Climate change, the climate catastrophe predicted by the media and environmentalists, global warming, species extinction, the almost complete exploitation of non-renewable energy sources – these are just a few of the many environmental problems facing the world today. The media coverage clearly shows a dramatic vision of the future of the human species as a result of complex and difficult to control climate-related processes. Therefore, it should not be surprising that more and more people, being exposed to similar news, experience anxiety or even terror. The phenomenon of experiencing these difficult emotions has recently attracted the attention of popular science magazines, documentary filmmakers, journalists, bloggers and many others. To describe the psychological difficulties caused by the unfolding environmental crisis, the media and the scientific community, among others, use terms such as eco-anxiety (environmental anxiety – resulting from the environmental crisis) or climate anxiety (climate depression or climate anxiety – occurring as a result of anthropogenic climate change – that is, changes that are caused by human activity).
It is well known in the scientific community that the increasing number of natural disasters resulting from progressive climate change has a devastating effect on people’s psyche. Events such as hurricanes, excessive heat, fires and floods are factors that directly cause psychological problems such as depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress syndrome and many others. However, in addition to the repeatedly studied links between natural disasters and psychological problems, it is worth looking at indirect and less obvious correlations between climate change and human mental issues. Among the psychological symptoms that are associated with climate anxiety are panic attacks, insomnia and the occurrence of obsessive thoughts. These symptoms that persist over a long period of time can lead to serious problems of pathological stress management, meaning various types of substance addiction, anxiety disorders or depression.
Despite the fact that more and more scientific articles on climate-related anxiety and depression have been written in recent years, little is still known about the exact types of these problems and how to intervene and help those suffering. The impact of the environmental crisis on the mental health of populations is estimated to be significant, so there is a real need for further study of the problem.
The first mentions of anxiety related to environmental problems appeared in the literature after 2007. The link between environmental problems and mental health marked the beginning of the development of a new science – climate psychology. In 2017, a discussion between institutions such as the American Psychological Association (APA), EcoAmerica, Mental Health and Our Changing Climate heated up, resulting in a definition of “ecoanxiety” – the encompassing fear of environmental disaster. In the following years, climate anxiety (one of the varieties of environmental anxiety) turned out to be the most common theme in the field of climate psychology. It began to be discussed not only by psychologists or scientists, but also by young activists, including Greta Thunberg and Isra Hirsi. Significantly, in recent years, books and guides offering self-help tips and examples of social actions that can be taken to deal with environmental anxiety have begun to appear on the market.
Despite the proposed definition of “climate anxiety,” there is still no general consensus on the essence of the concept. This is due to the fact that anxiety can be understood in many ways – as an emotion associated with fear and worry, as a complex process resulting from, among other things, the repression of unwanted emotions, as existential uncertainty or as a symptom of a mental disorder. One thing is certain – the ecological-climate crisis evokes feelings of uncertainty, unpredictability and uncontrollability in many people – sensations that make up each of the described anxieties, as well as practical anxiety (“practical anxiety”), which has not yet been mentioned. The latter type of anxiety can be considered positive and motivates people to act and seek solutions to problems. It appears to be an adaptive anxiety, signaling the occurrence of a problem or danger. Thanks to such an alarm, a person pays attention to a given threat and can counter it – in this case by taking pro-environmental measures such as developing renewable energy sources or disposing of waste.
Looking at ecological anxiety from a sociological perspective, it is worth noting that the source of unpleasant feelings is not always imagined consequences of an ecological disaster, but social pressure regarding ecology – the silence of society on certain ecological topics or disagreement of various groups on the seriousness of the climate situation. It is worth noting that in the social context, environmental anxiety can be manifested in many ways. For example, some individuals may consider having or not having children, due to an uncertain future. On a larger scale, such decisions can entail serious negative social consequences such as an aging population.
Regarding environmental anxiety from an existential perspective, it is worth mentioning Anthony Giddens’ theory centered around the notion of an ontological sense of security and danger. This theory emphasizes that feeling safe or threatened affects a person’s overall well-being and behavior. Based on this theoretical proposition, the current environmental crisis, depriving people of a sense of security, may lead to the emergence of anxiety, depression and other defensive reactions in people.
In the context of “climate anxiety,” it is also worth noting the emotional perspective. Indeed, empirical studies have shown that in response to environmental problems, people experience such feelings as guilt, shame and hopelessness. The results of other studies attempting to uncover links between affect and environmental anxiety have shown that emotions closely related to this anxiety include anger, desperation, and “solastalgia” (a combination of the Latin sōlācium (consolation) and the Greek stem -algia (pain, suffering, grief)) understood as suffering caused by environmental change.
