What’s eco-anxiety? And how do we talk about it?

Written by Ollie Wilkinson

Climate change affects three in five people’s mental health 

Someone once described anxiety as “walking down a dark and scary alley without knowing what is waiting for you.” The same could be said for the impossible-to-ignore climate crisis, with the dark, spindly shadow of eco-anxiety lurking beneath its thick, smoggy, fossil fuel-filled clouds. 

Our planet is incredible. But it’s also in danger. The alarm bells are ringing, the sirens blaring, the red flags waving. Everywhere you look, there’s another news story. Another worrisome weather report. Another frightening fact and scary statistic. 

So what can we do to brighten up the alley, and illuminate the path to a brighter future? How can we empower and reassure those suffering from climate change distress? Our guide provides everything you need to know about environmental anxiety, including: 

What is eco-anxiety and what causes it? 

The NHS define anxiety as “a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe.” Eco-anxiety specifically relates to the stress and apprehension surrounding the climate, global warming, and the future of our planet. Also known as solastalgia, it describes the feeling of powerlessness about the ever-changing environment around us. 

Those who are eco-anxious are persistently and severely worried about climate change and its immediate and gradual impact.  

Symptoms include: 

  • Low mood 
  • Helplessness 
  • Anger 
  • Obsessive thinking 
  • Insomnia 
  • Guilt 
  • Panic 

The Mental Health Foundation say that “persistent anxiety causes real emotional distress and can lead to us becoming unwell and, at worst, developing anxiety disorders such as panic attacks, phobias and obsessional behaviours.” 

Sam, a sufferer of eco-anxiety, told BBC Radio 1: “A lot of my anxiety comes from the thought of the future of the earth as a whole; my kids’ future, and our grandchildren’s future. Knowing there’s only so much you can do as one person makes you feel powerless.” 

Environmental anxiety relates to our relationship with the natural world around us. And while it can be scary, it can also spark the compassion and motivation needed to ignite real, significant, positive action. 

How does climate change cause anxiety? 

The climate crisis is the greatest threat humanity faces, capable of evoking high levels of emotional and physical trauma. It is nature’s cry for help, and people are listening in anguish. 

Flooding, droughts and damage to homes can be extremely harmful to your immediate mental wellbeing, while the long-term effects and warning signs of global warming can lead to the hopelessness that often comes with anxiety. 

We rely on nature to look after us, and it’s done a pretty good job over the years, giving us food, medicine, shelter, wildlife, and so much more. 

In the words of our hero Sir David Attenborough: “The natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.” 

And yet, humans haven’t returned the favour. Instead, we’ve poisoned the seas, skies and terrains we’ve grown to depend upon, depleting, exhausting and destroying our natural resources. 

Nature affects our moods, activities and livelihoods, with green spaces acting as a source of calm, joy and inspiration in our day-to-day lives. The weather has a similarly impactful influence on our emotional and physical wellbeing, with sunny days offering hope, optimism and a truckload of serotonin, and the colder months causing an increase in Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a condition that results in low moods, irritability and feelings of despair. Storms and extreme heat can also add to stress levels. 

The weight of climate change can weigh heavy on your shoulders, but all hope is not lost. Our actions can still make a huge difference. 

How many people suffer from eco-anxiety? 

One in six people in the UK are diagnosed with anxiety in any given week (Mind).  

Eco-anxiety is not currently classed as a diagnosable condition, but many sufferers and psychiatrists have reported feelings of helplessness and stress as a result of the climate crisis. 

The statistics: 

  • Three in five people (60%) say concerns about climate change are affecting their mental health (RCPsych). 
  • 75% of UK adults are worried about the impact of climate change (ONS). 
  • Over half (55%) of people believe climate change is a threat to the mental health of future generations (RCPsych). 
  • 70% of Brits want to help the planet, but over half don’t maintain their efforts throughout the year (Modern Milkman). 
  • 43% of UK adults are anxious about the future of the planet (ONS). 
  • Three in five (59%) 18-34 year olds believe a failure to act on climate change will result in a growing mental health issue (RCPsych). 
  • 82% of people feel their health is impacted by outdoor air pollution (Global Action Plan). 

Who is affected by climate anxiety? 

According to ONS, women are statistically more concerned about the future of our planet than men. Young people are among the most affected by environmental anxiety, with over half saying they feel stressed about the climate crisis. 

Others feeling the emotional and mental strain include climate experts, scientists, activists and those whose lives are directly impacted by climate catastrophes. These are the people most in the know about the impact and threat of global warming, on the frontline of the research, statistics, consequences and updates. 

Eco anxiety among children 

“Adults keep saying, we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want you to be hopeful, I want you to panic.” 

These are the words of activist Greta Thunberg in 2018. Now an 18-year-old Nobel Peace Prize nominee, Greta has inspired young people all over the world by campaigning against climate change, with thousands joining her famous school strike

Being a kid isn’t easy. Yes, you get to build forts, jump in puddles, and fall asleep in the car and magically wake up in your bed. And no, you don’t have to pay taxes, go to work, or put out the bins. But you also spend most of your time preparing for a future you know very little about. 

