“I Don’t Want You to Hope, I Want You to Panic” – Eco Anxiety and the Climate Emergency

Eco anxiety is a relatively new term, but its symptoms resonate with many young people across the world. In a society dependent on social media with easier access to data and scientific research, it is often impossible to escape the ever pessimistic and worrying headlines concerning the climate emergency and the uncertain future of today’s young people. In climate activist Greta Thunberg’s words “I don’t want you to hope, I want you to panic”. Eleanor Mehan talks us through the reality of eco-anxiety and what can be done to deal with it.

It is not hard to believe that, for some, this existential fear of powerlessness and doom can consume their everyday lives. A recent poll of American millenials found that 75% had increased feelings of anxiety after researching environmental issues and 40% of 16-24 year olds say thinking about climate change makes them feel ‘overwhelmed’. Eco anxiety, in short, is the chronic and obsessive worry about present and upcoming problems facing the environment and a fear of a ‘post-apocalyptic’ view of the future. As with many forms of anxiety, its effects include insomnia, exhaustion, and panic attacks.

It’s not only a psychological fear that can threaten our mental health, but real, physical ones such as extreme weather and natural disasters. The burning of the amazon rainforest has left indigenous tribes displaced and researchers have even linked deforestation to increases in malaria cases and dengue fever (causing flu like symptoms) – for many, the fear of climate devastation is already upon them with many others fearing similar events in the future.

Photo Credit: Eleanor Mehan

Eco anxiety is not an official condition declared in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which some worry will limit the seriousness of the condition. However, it may soon become one as the 12 years given by the UN IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) to prevent a climate catastrophe runs out. Mental health may also be worsened for those suffering with the condition as there is no single established solution. The most common is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which focuses on challenging irrational and negative thoughts.

However, it may be asked whether or not we should be trying to present eco anxiety as ‘irrational’. There is no debate in science over whether, without dramatic action, circumstances will continue to become worse. Instead of burying our heads in the sand, we should understand and accept that the climate emergency is a real and very serious threat. Others argue that there must be a line drawn between being honest about the current and future state of our planet, and simply scaring the public – especially young people who are some of the most at risk of developing eco anxiety.

So other than CBT, what are the proposed solutions, and do they have any chance of actually working? Taking action in your everyday life may seem like the most obvious, reducing your own carbon footprint may bring some relief to those experiencing guilt by showing that they as an individual can make a positive impact. Signing petitions, lobbying, writing to your local MP, taking parts in protests and strikes, and joining environmental groups can provide a solution by creating an impact on a larger scale and effecting the government’s actions.

By focusing on the positive impact that you can create and seeing visible results, whilst allowing ourselves to accept that we can’t go zero waste or carbon free overnight, can help reduce the anxiety caused by overthinking about what we have not done or what we simply cannot do. This offers a simple solution, but not a permanent one. The fact remains that we are facing environmental destruction and without changes in law and by companies, the change we really need may never appear. Eco anxiety will exist as long as environmental issues exist, the real solution will be found when the solutions to climate change are implemented.

About the Author: Eleanor Mehan is a first year Criminology student at the Lancaster University.

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