Eco-anxiety: ‘I feel useless in the face of climate change’

Negative thoughts about the environment overwhelm me, I worry I’m not doing enough

Seeing animals’ natural habitats being destroyed can cause sadness and anxiety. Photograph: iStock

Seeing animals’ natural habitats being destroyed can cause sadness and anxiety. Photograph: iStock

 

For the most part, my anxiety triggers are personal. However, there are some instances where my anxiety is triggered by world issues and problems. For example, the Covid-19 pandemic which I wrote about back in April.

Another global problem that terrifies me is climate change. I’m passionate about the protection of our planet and implementing sustainable practices. I try hard to do my bit to reduce my carbon footprint. To name a few things: I try to buy less; I quit buying fast fashion; I shop second-hand; I try to avoid plastic and opt for zero-waste options; I seek out natural products and I try my best to source local fruit and vegetables. I also write for a number of environmental organisations which means I help spread awareness of the issue.

These are just a few things I do to rest my mind when it comes to climate change. However, even with doing all of this, which some may feel is a good amount, I regularly experience eco-anxiety and feel useless in the face of climate change.

Eco-anxiety is not a type of anxiety disorder. Rather, it is a feeling of extreme fear of environmental damage or ecological disaster. It is based around the current and predicted future state of the environment. This may be the first time you have heard this term so let me share with you how eco-anxiety affects me.

I have negative thoughts about the future of our world and often feel as though I am not doing enough. I get extremely overwhelmed with emotions when watching news or documentaries about climate change. My mind goes into a spiral that is difficult to stop. Sometimes it all feels like too much and I wish I had a switch to turn off the eco-anxiety emotions I am feeling. I have reached a point where I care a huge amount about my life (took me a while) and the last thing I want to see is the beautiful Earth destroyed.

To give a good example of eco-anxiety in action for me, I recently watched David Attenborough’s new film on Netflix, Life on Earth. While I enjoyed listening to his perspective and his incredibly soothing voice, I could not help but cry at certain parts of the documentary. I felt my mind go back into that negative thought cycle and I felt overwhelmed with sadness.

There was one scene in particular that set me off. It showed rainforests being chopped down. All the trees were chopped and lying on the ground except one. On top of that one tree, an orangutan sat alone. I felt overwhelming anxiety and sadness thinking about the animals who have had their environment destroyed and who are alone.

Inequality

Another issue that sends my mind racing is that I cannot help those who live in the countries that are most impacted by climate change. It makes me feel upset and useless that I am living in Ireland with access to all of my basic needs while they are struggling to get fresh water and food due to the impacts of climate change. It makes me sad how unequal it all is. The people in those countries have contributed the least to climate change.

Besides this, another area where I feel enhanced anxiety is having to do background checks on virtually every brand and food item to ensure the brand is not harming the planet, animals and people/workers. It can feel overwhelming to have to fact check and research everything. Some may say, “don’t do it then” but I cannot stop when we are facing such an emergency. I would rather have this knowledge than not and continue to learn and be well-educated about what is happening to our planet. I have spoken with a lot of people, from friends to fellow colleagues , who have said they feel eco-anxiety also, even if they don’t have an underlying anxiety disorder like myself. They often say they feel somewhat embarrassed to admit to having eco-anxiety because they are regularly shut down by people. People say “eco-anxiety is not real” or “stop over-worrying for nothing”.

Eco-anxiety is real. Lots of people feel eco-anxiety and it can have a significant impact on mental health.

I suppose the underlying issue is that these kinds of responses are coming from those who are not scared or anxious in the face of the climate emergency. However, what these people do not understand is that although eco-anxiety is not a medical diagnosis, there is a connection between a healthy environment and good mental health. In other words, a good and healthy environment can enhance and improve our mental health and wellbeing. Similarly, our natural world being unhealthy and destroyed can have a seriously negative impact on our mental health and wellbeing.

Although my experience with eco-anxiety centres around feelings that I am not doing enough, for others, it derives from being part of a horrific climate change event. For example, in the instance of someone’s home being destroyed in droughts, floods or fires. It is a normal reaction to feel enhanced anxiety and wonder, what am I going to do? These situations can cause people to feel stressed and depressed. This is probably considered the most acceptable or appropriate form of eco-anxiety because people can see the destroyed house while they cannot see our nightmares or feelings.

Eco-anxiety is real. Lots of people feel eco-anxiety and it can have a significant impact on mental health. It has lots of the attributes of anxiety disorder in that we worry constantly about our future and environmental disasters trigger us and make us think we are next.

We are living in a world of uncertainty, no one knows for sure what is going to happen in any aspect of life. However, with all the scientific evidence of climate change and the impact it is having and going to have on the planet, it’s hard for those who care so much not to feel overwhelmed and useless. We need to listen to one another and respect how others feel – even if you cannot imagine feeling that way yourself.

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