Theoretical quandaries and discussions of environmental anxiety and climate depression are confirmed by population studies conducted in different parts of the world. An exceptionally large number of studies are taking place in Australia, where the destructive effects of climate change in the form of drought and wildfires are clearly evident. For example, Higginbotham and colleagues looked at the population living in the Hunter Valley region, where mining has caused massive environmental damage. The researchers showed, using the environmental distress scale (EDS), that respondents living in more damaged areas experienced more suffering than those residing in less damaged areas. A group of other Australian researchers led by Joe Reser conducted a survey that asked an open-ended question that read, “What is the most serious problem the world will face in the future if societies do not take radical steps to counter it?” As many as 39% of respondents answered this question from the category of climate and environmental change. In addition, responses to other questions on anxiety, feelings of concern and threat related to climate suggest that as many as 86% of people experience these anxieties. Also, a European survey conducted in 2016 showed that between 20 and 40% of those surveyed showed clear worry about climate change and its consequences. Similar results were found in Greenland, where 38% of those completing the questionnaire said they felt medium to strong fear about a possible climate catastrophe, as well as in Tuvalu – an island state in the Pacific Ocean in western Polynesia – where as many as 95% of respondents expressed clear concern about worsening global environmental problems. What’s more, a U.S. study conducted at Yale University found that 69% of respondents are at least concerned about the state of the climate, 29% are seriously worried about it, and 49% believe they will personally experience the effects of an environmental disaster.
As can be seen, the problem of experiencing climate anxiety and other unpleasant feelings and concerns about environmental change affects representatives of many societies around the world. In addition, it is worth noting that this issue particularly affects people who are actively interested in ecological issues (they seek information on them, engage in discussions in this area) and those who have already experienced the consequences of climate change. Moreover, it seems that people who are particularly susceptible to experiencing climate anxiety are those with high levels of neuroticism (one of the personality traits) and those who are at a young age.
The vulnerability of the young to environmental anxiety and climate depression is reflected in the results of several research projects. For example, a 2019 study in the United States found that 57% of American teenagers say climate change makes them anxious. In addition, surveys conducted around the world allow us to conclude that most adolescent children have some knowledge of environmental problems and are more interested and worried about them than adults, and some of the young feel stress and anxiety about these problems. It seems that adolescents’ greater vulnerability to environmental anxiety and climate depression than adults is due to the fact that they spend more time planning for the future than elders. Adolescents nowadays have more space to think about social problems than older generations, whose representatives focus largely on the hardships of everyday life. Another concept that explains why it is the youth who are particularly vulnerable to psychological difficulties resulting from progressive climate change is the theory of the developmental stage the young find themselves in. Adolescence and entering adulthood is a key moment of physical as well as psychological human development. It is during this time that chronic stress significantly increases the risk of developing mood disorders, anxiety disorders or substance abuse problems. Moreover, chronic anxiety in adolescents can cause permanent changes in the structure of their brain. The biological effects of this prolonged stress are therefore long-term and irreversible, and increase the chance of psychopathology appearing in later life.
According to the above arguments and the research results presented, it can be concluded that environmental anxiety and climate depression pose real threats to the mental well-being of people, especially young people. The problems described so far have not been recognized as mental disorders, and therefore have not appeared in official classifications of mental dysfunctions. However, there are cases of people in whom such forms of anxiety and sadness have led to clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive information seeking and other obsessive behaviors. It is also known that the effects of chronic stress resulting from experiencing these difficult emotions are often long-term and irreversible.
In view of the health risks posed by experiencing environmental anxiety and climate depression, viable preventive measures should be taken to counteract the appearance of such symptoms. Appropriate relief measures should also be designed for people who are already experiencing these difficult emotional states.
Climate change is progressing and is likely to continue at an alarming rate. Despite the fact that many countries are making pro-environmental interventions, only concerted action by governments, businesses and citizens can give climate change a real chance to be halted. If this cooperation is absent, environmental problems will worsen, and people, deprived of a sense of control and feeling the looming specter of climate catastrophe, will experience tremendous fear, anxiety, and depression. If interventions to counteract climate change anxiety and sadness are not taken, in the near future society will face increasing numbers of people who urgently need specialized psychological help. Since, as is well known, it is more effective to counteract than to cure, it is worthwhile to start educating the public now about both climate change and climate-related mental disorders. Reasonable awareness of citizens on these issues will perhaps prevent fears that are irrational, and transform fears that are practical into active measures to improve the condition of the environment.