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What to Do If Eco-Anxiety Is Ruining Your Mental Health

With an unpredictable future ahead Generation Z are still managing to find hope in a world that’s burning before our eyes.

by Douglas Greenwood
30 September 2019, 1:00pm

Photography Lincoln Lute

This article originally appeared on i-D UK.

When you’re young, you look to the future with equal doses of dread and optimism: fearing the obligatory baggage that comes with getting older but craving responsibility all the same. 30 years ago, the baby boomer generation was threatened with the possibility of war causing a kind of nuclear apocalypse. Nowadays, that sense of your life’s ambitions being thrown into disarray is marred by something different.

The climate crisis has drastically shaped the fate of the planet. You know the deal at this point. Scientists have claimed we’ve got just 12 years to save ourselves from impending doom, but corporate greed and climate crisis deniers in positions of immense political power are stalling us from making crucial, global changes. How does one process that information?

Fred is 20 years old and from Sydney. “I read somewhere that climate change is a concept too large for someone to ever fully understand, and I guess my relationship with it is like that too,” he tells i-D. “It’s too huge and scary and vague for me to comprehend how to cope, or even how exactly it causes my anxiety. I know that it’s real, and catastrophic.” Fred is one of many young people whose visions of the future have been clouded by the possibility of the climate crisis taking it away from us. A dark thought, but one that can’t be ignored if we stand any chance in stopping it.

Fred’s words echo the sentiments made by Greta Thunberg in her speech at the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit; an earth-shifting moment for those ignorantly staring climate disaster in the face. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” Greta said. “And yet I'm one of the lucky ones. People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth.” Pessimism as a starting point is important, because it provides a path for a journey to redemption, and we desperately need that too.

The links between mental health and climate change are a relatively new subject of study, with the first full report into it published back in March 2017 by the American Psychological Association (APA). One of its chapters looks into solastagia: that sense of distress we experience when we lose something that’s important to us to the climate crisis. It’s also often referred to as "eco-anxiety": a term that captures similar feelings of loss and fear as species go extinct, seas rise above creature’s habitats and plant life is ruined by climate disasters. Gabriela is 24 and from Puerto Rico. Her island is still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. “There wasn’t enough oil or food to go around,” she says. “I graduated this summer and decided to take a year off college, but the news about how rapidly climate change is advancing has kept me stuck here. Originally, I wanted to be a director and screenwriter, but that seems so far away now. It’s difficult to conceptualise a future.” She plans to move to the US mainland soon; not out of want, but a necessity to survive.

Dr Julie Scheiner is a psychologist who deals with young people feeling the effects of eco-anxiety all the time. “I tell all my kids and teens in therapy: you have a voice, so use it,” she says, when asked what the most effective remedy for eco-anxiety seems to be. “Protesting is the only way of getting yourself heard, and if you don’t feel strong enough to say it yourself, gather safety in numbers. Gather people who are on your side who will get where you’re coming from. It’s important, because there’s so much stuff going on that makes young people feed bad, but get involved and make sure you have a voice as well.” She knows the attitudes of older people might be shaping the dominant narrative right now, but that will change: “We’re all hasbeens,” she says of the adults of the world. “You’re the next generation!”

That aforementioned report by the APA points out four ways in which we can collectively keep check on our own mental health in a moment of crisis like this, stating that we should build belief in one’s own resilience, foster optimism, cultivate active coping and self-regulation skills, maintain practices that help to provide a sense of meaning, and promote a connectedness to family, place, culture and community.

For Gabriela, it’s simple: “Movies, music, literature and my friends,” she says. “It doesn’t always work, but it does soothe my mind for a while.” She also thinks a lot of catharsis stems from the little things. “I limit how much I read about climate change and try to keep it to one or two articles a week, and do my best to limit my own emissions too, from not using plastic to limiting my water use when I shower. The most useful things, really, are finding ways to help even if you know they’re not hugely impactful and shifting your attention to other things.”

“I have a lot of anxiety about the future,” says 15-year-old Ontario-native Sagan. “Like, on Friday there's a climate strike going on where I live, and I can't go because I have a cross-country meet, and it's just eating me up inside because, like, why can't I just be inconvenient and go?” These decisions are hard for kids like Sagan to make because, as much as the pressure to rebel exists, the demands Gen-Z put upon themselves to be studious and work hard to get further in a more cutthroat job market do too. To escape it all, he runs, makes art and plays music: “I just try to get off the internet and do things in real life.”

“We have to make a distinction between anxiety and eco-anxiety,” child psychologist Rafael Dupré says. “Most other forms of anxiety are based on an irrational fear of a danger that is very unlikely. Eco-anxiety, however, is based on a danger that is very real, it exists and is proven to be a threat to human life.”

Rafael explains that while eco-anxiety is understandable in the current climate, we all need to embrace not just activism and actions, but coping mechanisms and self-care: ways of painting a future that don’t fill us with pessimism, but picture possible ways to save it. “We can guide ourselves to less catastrophic thinking by being factual rather than allowing the fear to be based on myths or beliefs,” Rafael says. For example: “Belief: The world is coming to an end. Fact: The world is at risk, but there is a chance to turn things around if we all pull together and make drastic changes.

“It is important to use facts rather than slogans or beliefs,” he says. “We don't deny that there is a massive problem, that is a fact, but we also shouldn’t lead them to believe that the problem is unsolvable, because that is not a fact.”

Hannah is a 21-year-old senior at NYU. She suffers from a form of solastagia, and has taken Julie Scheiner’s advice, spending last weekend at the climate protests in Manhattan. “I find it interesting that when I went to my school’s counselling centre, they didn’t have any information about dealing with climate anxiety even though all my friends say that is the main thing making them anxious,” she says. Instead, to quell her nervous episodes, she meditates. Hannah is also comforted by the fact that she has the right to vote; to make a difference of some kind, no matter if it feels insignificant at the time. Is there a mantra that she wants to get out there, to help others paint a vision of the climate crisis that doesn’t exacerbate fear, but offer a promise of change?

“We need to completely alter our priorities and way of living in order to not even solve but reduce this crisis,” she insists. “System change is possible, but it will require losing faith in a political class that says 'the right things' but doesn’t take any action. Capitalism is killing our planet. This isn’t the first time a change [like this] has taken place. People once thought it was impossible to live without a king -- look now. We can do this.”