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Eco-anxiety: What is it and how can you keep it from spiraling out of control?

As COP26 climate summit begins, here's how to channel those negative feelings into something good.

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Eco-anxiety is both healthy and normal.
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Wildfires, hurricanes and massive floods dominate the headlines. The coral reefs are doomed. The United Nations is calling our current state "code red for humanity." It's all overwhelming, and you're likely feeling anxious, scared and angry. 

Just know that you're not alone. 

Eco-anxiety is a term that's gained traction in the last few years to mean the chronic fear of environmental doom we experience when we face up to the realities of the climate crisis. It's not a diagnosable medical condition, but in 2017 the American Psychiatric Association noted its growing prevalence, and it's been found by child psychiatrists to be an increasing source of distress and anxiety among the children and young people they talk to.

With COP26, the UN conference to discuss climate change, having kicked off in Glasgow, Scotland, this week, the topic will be front and center. Cue the rising blood pressure. 

Phoebe Hanson, 25, from Manchester, England, says she first experienced eco-anxiety, and noticed it in her peers, while in the final year of her sustainability and environmental management degree. 

"I was going into these lectures, and they were telling me how awful the world was, how we're basically doomed anyway, and I felt just completely shut down," Hanson said in an interview.

But through her role as operations director for youth-led organization Force of Nature, which helps young people transform their eco-anxiety into agency, Hanson has found her voice as an activist, and she's learned to see her emotional response to the climate emergency as healthy.

"If anything, it's less healthy for your house to be on fire and for you just to sit in it and pretend that it's not happening," she said. "The healthy response is to run out and try to do something about it and have some sense of urgency about it."

Psychotherapist Caroline Hickman, a board member of the Climate Psychology Alliance, said in an interview that people should know it's OK to be triggered. They should even be proud to be anxious, she said, because it's a sign they really care: "Actually feeling climate anxiety should be a badge of honor."

Eco-anxiety and COP26

Over the next couple of weeks, as the headlines emerge daily from COP26, it's possible you might be feeling more overwhelmed and hopeless than ever about the future of the planet. Already, people involved in talks are predicting the summit won't deliver the deals necessary to meet the targets set out in the Paris Agreement. 

There's nothing quite like political failure to spark apathy, but it's a trap we can and must resist falling into, Hickman said. The emotional reaction we have to the climate crisis can trigger our fight-or-flight response, said Hickman, but based on the urgency and the impact we're already feeling, flight isn't an option anymore. "The old strategy of kicking it into the long grass is no longer going to work," she said.

Through her research as a lecturer at the University of Bath, Hickman said, she's come to see climate anxiety as more than just a reaction to the climate crisis. It's also a reflection of the feelings of betrayal and abandonment we experience because our political leaders and other people in power haven't taken the necessary action.

"People are saying, well, we'll set targets for 2050," she said. "Targets for 2050 means half the world will be uninhabitable, so that's what causes the anxiety."

We can help ourselves by preparing to feel disappointed by COP26, said Hickman. "We're not going to get everything sorted," she said. "You need to balance up the capacity to tolerate the disappointment with the successes." 

It's also important to remember that we needn't focus solely on the political negotiations at COP26. Something that appears on the surface to be a failure can yield powerful new voices and movements.

Hanson said that going into COP26, her emotions change from day to day, but she does feel excited and hopeful about all the youth and grassroots movements coming together on the ground in Glasgow. "Even if the delegations don't go as planned, there's some hope still," she said. "It's about power in the people."

Tips for overcoming your eco-anxiety:

Acknowledge your emotions

"The first thing that you need to do is check your own feelings," Hanson said. "Look internally first, and figure out what those climate emotions are. Are you feeling scared? Anxious? Shut down? Overwhelmed? Are you actually feeling scared but empowered, ready to do something?"

For Hickman, finding the strength to take action involves working through your thoughts and feelings to find the sweet spot between naive optimism and doom and gloom, which she refers to as "radical hope." "You've got to learn resilience to feel this stuff," she said.

Find your community

Hanson is a big advocate of seeking out a community of people who feel similarly to you. "What I can do is lean on those people for support and understand that people all over the globe are feeling the same as me, but also are doing something about it as well, which makes me feel lifted up and empowered," she said.

For anyone who's feeling isolated within their immediate sphere, she recommends finding an online community to join (Force of Nature runs a Slack community for young people to discuss their feelings). If you're feeling scared and anxious, but also empowered and driven, she suggests starting something where you live if you feel safe doing so.

"There will be people in your community that maybe haven't done that internal work yet or haven't realized how they feel about the climate crisis, and they will come to you," she said.

Seek out intergenerational perspectives 

Hickman pointed out that younger and older generations often experience eco-anxiety in different ways. Older people can feel shame and guilt, whereas younger people can feel betrayal and abandonment. Older generations should engage with and listen to younger people, even if it makes them uncomfortable. "If we don't deal with those feelings as adults, we're leaving that younger generation to carry it for us," she said.

For Hanson, it only adds to the distress young people feel about the climate crisis when older generations don't share their sadness and fear. "They're trying to hand over this baton of responsibility to our generation to do something about the climate crisis that we have actually inherited," she said. "For young people to feel empowered, we actually need more adults exploring those feelings."

Find your own way to contribute

If you want to change things, remember that you don't have to fulfill every role in the climate movement alone. "It's important for us to not put all the burden of the climate crisis on our shoulders, and to figure out what your passion or your skill is," said Hanson. Not everyone has to be out banner blazing on the streets, she added. You could be really good at math and be an accountant at an impact company -- whatever works for you.

Inaction only contributes to further anxiety, so finding a role for yourself could be beneficial for your well-being. "We may be getting off a cliff, but we're going down fighting," said Hickman. "There's so much we can do."

For further help, including individual therapeutic support, you can find more resources at Force of Nature and the Climate Psychology Alliance.