The rise of eco-anxiety

How do we cope with the fear and horror that now goes hand-in-hand with climate change?

As the world continues to grapple with the tangible impacts of climate change, eco-anxiety has become a very real problem.

In the weeks following the devastating bushfires that marked the end of 2019 and the start of this year, which came to the border of our property, my four-year-old daughter drew pictures of big red balls amongst scribbles of green. My 23-year-old daughter, on the other hand, spent hours crying, sleepless nights worrying about the future, and days full of anger.

Both of them were suffering the effects of eco-anxiety - a specific form of anxiety relating to stress or distress caused by environmental changes and our knowledge of them.

Climate change is the world's latest and most pervasive threat and although we've faced catastrophes and fear on a global scale before, we have never done so in the age of social media, a 24-hour news cycle, or the immediacy of the internet.

Mark Donovan, Director of Northfields Psychology Clinic at the University of Wollongong, says this has added an extra layer of concern to the way we view the world.

"The World Wars would have created a global level of anxiety, but back then there was no internet, so news didn't travel so fast and was not so accessible," Mr Donovan says.

"People around the world are again expressing anxiety and this time it is around environment and climate as that is the current threat, and it is real. People are feeling helpless to change what is happening, and are watching their communities, both locally and globally, being destroyed.

"We have gone through crises before - the World Wars, the Cold War, even September 11, which were all real threats to humanity and the anxiety of worrying if the world will survive. But we don't know what extra impact social media will have on us as we have never previously, as a species, experienced threats of this magnitude."

Mark Donovan, Director of Northfields Psychology Clinic at the University of Wollongong. Photo: Paul Jones

In September 2019 the Australian Medical Association (AMA), the American Medical Association, the British Medical Association, and Doctors for the Environment Australia officially recognised climate change as a health emergency.

In a statement, the AMA Federal Council declared that climate change is real and will have the earliest and most severe health consequences on vulnerable populations around the world, including in Australia and the Pacific region.

AMA President, Dr Tony Bartone, states in the report that it is not only physical health at risk, including increased mortality and morbidity, but that "Climate change will cause a higher incidence of mental ill-health".

"These effects are already being observed internationally and in Australia. There is no doubt that climate change is a health emergency," he said.

While the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) does not include "eco-anxiety" as a specific diagnosis, people are expressing high levels of stress over climate change with symptoms including panic attacks, obsessive thinking, loss of appetite, and insomnia.

A report by Millennium Kids Inc and the University of Western Australia in 2019, found 89 per cent of young people between 7-25 years are concerned about the effects of climate change.

An earlier study, published in the International Journal for Mental Health Systems in 2008, found traumatic events, including sudden onset natural disasters, such as floods or fires, can induce elevated stress levels and evidence suggests that slow, gradual changes in the environment can cause psychological distress that builds over time.

Evidently, the bushfires of the past few months have caused anxiety not just in those directly affected, but in those looking on; the images and stories of decimated swathes of forest and the estimated death of millions of animals precipitated a global outpouring of grief.

High levels of anxiety and constant fear create physical changes in our bodies, Mr Donovan says, and over prolonged periods can ultimately result in fundamental changes to the brain's carefully balanced chemical system.

"We have very old parts of our brain that deal with threat - the limbic system and the medulla - our fight or flight response," he says.

"There are obviously gradations of this and it is a way of keeping us safe. For a lot of our history as a species the world was a dangerous place. The brain structures are very good that if you are in danger your system is fired up to deal with threat.

"In the past we may have seen a neighbouring village on fire, or a wild animal and we would know what do, but in our current life we are exposed to threats beyond our immediate vicinity and it is firing up our internal threat system.

"This has been helpful for those who are facing immediate danger, like our firefighters who have been able to work through the night because of the adrenalin, but for a lot of people, we are seeing these threats on the news, on Facebook posts, and our threat system is being fired up with false alarms because we're not in immediate danger but we feel as if we are.

"Our brain chemistry responds in the same way [it does to an immediate threat]. We are seeing human suffering all around and the exposure to that is huge because of the way news is delivered today. Physically what is happening is your heart is beating faster, you're on constant alert. Our brain structure is set up for immediate threats that are real, not for imaginary threats that may or may not be real.

"If we are exposed to these sorts of non-immediate threats over a longer period of time, our threat system is continually being triggered, and with no respite from this it can lead you towards depression, a loss or sense of safety, and feeling overwhelmed."



