The Amazon rainforest is burning, potentially cancerous microplastics are showing up in rainwater, and a new report indicates that up to nine U.S. states could see the number of days with heat indexes above 100 degrees dramatically increase in the near future.
The influx of negative news concerning climate change and our environment can cause a wide range of emotions. You may want to stay in bed all day, or you might get up and go about your day as normal, avoiding and ignoring all negative news. Perhaps you even get angry when people mention climate change.
On the other hand, you might obsessively seek out and read every new disturbing article. Maybe you share these articles across social media, essentially trying to yell at the world, “Look at this! It’s a big deal!” You might even take the upsetting news and create memes and jokes from it as a way to cope like these guys.
All of these reactions are normal and correlate with the different stages of what ecotherapist Linda Buzzell and ecopsychologist Dr. Sarah Anne Edwards call the “Waking Up Syndrome” in their 2008 essay of the same name.
It turns out that global warming is not only destructive to the earth, but also to the mental health of its inhabitants. In 2017 the American Psychological Association [APA] published a 69-page report sponsored by ecoAmerica to increase awareness of the mental health challenges faced in regards to climate change.
In this report the organization references ecoanxiety. Until the publication of this report, the term was seldom used, except in the fringes of the psychology field.
What Is Ecoanxiety?
The APA refers to ecoanxiety as the anxiety felt as one watches “slow and seemingly irrevocable impacts of climate change unfold, and [worries] about the future for oneself, children, and later generations… People are deeply affected by feelings of loss, helplessness, and frustration due to their inability to feel like they are making a difference in stopping climate change.”
In 2018 Psychology Today described ecoanxiety as “a fairly recent psychological disorder afflicting an increasing number of individuals who worry about the environmental crisis.”
But is this worry necessarily a bad thing?
Buzzell, who wrote about ecoanxiety nearly a decade before the APA report came out, doesn’t think so. Though anxiety is generally viewed as a negative term, Buzzell said:
“Anxiety about the state of the environment is a totally healthy, normal response to our collective situation, just as fear would be a normal response if you smelled smoke in a building about to burn down. This emotion is a call to action! Unfortunately, some people confuse it with psychological anxiety disorders that involve inappropriate fear.”
In the case of climate change, fear is an appropriate response. It is an impetus to begin to make changes in the world and for the environment.
Not everyone is yet to the point in the “Waking Up Syndrome” where they are experiencing ecoanxiety and feeling called to action. The first stage is one of denial, where people may say, “It’s not a big deal,” “It’s useless,” “I don’t believe it,” or “Someone will fix it.”
It might seem like it would be great if we could just shake everyone out of stage one denial and quickly move them into action. But as Buzzell puts it, “Waking up to the challenge of enormous loss is an organic process, full of emotion, and we need to surf the waves of feeling as they reach us.”
Just as someone needs to go through the stages of grief after a loss, so, too, do people need to — in their own way and in their own time — experience the stages of waking up to the enormity of loss in regards to climate change.
In stage two, semi-consciousness, Buzzell and Edwards wrote that “as evidence mounts around us and the news coverage escalates, we may begin to feel a vague sense of ecoanxiety.” People in this stage may even express “virulent anger” at discussions of climate change.
“Some of the most adamant climate deniers are at least semi-conscious on the topic,” Buzzell said. “They ‘protest too much.’”
She believes some politicians who deny publicly are actually fully conscious of climate change.
“Their denials are meant for others, not themselves,” she explained.
As people move through the other stages — having their “moment of realization” and reaching “a point of no return” — they may begin to feel a sense of isolation, as others around them (in stage one) carry on with business as usual. At this point Buzzell recommends finding others who “get it” to connect with and build community, especially if the ones closest to us do not yet understand. She suggests creating “supportive groups and communities to facilitate this process.”
“Isolation is deadly,” she warned.
Without these vital connections, people can sink further into despair. Not only does building connections allow us to commiserate, it gives us a chance to find what we can do to pitch in and help, thereby lessening our ecoanxiety.
She said, “Support and feedback from others help us discover our best gifts so we can find the niche where our talents are most needed. By working on both global and local levels, we can help each other and our communities take constructive action, whatever the results.”
She echoed the advice of Dr. Joanna Macy, founder of The Work That Reconnects. Buzzell described the organization as “one of the best protocols for helping people move through the stages of eco-grief that I know of”: “don’t isolate; find others who share your feelings and concerns.”
What Should You Do?
If you are struggling with ecoanxiety, know that it is not something that needs to be “fixed.” It is a powerful motivator. If you feel you may be struggling with ecoanxiety:
- Find like-minded people and build connections with them, either in person or online. Buzzell suggested a Facebook group called “Climate Psychology Discussion Group” where people discuss ways of coping with negative emotions regarding climate change.
- Talk with a therapist about your emotions or feelings of isolation, not with the purpose of “fixing” ecoanxiety but of learning to cope more effectively.
- Take action by doing small things like saying ‘no’ to single-use plastic or planting a tree. You can also go sustainable with electronic paper-free tools.
- Continue to learn about sustainable alternatives and options. As Buzzell and Edwards wrote, “Learning more about these positive possibilities is vital. Until we can see that there are options, there’s no way out of despair.”
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