Ecoanxiety & the Move Towards Compassionate Environmentalism

2022-08-05

 |  Health/Lifestyle

Anxiety and fear surrounding climate change has grown more prominent within the general population. These feelings are referred to as climate anxiety or ecoanxiety, which grow with the population’s awareness of environmental issues as well as the more visible impacts of climate change such as extreme weather conditions or melting ice caps. This article is a continuation of a three part series discussing the connection between environmentalism and mental health.  

Ecoanxiety, a rundown:

The study of ecoanxiety is a fairly recent development and is not as researched as other phenomena. However, its impact has been acknowledged by major organizations such as the United Nations (UN) as a current and growing issue that will affect many individuals throughout the world. The symptoms of ecoanxiety are similar to other forms of anxiety including difficulties sleeping, difficulties concentrating, physical tension, rapid breathing, and a feeling of hopelessness or fear.1 The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asserts that ecoanxiety will continue to worsen, particularly for children, elderly, marginalized individuals, those with health conditions, and those who will be directly impacted by climate change through means such as displacement. People who fit multiple of these criteria demonstrate intersectionality—the compounded struggle that occurs when possessing multiple marginalized traits.1 & 7 Those who reside in multiple intersections may be more at risk of ecoanxiety due to the interconnection of race, class, ability, and financial stability which impact one’s capacity to respond to changes caused by climate change. 

Ecoanxiety is especially prevalent amongst young people and activists. Many children who were born within the last 25 years were raised with some understanding of the impending nature of climate change as well its effects. This creates a background anxiety during one’s youth, that is carried for years and something that young people may feel helpless against. This anxiety is compounded not only by the natural stresses of growing up but also by unsafe school situations, discrimination, COVID-19, and other issues that demand youth attention or youth activism. These prominent issues, including climate change, demand that youth sacrifice “childhood innocence” to advocate for their rights and future which is a heavy burden to place upon young individuals.4 Activists of any age are vulnerable to constant, overwhelming ecoanxiety. It is common for activists to feel a personal duty towards advocacy. This results in many activists resisting mental health support and overworking themselves as a “badge of honour”.5 This self-sacrificial burnout is reinforced within activism circles through comparison and fears about not doing “enough” for one’s cause.

Why does this happen?

Ecoanxiety will likely continue to be a constant background stress within our lives, especially as the effects of climate change become more prominent. Despite its “incurable” nature, this stress reveals the fear-based rhetoric utilized by many environmentalists in attempts to incite change through the application of pressure to the public. Recent studies are reconsidering this tactic as the reliance of shame and fear within activism perpetuate an idea of hopelessness. As responses to danger typically result in a fight or flight response, these overwhelming feelings commonly drive individuals to abandon their advocacy work or ignore the issue.

How can we move forward?

Managing this stress is difficult as it is perpetuated by an over-exertion in activism but can be aided through the social community and sense of fulfilment found within environmentalism.  Aside from standard forms of stress management such as therapy, combatting ecoanxiety may require a larger shift within environmentalism that better considers the mental wellbeing of the public. One solution includes a pivot to non-threatening methods of activism such as Mindful Climate Adaptation which stresses the importance of an “intentional, non-judgemental approach” with compassion and consideration towards each other.6 The focus on mental wellness and compassion exists beyond the educational aspect of environmentalism. The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Report stresses the need to understand one another’s anxieties and to “extend care” through patience, understanding and support. They also acknowledge that certain populations are more vulnerable to this stress due to their circumstances and may need more support.1 Additionally, the UN and Greenpeace have urged volunteers and activists to take breaks and attend to their mental health, stating that their wellbeing is important to the success and continuation of activism.5

Further research is required to better understand ecoanxiety as the effects of climate change become more pronounced. However the recent and ongoing development of resources such as Ecoanxious Stories as well as the growing consideration of mental wellbeing within activism demonstrate a trend towards a better future for mental health within environmentalism.  

The next and final article in this series will discuss additional ways to care for one’s mental health through self-compassion and centring joy.  Stay tuned to the journal, as we will explore the term “Survival as protest” as well as more potential methods to manage both daily and long-term distress.  

Works Cited & Consulted

  1. Dellinger, AJ. “A New UN Report Shows How Climate Change Is Already Wreaking Havoc Our Mental Health.” Mic, Mic, 28 Feb. 2022, https://www.mic.com/impact/un-report-climate-change-mental-health-ipcc. 
  2. “Eco-Anxious Stories.” Eco-Anxious, Eco-Anxious, 27 May 2022, https://ecoanxious.ca/. 
  3. Gorski, Paul C. “Relieving Burnout and the “Martyr Syndrome” Among Social Justice Education Activists: The Implications and Effects of Mindfulness.” The Urban Review, vol. 47, no. 4, 2015, pp. 696-716. ProQuest One Academic, Sociological Abstracts, https://doi-org.uwinnipeg.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s11256-015-0330-0,doi:https://doi-org.uwinnipeg.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s11256-015-0330-0.
  4. Grauer, Stuart R. “Climate change; The thief of childhood.” The Phi Delta Kappan, vol. 101, no. 7, 2020, pp. 42-46. JSTOR, https://www-jstor-org.uwinnipeg.idm.oclc.org/stable/26977098.
  5. Smith, Alex. “As Climate Worsens, Environmentalists Also Grapple with the Mental Toll of Activism.” NPR, NPR, 13 Nov. 2021, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2021/11/13/1053567654/as-climate-worsens-environmentalists-also-grapple-with-the-mental-toll-of-activi. 
  6. Wamsler, Christine. “Mind the gap: The role of mindfulness in adapting to increasing risk and climate change.” Sustainability Science, vol. 13, no. 4, 2018, pp. 1121-1135. ProQuest, doi:https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-017-0524-3.
  7. Williamson, Alex. “Environmental Activism Can Do Wonders for Your Mental Health.” Mic, Mic, 20 Apr. 2022, https://www.mic.com/life/climate-change-mental-health. 

Photos:
1. Kaupanger, Kale. Unsplash, 11 Oct 2020, https://unsplash.com/photos/kr64axJxx20.

2. Oswalt, Maria. Unsplash, Feb 2022, https://unsplash.com/photos/EZbw3K2tPEU.

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