Children see, feel and read about the climate crisis every day. Lurking like a bad smell, it’s present on the news, in the weather, right on down to the litter in their parks and playgrounds. Eco-anxiety leaves them feeling powerless to stop it, with no choice but to adopt the worrisome future the previous generations have left them. 

The statistics: 

  • More than half (57%) of children suffer from environmental anxiety (RCPsych). 
  • Nearly half of parents have been shamed by their kids for not reycling properly (Metal Packaging Manufacturers Association) 
  • One in five children have had a bad dream about climate change (Newsround). 
  • More than one in five people (21%) don’t feel confident in educating their children on matters of sustainability (Modern Milkman). 
  • 77% of students say thinking about climate change makes them anxious (fe news). 
  • Two in five children don’t trust adults to tackle climate change’s challenges (Newsround). 
  • 45% of young people say feelings about climate change affect their daily lives (BBC). 
  • Half of teachers admit they’re not equipped to deal with student anxiety around climate change, with 40% feeling senior leadership teams aren’t engaging (fe news). 
  • Two-thirds of young people believe world leaders aren’t listening to their views (Newsround). 

The youth feel let down by their leaders, mentors, and ancestors. Psychiatrists in England are seeing children’s stress levels rising alongside the planet’s sea levels and temperatures, while teachers feel ill equipped to respond to their pupil’s eco-anxiety. 

The statistics are grim reading, but they show that future generations care deeply and passionately about protecting our wildlife, preserving our environment, and creating the bright and green future the planet is crying out for. 

Young people can change the world. And it’s up to us to do everything we can to educate, inspire, reassure, and empower them do so. 

How to explain climate change to kids 

“The human population could witness a major environmental catastrophe as early as 2040”. Who wouldn’t feel anxious after reading that? 

You can’t be eco-anxious without being eco conscious, and there are plenty of things you can do to help your little ones feel supported, optimistic and aware of the positive changes they can make. 

Parents far and wide will know all too well there’s no greater force than a determined, motivated child. And it’s our responsibility and superpower to drive, feed and fortify their compassion for the planet. Love and appreciation for the natural world is what will win the war against climate change. Not hate. Not despair. Not surrendor. Love. 

Children deserve to feel powerful, united, and championed to protect our planet. Even if they’re not the ones making the decisions. In the words of Greta Thunberg, “You’re never too small to make a difference.”  

Inspiration starts in our classrooms. In our homes. At our dinner tables. In our communities. On our streets. In our gardens, fields and playgrounds. And it never ends.  

Together, we can turn eco-anxiety into eco-empowerment. Here’s how you can help your children handle the solution our planet needs, rather than surrender to the problems it faces: 

  • Teach them how to recycle  
  • Share and feed their passion for the great outdoors 
  • Shop sustainably and buy products with sustainable packaging 
  • Talk to your kids about the science behind global warming 
  • Don’t talk about the problem without offering solutions, such as preserving energy and reducing waste. 

There are loads of learning resources out there in terms of climate change for kids. Heck, we’ve even got a fair few of our own! Check them out below: 

How do you deal with environmental anxiety? 

People often ask: how do I get rid of eco-anxiety? But anxiety is not always something you rid yourself of. It’s normal to feel anxious in certain situations, and climate anxiety is totally rational. 

Not being anxious about global warming is the equivalent of not being anxious about swimming in a shark-infested swimming pool, or soiling yourself after mixing an extra spicy vindaloo with a protein shake. 

Eco-anxiety is the motivator we need to save our planet. ONS statistics show that the UK adults who are worried about climate change’s impact are three times more likely to make lifestyle changes. Three times! 

The most important thing is to explore, express and grow from this anxiety, rather than fall under it. Focus on what you can change, rather than what you can’t. Here are a few things you can do to take back control and do your bit: 

  • Join a climate change action group. 
  • Get involved in local community groups, such as litter picking, plogging and campaigning. 
  • Write to your local, regional, national and world leaders. 
  • Walk, cycle and use public transport instead of driving. 
  • Talk about and share your concerns. 
  • Avoid single use plastics and look for sustainable packaging. 
  • Remind yourself it’s okay to avoid the news and enjoy some me-time. 
  • Concentrate on solutions, rather than problems. 
  • Reduce, reuse and recycle. 

The future is greener on the other side 

The natural world “is the most precious thing we have and we need to defend it,” says Sir David Attenborough. This is a mission we can all get behind, a future we can all embrace. 

If everyone completes small sustainable steps together, it won’t be long before we’re making huge strides towards a brighter, greener future. Just look at us. We started as four friends and a measly, old beaten-up truck. And now, we’re a whole network of eco-warriors, saving the planet one (door)step at a time. 

Together, our customers and milkies have prevented over 43 million plastic bottles from entering landfill and the ocean. And we’re just getting started.

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