3 Key Ways to Transform Eco-Anxiety into Climate Action

Eco-Anxiety is a condition that is emblematic of the current times. Feeling overwhelmed by our climate crisis and unsure how to cope? Fortunately, you’re not alone.

By Jeanne Yacoubou, MS

An April 2018 Harris poll commissioned by Swell Investing of United States adults found that 92% are worried about climate change. Almost 75% of millennials (ages 18-34) state their worry sometimes impacts their emotional well-being.

That reaction — feeling anxious, hopeless, fearful, uneasy, mournful or distressed — is summed up in the terms eco-anxiety or climate anxiety.

In this article, I’ll explore the typical stages of this mental health condition. 

More importantly, however, I’ll focus on the ways you can come to grips with eco-anxiety…and move beyond it into a climate action mode.

3 key ways to channel eco-anxiety into effective climate action:

  1. Forming a close-knit support group to encourage you in your climate action.
  2. Participating in local community-wide preparedness or political activities.
  3. Adopting a green lifestyle as much as possible on an individual level…because it’ll catch on.

What Is Eco-Anxiety?

In 2017, the American Psychological Association, in conjunction with the organizations Climate for Health and ecoAmerica, published a report titled Mental Health and Our Changing Climate: Impacts, Implications and Guidance. The report stands as one of the most complete assessments to date of eco-anxiety.

The 70-page document characterizes the acute and the chronic symptoms of climate anxiety. 

Acute mental health impacts of eco-anxiety:

  • Increases in trauma and shock
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Compounded stress
  • Anxiety
  • Substance abuse and depression.

As if that wasn’t enough, here are the chronic mental health impacts stemming from our climate breakdown:

  • Higher rates of aggression and violence
  • More mental health emergencies
  • An increased sense of helplessness, hopelessness, or fatalism
  • Intense feelings of loss.

I’d like to add a few more signs of eco-anxiety not specifically mentioned in these lists but which could occur for no apparent reason in people who are mentally healthy:

  • Panic attacks
  • Insomnia
  • Obsessive worry
  • Poor appetite 

Experiencing an extreme weather event — like a flooded home or one destroyed by wildfires — will certainly lead to both acute and chronic mental health issues.

The report states that compromised mental health puts a strain on social relationships. Not surprising.

On top of that, because the mind and body influence each other so intimately, physical health issues may arise from climate anxiety including immune suppression (so you’re more likely to get a cold or the flu) and digestive disorders.

Unfortunately, eco-anxiety is not just a reality for adults.

Now, psychologists are treating patients — even young children who have heard or seen news stories on the TV or from other children at school — for climate anxiety. 

This makes perfect sense. It will be today’s children who will pay the biggest price for the planetary destruction caused by burning fossil fuels. They will inherit an Earth on fire.

Some kids today agonize over the fact that they may not die a natural death from old age. Instead, they may succumb to hunger, thirst or severe weather precipitated by a climate out of control.

What’s it like to be gripped by fear of an impending disaster, paralyzed into inaction from the horrifying image of your total annihilation? Can you imagine?

Hard to fathom. Becoming real for far too many people.

People of all ages are putting their feelings into words as a way to work through their emotions and try to deal with them. Climate poetry is becoming a useful tool for therapists and parents consoling agonizing children. 

The value of writing or speaking about your climate fears is that the act prompts you to acknowledge the worry and fear. These therapeutic actions are the first steps in overcoming mental isolation and feelings of powerlessness.

Then what? Writing and talking to a therapist are necessary actions to prepare you in the best way possible to move on to later stages in a mental health protocol over climate anxiety.

These later stages involve expanding your social circle with people on the same emotional rollercoaster as you and share, share, share. In essence, your forming a supportive social network preps you for the final stage of coping with eco-anxiety: climate action.

Key Takeaway: The best way out of the paralytic funk known as eco-anxiety is to transform it into climate action. 

How Can I Transform Eco-Anxiety into Climate Action?

The need for climate action on so many levels has never been greater. Here I discuss three key ways to take climate action as a means of coping with eco-anxiety and moving beyond it.

A December 2019 Harris poll commissioned by the American Psychological Association suggests that eco-anxiety is a growing issue, but many people aren’t aware yet of the complexities and seriousness of the situation.

The poll found that 56% of American adults believe climate change is the most important issue facing society today. Even so, 40% admit that they haven’t made any changes in their lives to lower their personal carbon footprints.

This sounds like a significant number of people haven’t yet been touched by climate change, or don’t know someone who has been so affected.

The worst finding from that poll is that 29% of adults say they have no intention of making any behavior changes — things like reducing single use plastic from their lives — unless maybe they directly experience a climate crisis themselves.

So, almost one-third of people either live in denial of climate change, or at least doubt that whatever they do can have an impact. 

So, they live as if there’s no tomorrow, basically.

Unfortunately, scientists tell us that climate change is here right now and will eventually impact everyone either directly or indirectly.

Our climate emergency is real. It will only worsen over time unless drastic cuts in fossil fuel burning occur immediately. It won’t wait for you to be ready, mentally or physically.

Better to learn some coping mechanisms now to prepare  yourself for this eventuality. Or would you rather be shocked later, maybe in a flooded or fire-destroyed home?

Here are three key ideas for coping with eco-anxiety. 

#1. Form a close-knit support group to encourage you to get a grip  on your emotional response to climate change by engaging in local climate action.