Mr Donovan says previous global world threats were not as pervasive as the climate change peril and although the resilience of communities was tested, they were able to recover and rebuild without the constant barrage of negativity to which today's generations are exposed.

"Humans got to the top of the food chain because we have the capacity to solve problems, we could think better than other animals and learn how to keep ourselves safe and solve problems," he says.

"Currently, there is a growing majority of people that think we should be doing more about what the world is facing in regards to the environment but are feeling their leaders are reluctant to do much about it, and are pretending it isn't happening."

As awareness of the impact of climate change on the environment grows, some people are spurred to act, such as those who protest, while others become overwhelmed and anxious. For some, the anxiety they are experiencing is so intense that they are paralysed and cannot act.

"There are people who do believe in climate change but leave others to sort it out, and then there are the activists who are pushing for change," he says.

"It's been said that it only takes 3.5 per cent of the population to be active and to push for change for it to happen. We are getting close to that but most people still sit on the sidelines."

Climate psychology is not a new strand of science. In fact, more than two decades ago, American psychologist James Hillman linked human wellbeing to that of the planet when he wrote: "Psychology, so dedicated to awakening the human consciousness, needs to wake itself up to one of the most ancient human truths: We cannot be studied or cured apart from the planet."

International organisation the Climate Psychology Alliance, made up of academics, therapists, writers and artists, says eco-anxiety is now starting to be a major part of psychologists' work, with many of what they term "climate-change canaries" - the scientists and activists on the frontline of the battle for action facing unmanageable feelings of despair, anger and grief.

Scientists have been on the frontline of the climate debate for more than two decades and many have felt powerless in the face of continued global government inaction.

Profession Sharon Robinson, from UOW's Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health, is one of those scientists and says the international research community has faced constant disappointment and frustration for many years.

"Climate researchers, while resilient, are not exempt from feelings of despair about the climate crisis," she wrote in a recent editorial in the journal Global Change Biology, in collaboration with other scientists concerned about the lack of government action to prevent the unfolding climate crisis.

"As scientists, we are often told we aren't doing enough to publicise the consequences of climate inaction - as though the reason for a lack of action is because we have not been compelling enough. But our job as scientists is to examine the evidence and provide factual accounts of what is happening.

"Governments have been aware of scientist's predictions regarding the consequences of climate inaction for decades. Yet not enough is being done to protect everyday Australians from these consequences, whether they be the physical effects of bushfire smoke, or the psychological effects of 'eco-anxiety'."

Professor Sharon Robinson, whose research is focused on how the planet copes with a changing climate. Photo: Paul Jones

Professor Robinson, whose research focuses on how plants in Antarctica respond to climate change, says many scientists now are becoming more active in the climate change movement.

"In a sense it is a personal thing about whether you just do your science or do you become more active?," she says.

"Scientists are now saying, 'I don't want to just monitor these things until they go extinct, I want to do something'. More scientists are coming out of their shells and being more vocal in their communities, on social media and supporting student strikes for climate with their students or children.

"We don't get any satisfaction out of saying 'I told you so'. Climate scientists and those working on the effects of it - especially those working in places like island communities where they are seeing the repercussions of rising sea levels, or Antarctica where ice is melting rapidly - are asking what they are doing wrong [for governments not to heed the warnings], and wondering what more they could do.

"You hope that politicians would listen to the science but the reality is that in the past big social change has required non-violent protests to convince governments to act - movements like opposition to the Franklin Dam, ending Constitutional discrimination against Indigenous people and other civil rights protests."


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Professor Robinson, who is the Challenge Leader of Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones for UOW Global Challenges Program, says a distinctive feature of movements such as the school climate strikes and the Extinction Rebellion is that they are led by young people, a group that is informed about and accept the science, and also the generation who have the most to lose from climate inaction.

"To address the significant challenges facing society, we need the very best scientists, teachers and communicators capable of translating that science to motivate and inspire wider audiences, including the public and policy makers," she says.

"Science without activism is powerless to enact change, but activism without science cannot direct change where it is needed. Both science and activism are needed to achieve effective societal change."

Mr Donovan says one way to support those suffering from eco-anxiety is to create a sense of security and a belief they can do something to fix the problem.

"It is important to follow a plan - be that a global, national, local, or even individual plan," he says.

"If you feel there is something you can do it is always helpful."

Main photo: The Currowan fire moves through the Shoalhaven during the 2019/2020 bushfire season. Photo: Dane Lloyd