thanks to humans, the ocean’s acidity level has increased by about 30% since the industrial revolution began 200 years ago, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Creatures like oysters and clams have difficulty building and maintaining their shells due to the acidity, while certain fish, such as pollock and clownfish, decrease their ability to detect predators or locate habitats. What happens to even the smallest creatures, of course, impacts everyone up the food chain.
“I felt some terror, helplessness and such fear because no one was talking about it, and nothing was being done about it,” Kallen says.
Kallen’s anxiety kicked into even higher gear around the time of her daughter’s birth. “Once the baby was here, the grief and terror took on an unbelievably stronger dimension,” she says. “I feared for my own future, but my fear for my child’s future was unbearably stronger.” She worried about the high number of species that would go extinct in the coming years. “I thought about how much had already been taken from her, and I cried when I read her books about animals she may never see.”
While climate change can be stressful, there is a difference between a healthy and an unhealthy response to the impact of climate change, says clinical psychologist Jonathan Sutton, PhD, director of the cognitive behavioral therapies program at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.
“Worry is adaptive when it leads to appropriate action to meet the threat,” Sutton says. On the other hand, “Worry is pathological when it is so pervasive that people are so impaired by it that they can’t function. Inability to effectively cope could lead to feelings of hopelessness.”
Worry can be a reasonable response to the threats of a changing climate, he says. But how individuals handle their worry makes a difference. Cognitive behavioral therapy can help people deal with anxiety by seeking to change the patterns of thoughts and feelings that influence behavior.
Brian Casey, PhD, therapist at Light on Anxiety CBT Treatment Center, with three locations in the Chicago area, is familiar with climate change and its impact on mental health. Eco-anxiety “has been popping up again and again in the background for the past few years,” he says.
“I’ve seen anxiety about climate change and the state of the world. There seems to be a general fear of a global downward spiral,” he says. Casey also has seen patients grapple with “the feeling that humanity, as a species, is a parasite and the awareness of the folly of humans who see the problems and don’t do anything about them.”
Concerns range from people worrying that their generation or others haven’t done enough to prevent climate change to fear about an uncertain future.
“Senior citizens worry about the legacy they are leaving for their grandchildren. They have feelings of generational guilt about the sort of world that is being left for them,” Casey says.
“Younger adults have hesitations about bringing children into this world,” he adds. “A lot of it is tied up with economics and fears about the scarcity of resources.”
Putting anxiety into action
Defining values and carving out hope is important, Sutton says. “I think the therapist’s role is to maintain a feeling of hope. Their role is to support the person in engaging in pursuits that are important to them and in line with their values.”
When clients mention their worries, Casey says it creates an opportunity to help them clarify what’s important to them. “Part of the whole process is to get clients to focus on facts, not fear, and to differentiate between what they can control and what they can’t control,” he says.
Self-care — including eating a proper diet, exercising and practicing relaxation techniques — is also important. As part of self-care, “People can reconnect with nature and immerse themselves in what still exists, which can be uplifting,” Casey says. The coronavirus shutdown, he says, has reminded many clients of the virtue of slowing down and focusing on what is most important: the family and friends who surround us.
Eco-anxiety won’t disappear, but people can relieve it through modest actions, such as writing to their U.S. representative or immersing themselves in an environmental activity.
“Instead of people brooding on this, we can turn it into something positive,” Casey says. “It’s about helping them find a sense of connectedness by getting involved with some kind of organization, such as a political action or conservation group that is part of the solution.”
Kallen strives to live a sustainable life, planting a garden with vegetables and native plants that attract butterflies and birds, and becoming active in advocacy and protest groups. She passes those values on to her daughter. “I take her on hikes in the forest preserves and uphold, magnify and reinforce her sense of wonder, so she will value and appreciate the natural systems around us,” she says.
As a communications instructor at Northwestern University, Kallen has recently developed a sustainability-focused approach for a design thinking and communication class that she co-teaches for first-year engineering students. She says, “I’ve found that you have to turn despair into action. You can’t give up hope.”