Psychologists tell us that the way to “cure” eco-anxiety is the same as the way to end our climate crisis: climate action. Get beyond your fear and paralysis by transforming them into action.

Takeaway: Focus on people, events and places outside of yourself to soothe your inner turmoil.

But before you’re ready to take to the streets in a school strike, chain yourself to a pipeline, or engage in a hunger strike, it’s vital to join forces with like-minded people for mutual support. It’s also prudent to do so to learn of any potential legal ramifications of your actions. Will you be ready for them?

There’s power in numbers. Remember that in your climate action.

Online groups are popping up all the time. It’s easy to connect with local branches of several groups. Or, start your own if you can’t find one close to you! 

First, explore their websites and social media accounts to find a “climate home” that’s right for you. Here are a few to check out:

The first three are geared toward young people. The latter two are among the most “rad” of environmental groups. People of all ages get involved with XR and EF! 

#2 Participate in local community-wide preparedness or political activities.

Remember school or victory gardens in the United States during the Progressive Era (1890-1920) and World Wars I and II? They also revived in the midst of the 1970s’ urban revitalization movement and with Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” program in 2009.

During the World Wars, millions of people started gardens in every possible spot across the country as a patriotic and civic duty. By WWII’s end, there were at least 20 million of them all over the United States, supplying 40% of all vegetables to U.S. citizens.

Women and children led the gardening effort when men went off to war.

Poster promoting victories gardens, which nowadays could be a potential means to ease eco-anxiety
Image Source: Huffington Post

In times when food was scarce, the victory gardens filled an urgent need.

Although the United States is not yet coming up short on food, severe flooding in the nation’s breadbasket in 2019 – with forecasts for the same in 2020 – may make food more expensive sooner than we’d like.

Meanwhile in other parts of the world, food is becoming scarce and riots erupt. Major reasons for this include drought, severe heat, or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, extreme rainfall or flooding. 

Growing your own food as a community in climate victory gardens is one way to take climate action while meeting demands for preparedness in times of future local emergencies.

Today’s focus is on soil health through regenerative agriculture as a remedy for the environmentally harmful monoculture agriculture based on genetically engineered crops heavily laden with petrochemical pesticides and synthetic fertilizer.

Nonprofits like Community Ecology Institute , Green America, and Backyard Basecamp are spearheading efforts to nurture soil health and its carbon sequestration abilities through local community gardens as a way for people to take climate action.

The importance of this feature of soil and its role in solving our climate crisis is discussed in Chapter 10 titled Agriculture and Rural Communities in the 2018 Fourth National Climate Assessment. Agriculture has a major role to play in offsetting greenhouse gases because of the ability of soil to act as a carbon sink.

Besides community gardens as a form of climate action, neighbors can help fortify their area against the future ravages of climate change in various ways. How to fortify against climate change depends on a community’s unique situation.

For instance, if you’re in an area prone to wildfire risk, you could:

  • Create open spaces around your community’s perimeter and individual homes as buffers against encroaching fire.
  • Dig a pond as a water source or create an artificial one.
  • Install steel roofs or walls to protect buildings against fire.

As you see, there’s plenty for lots of hands to do!

For more climate crisis preparedness tips, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Prepare Center have lots of great ideas.

#3 Adopt a green lifestyle as much as possible on an individual level. It’s contagious.

Heard of the game Follow the Leader? It works on many levels.

Take climate action, for example. Recent research shows that if you put solar panels on your home or buy an electric car, your friends and neighbors are more likely to take the hint and do the same. It’s called peer influence.

Last year, the Center for Behavior and the Environment published a fascinating report titled Changing Behaviors to Reduce U.S. Emissions: Seven Pathways to Achieve Climate Impact. They estimated that if only 10% of Americans adopted these 7 lifestyle changes, they’d slash carbon emissions by 8% in 6 years.

That’s no small potatoes!

Here are 7 ways you can help the planet today:

  1. Purchase an electric car.
  2. Reduce air travel.
  3. Eat a plant-rich diet.
  4. Offset carbon by purchasing carbon credits.
  5. Reduce food waste.
  6. Tend carbon-sequestering soil.
  7. Purchase green energy.

So, you now have a list of climate action goals to achieve. Doing so on an individual level will likely start a trend, or at least create a tiny ripple.

Even if only one other person follows your example, you’ve doubled the carbon emissions savings already. Just imagine if your friend inspires someone else to do the same. And so on. And so on.

The best part is: You can accomplish this without any government policy or legislation! (Although it would be nice to codify it into law. It’s called the Green New Deal. So, I’d add #8 to the list: Put a Bernie 2020 Not me. Us sign in your front rock garden. And initiate a community phonebank for Bernie at your house!) 

Start today. There’s no time to waste.

Key Takeaways on Transforming Eco-Anxiety into Climate Action

As our climate crisis begins to unfold, unraveling the very fabric of life on planet Earth as people have ever known it, it’s perfectly understandable to feel paralyzed by fear and grief. 

Fear of the unknown climate emergencies that await us and grief about the permanent loss of entire ecosystems and hundreds of species.

Once again, this phenomenon is called eco-anxiety or climate anxiety, the best way to overcome eco-anxiety is by taking climate action, and remember these three ways that might help you to deal with it:

  1. Form a support network.
  2. Work together with neighbors for climate preparedness.
  3. Adopt the greenest lifestyle you can because it will catch on.

Go ahead. It’s not too late!