28 April 2022

What is eco-anxiety and how to deal with it?

Dramatic impact of climate change, exceeding planetary limits, collapse of biodiversity, natural disasters, deforestation… all these upheavals are completely new. And uncertainty about the future has never been greater. The feeling of distress in the face of the ecological crisis is often referred to as “eco-anxiety”, which is described as the “disease of the century”. But what is eco-anxiety?

It is a recent term, which does not stop at simple anxiety but includes a variety of emotions such as sadness, fear of the future, loss of meaning, helplessness, anger, guilt, despair. The term solastalgia, defined in 2003 by Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht, is also used. It refers to a feeling of distress at the irreversible change in our environment and the pain of losing our habitat.

Eco-anxiety is often associated with young people. Although a recent study in The Lancet found that 75% of 16-25 year olds find the future “frightening”, we can all be affected.

Eco-anxiety and solastalgia are not mental pathologies. They are in fact lucid people. Charline Schmerber, a psychotherapist specialising in eco-anxiety, says: “eco-anxious people are the healthy people in a world that doesn’t know it’s crazy“. Their dismay is justified and legitimate. In the end, it may seem almost surprising that we are not, given the current circumstances and information.

We are not born eco-anxious but we become so, through an evolutionary or brutal awareness that we must tame. The plurality of problems and the complexity of the ecological crisis often reinforce this feeling of despair and powerlessness. One can feel overwhelmed by the lack of answers and solutions. At the time of awareness, many people testify to their loneliness and incomprehension, “why isn’t everyone in the street in shock, panicking”. Often there is a strong sense of disconnect and a feeling of being misunderstood.

To protect oneself from this disturbing truth, it is easier to take refuge in a form of denial, as a defence mechanism. Telling ourselves that we are not responsible, that there will be technical solutions, or just being indifferent… The change needed to fight climate change and the concrete consequences for ourselves and our children are often impossible to accept.

This is why eco-anxiety is similar to post-traumatic functioning. To know is to suffer, we preferred when we didn’t know, we want to go back to the way it was before. However, we can no longer act as if we didn’t know, and there is a kind of mourning work to do.

Anyone who has taken a close interest in the urgency of global warming is bound to “get slapped in the face” and feel the pinch in one way or another. Kübler-Ross’ 5 stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) can be applied to climate change.

Eco-anxious people are not necessarily fragile people. On the contrary, it takes courage and great moral strength to face the facts. Especially since accepting the truth of the ecological crisis and global warming requires a lot of emotional strength.

Fear can finally be a driving force for action. It is important to acknowledge your emotions so that they do not paralyse you. To take this eco-anxiety seriously is also to respect this awareness, this dizzying disarray in the face of present and future ecological disaster.

But doesn’t seeing the planet suffer prevent us from being happy? We share with you 10 tips from Dr Alice Desbiolles’ book – Eco-anxiety – Living serenely in a damaged world – which provides clear answers, without fatalism, for action.

1/ Knowing how to let go without giving up: Start by accepting and learning to manage your emotions. They say you have to take care of yourself to take care of others, it’s the same thing for the planet.

2/ Learn to choose and fight your battles: You must be indulgent with yourself and not increase your mental load. Do not carry everything on your shoulders as this will not solve anything.

3/ Conjugate our life to the present: Do not dwell on what we should have done or project ourselves too far into the future.

4/ Spend time into nature: We spend ¼ of our time in front of a screen, whereas reconnecting with nature is essential. There is ample evidence that outdoor activities are beneficial to any form of stress or anxiety.

5/ Desiring differently to achieve fully: Adapting to climate change will require a paradigm shift. Revisit the way we consume, the way we travel, not as a renunciation but as a new positive challenge. Changing our perspective to change our course.

6/ Take on tasks that are within our reach: Don’t aim too high so that you feel powerless, but aim for what you can do. A will to power, to want to do everything, would be too difficult to assume. Start with small things, a small act is better than a big intention.

7/ Wearing the colours of our difference: Thinking differently is not easy and it is a real challenge for those around us, it takes courage and energy on a daily basis. We must also avoid counterproductive sectarianism.

8/ Reclaiming basic skills: Feeling useful, learning to do things by oneself such as gardening, repairing, finding one’s way, understanding where things come from. Without neglecting solidarity and cooperation.

9/ Make our children and relatives aware of the virtues of nature: Accompanying our children and relatives, spending time in nature will be the best way to raise awareness. It is more important to provide kindness and empathy than to offer objects.

10/ Choose to be happy in spite of everything: Don’t stay alone. Join your friends or associations such as Montagne Verte or others. And above all, get together, surround yourself with people who share your thoughts and concerns in order to talk and exchange.

It takes strength to take the measure of the situation, be proud of it.

To go further:

Coping with climate change distress

Climate anxiety spiking: three actions could be the antidote

A guide to eco-anxiety: How to protect the planet and your mental health

Words: Alice de Chilly

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