On World Environment Day we look into whether we’re suffering from eco-anxiety

Do you regularly feel anxious about the future of the planet? You’re not alone. Here’s how to deal effectively with your climate-change concerns without losing your impetus to act, writes Fiona Cowood

What keeps you awake at 3am? Work deadlines? An argument before bed? Mortgage repayments? We all carry around daily worries, but some of us are sleepless over a much bigger concern – the state of planet Earth.

‘Eco-anxiety’ is something that mental-health practitioners report seeing a spike in over recent years, as we collectively wake up to the urgency of the climate crisis we find ourselves in today. A recent poll* of our top concerns showed the environment eclipsing issues such as housing and crime for the first time ever.

Olivia Howers, 27, who studied sustainability, science and policy at university, admits to living with such a sense of anxiety. ‘I had this constant nagging feeling at the back of my mind, a low level worry that I couldn’t get rid of. When you think about how much needs to change in such a short space of time, it’s completely overwhelming,’ she says. ‘Part of that anxiety comes from being with family and friends who don’t see that change is necessary.’

‘The rise in eco-anxiety,’ says Caroline Hickman, a psychotherapist at the University of Bath, ‘can be traced back to an unlikely source – Sir David Attenborough.’ His award-winning Blue Planet II series hit our screens in October 2017 and brought the extent of what had, until then, been an existential threat into sharp relief, as we watched the negative impact we are having on our oceans and marine life. ‘This was a shifting point. The impact of the climate crisis truly became lodged in the public consciousness with this film.’

The momentum was unstoppable, with other respected figures adding their voice to the cause, alongside news headlines about the crisis. ‘Then, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg started a global movement with the school strikes, while Extinction Rebellion launched its Act Now campaign. Even the BBC took the decision to stop giving airtime to climate-change deniers,’ adds Hickman.

Today, we find ourselves being hit by a daily deluge of horror stories, so it’s no surprise that many people feel anxious. But how do we tackle our feelings of fear, anxiety and even despair? ‘I tell people it’s a healthy response to something that is huge and terrifying,’ says Hickman. ‘A specific anxiety such as a social phobia can be addressed at a personal level and be traced back, with the help of a therapist, to find a route to deal with it. But eco-anxiety is different – it’s bigger than all of us.’

For Howers, the best way to tackle her anxiety was changing her own consumer habits. ‘I’m happier now that I’ve stopped buying new clothes, I only buy food I need for pre-planned meals, and I avoid plastics and waste. I’ve also switched to a sustainable bank called Triodos, which invests in projects that benefit the environment. I do wonder how my efforts can make a difference, but I’m trying to be optimistic.’

Experts agree that it’s very common for ‘environmentally woke’ people to find themselves stuck between feeling like they must do more and worrying about what difference one person can actually make anyway. Bouncing between these two extremes can lead to a type of paralysis – where sufferers are unable to move forward with their lives.

Seeing this paralysis as a form of grief can be helpful, says psychotherapist Judith Anderson, as the symptoms are similar: ‘The big things people come to me with are insomnia, lack of focus and feeling alienated from their families who may not share their views, the same symptoms we have with grief,’ says Anderson. ‘However, after bereavement we get on with our lives while still feeling sorrow. So it’s about living with what’s unfolding but not allowing sadness to take over.’

And in order to move on, talking is key. ‘Reaching out for help, or to others who feel the same, can stop people from collapsing into themselves,’ says Tree Staunton, director of BCPC (Bath Centre for Psychotherapy and Counselling).

While it may be a news report or a film that triggers anxiety, often the onset occurs at a new life stage, such as in the case of Parisa Wright, 39, from London, who experienced deep anxiety about the planet after the birth of her second daughter. ‘I had a very tearful moment with my husband, where we both found ourselves thinking, “What have we done bringing children into this world?” I started to feel anxious about what was going on with the planet and what my kids will inherit.’

She decided the only route out of her anxiety was to find like-minded people and act. Wright started by making changes at home – eating less meat, reusing and recycling more – and, this year, founded a Facebook group, Greener & Cleaner Bromley (& Beyond), for people in her area to swap ideas about living more sustainably. ‘At our first meeting, 25 people came,’ she says, ‘but we now have more than 3,000 members. We hold events – clothes swaps and free talks by sustainability experts.’

Such a proactive approach is particularly effective for young people, who experts say are increasingly likely to suffer, too. In fact, researchers in Finland have found that children and adolescents experience a particularly acute eco-anxiety because they feel they have a limited ability to make an impact on this looming threat compared to adults.

One way round this, says clinical psychologist Dr Laura Kastner, ‘is to educate, motivate and inspire, rather than to create incapacitating fear’. Kastner suggests young people start small projects, such as a school recycling initiative, to give them a sense that they are doing something. ‘It’s a way to channel the feeling of hopelessness, and perhaps even shape future climate leaders.’ She says adults should accept a young person’s feelings, encourage healthy questions and reassure them they’ll be there whatever happens.

But what if you’re feeling guilty for not ‘waking up’ sooner? ‘Don’t,’ says Hickman. ‘You’ve defended yourself from this for a very good reason – it’s terrifying.’ She suggests working through your feeling, then decide how you’re going to be part of the change. She says it’s important to form a relationship with our eco-anxiety. ‘Listen to it, validate it, and use your feelings to give passion and commitment to bringing about change in your life and inspiring others to do the same.’

Five small steps you can make today to ease eco-anxiety

1. If the issue feels too big to tackle, then hone in on one problem first, such as cutting down on single-use plastics. Taking small measures allows you to increase your impact gradually.

2. Banking ethically is a simple, yet effective way to vote against environmental destruction supported by big banks such as Barclays, HSBC and Santander.

3. Cars are bad news, given that the average motorist in the UK uses a vast amount of fossil fuel in their lifetime. Opt for a bike, and reap the benefits of fresh air and mood-lifting endorphin boosts.

4. Help your loved ones understand more about these issues by organising a movie night. Cosy up on the sofa with favourite cinema snacks and watch a good environmental documentary together.

5. Check the ethical standards of fashion brands with the Good On You app. It collects info on over 2,000 international fashion labels and how environmentally sound they are. Natalie.fee.com**

*Survey by Triodos Bank **Tips from How To Save The World For Free by Natalie Fee – published on 21 October (£12.99, Laurence King), Laurenceking.com

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