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Q&A: Managing eco-anxiety and its impact on our mental health

Stories | 04.19.23

Stronger hurricanes and tornadoes. Years-long droughts. Destructive floods. Uncontrollable wildfires.

The constant news of weather- and climate-related phenomenon can impact people’s mental health, according to Debbie Clelland, Ph.D., professor in the Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology at the Vancouver Campus.

“Whether it’s through social media or on the news, the focus is often on the negative,” Dr. Clelland said. “Yet when we focus on those things, we can go into a place of feeling really anxious, to the point where it can actually be debilitating to us. It can leave us hopeless.”

But it doesn’t have to reach that point, as there are ways to curb what is referred to as “eco-anxiety.”

In celebration of Earth Day on April 22, Dr. Clelland offers ways to manage eco-anxiety’s negative impact on our mental health, along with sharing her knowledge on its relation to social justice and youth.

Image of Earth

Eco-anxiety is a very specific term identifying people who feel anxious of what’s going on in the world associated with natural disasters or other climate impacts.

What is eco-anxiety?

Eco-anxiety is a very specific term identifying people who feel anxious of what’s going on in the world associated with natural disasters or other climate impacts. It’s also related to a larger term, “climate distress,” which includes things that go beyond anxiety. This includes people feeling angry, people experiencing loss and grief, or anticipating that it may get worse and they’re worried about the future.

How does eco-anxiety relate to social justice?

I worked with a volunteer organization here in British Columbia helping people who have been impacted by different kinds of natural disasters. And I was there with people who were evacuated from wildfires. Many people were going from one hotel room to the next, trying to find somewhere to live — they had no idea what was going to come next.

From a social justice perspective, the more vulnerable you are in society, the more likely you will be severely impacted by these kinds of events. If you are Indigenous, a person of color, a woman, if you have a pre-existing disability, or less income, you could be very vulnerable in society.

Especially when it feels like society is competing for resources, it means people who have less to begin with because of systemic oppression, racism, or different kinds of structural barriers will have even less when society is feeling that they have to compete. Things like food insecurity and water insecurity these days are good examples because people who can afford or find those things are in better shape than people who already struggle to find them on a day-to-day basis.

How does eco-anxiety impact our mental health?

When you have either experienced a natural disaster or you are anticipating the possibility of experiencing something, partly because you’re watching what’s going on in the world, your mental health can be impacted by the number of times this information is being shared. Whether it’s through social media or on the news, the focus is often on the negative. People do want to know what’s going on out there—there’s snow in California and places that have never had snow—and yet when we focus on those things, we can go into a place of feeling anxious ourselves, to the point where it can actually be debilitating. It can leave us hopeless. It can leave us feeling like there’s no possibility for stability in our lives and worrying about the future in unhelpful ways.

My favorite way of describing this is to use an elastic. On a good day, our elastic is fairly flexible. A little tweak really doesn’t bother us. But on a bad day, when we’re really tuned in to all the serious stuff happening in the world, it’s really vulnerable and any kind of twang can send us over the edge.

What is eco-anxiety’s impact on our youth?

Research conducted in both the U.S. and Canada found about 60% of the population is experiencing eco-anxiety or climate distress in general. But about 70-80% of youth were actually finding it was impacting them, and 30% said it was impairing them on a daily basis.

The understanding is that our youth feel more powerless; they feel there are policies and governmental response, or non-response, that are impacting their future. They feel the planet is being destroyed, and they can’t do anything about it; they’ve inherited a really bad place in time. They’re experiencing this kind of chronic anxiety and depression, not always to the point where it would be considered a disorder, but it’s certainly something similar to lower mood, higher anxiety, and fear of the future.

Any advice on how to prevent eco-anxiety from affecting our mental health?

We want people to be able to reach out and to be in community, not in a place of feeling isolated and fearful. So one of the things that can be most helpful for eco-anxiety is actually being in nature. Ironically, we’re worried about nature but we’re worrying from afar. That means we don’t engage with it, and we don’t see the resilience of nature. We don’t go out and see the flowers are growing again in the spring year after year. Nature knows how to take care of itself. This doesn’t mean we don’t need to be careful and take care of our planet, but it also means the urgency isn’t there in the same way. One of the students I was talking to said, “My anxiety is lying to me.” And I thought that was a great phrase because if our elastic is pulled too tight, it is like our anxiety is lying to us.

How should I manage eco-anxiety?

It’s important to know what eco-anxiety is. When you know what it is, then you can understand how it is impacting you. Without knowing, it can be difficult to grapple with it. So, I suggest making sure you have an understanding of eco-anxiety, climate distress, and about the real impacts on people and how it can lead to isolation. Often people will cope with eco-anxiety by increasing their time on social media or engaging in different types of repetitive activities but not in a healthy way — they’re just coping. If you’re aware of it and noticing some unhealthy patterns for yourself, you can do healthier things, such as taking care of yourself, living in the moment, and being able to connect to others.


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