Eco anxiety is on the rise, with more people than ever feeling helpless because of the climate crisis. Rachel England, environment writer and author of Everyday Activism, explores how we can take back control
There’s a lot happening in the world right now that’s out of our control. That’s been true throughout history, of course, but for a lot of people the coronavirus pandemic that’s engulfed the last 18 months of our lives has amplified a sense of helplessness in the face of global events.
And now, while the initial panic of the pandemic is gradually slowing down, another worldwide emergency is taking hold in our shared consciousness: the climate crisis.
A problem shared
It’s no coincidence that pandemic anxiety has given way to deeply-rooted worries about the climate. The many restrictions of lockdown meant being outside in nature was one of the few activities available to us, sparking a renewed appreciation for our natural environment.
As one study from Cardiff University shows, people with access to green space reported better health and wellbeing during the first lockdown.
This, coupled with increasing headlines about devastating wildfires, flash floods and wildlife-loss has really driven home a sense of urgency around climate change.
Another study from Cardiff University, for example, found that 74 per cent of people now believe the importance of tackling climate change is ‘extremely high’, compared to 62 per cent pre-pandemic.
But the reality of the climate crisis can be overwhelming. While there are no firm statistics on eco-anxiety, psychologists and counsellors have anecdotally reported a sharp rise in the number of patients they see affected by feelings of climate-related hopelessness and despair.
And it largely boils down to one overarching question: ‘this problem is so big, what difference can I possibly make?’
It’s a completely valid question, and the fact is that a single person alone cannot fix the climate. But in a bid to ease rising anxiety – and that’s anxiety caused by anything, not just the environment – it’s human nature to look for the quick fix, for the ‘thing’ that relieves the unpleasant feelings.
But with eco-anxiety there is no quick fix, and this realisation in turn adds to feelings of despair, and the cycle continues so the task at hand feels bigger and scarier and increasingly unmanageable.
We need to change our thinking. Instead of viewing ourselves as solitary participants in the climate fight, we as individuals need to remember that we are part of a global community that is capable of great things.
Every time you think, ‘this is so much bigger than me, what’s the point in even trying?’ thousands – millions – of other people will have had the same thought. It’s true that turning your thermostat down by one degree, diligently organising your recycling or leaving the car at home one day a week isn’t going to save the world, but what if everyone did it? That’s a different story.
It might not look or feel like you’re doing much, but meaningful change really does happen when we all do our bit. Eco anxiety can leave us feeling helpless, but by looking outward we all have the power to choose to play an active role in shaping the climate narrative, piece by piece, together.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed
- Remember that you can’t control climate change, but you can control the actions you take to fight it.
- Get stuck into a climate friendly action, whether that’s swapping to a more sustainable toothbrush or going litter picking – every little helps.
- Balance your media. It’s easy to fixate on doom and gloom headlines, but there are plenty of good news stories out there, too. • Practise mindfulness. Paying moment-by-moment attention to what’s happening right now, rather than what might happen in the future, is grounding and therapeutic.
- Speak to loved ones about your worries. Sharing your thoughts with others is a good reminder that you’re not alone in the climate fight.
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