5 Symptoms of Environmental Anxiety

With the increasing awareness of climate change and an increased sense of urgency to reverse the impact of global warming, it’s not surprising that more and more people are beginning to feel significant anxiety about the current state of the world. 

In a 2017 report, the American Psychological Association (APA) defined eco-anxiety as” a chronic fear of environmental doom.” Because eco-anxiety—also referred to as climate anxiety—is not listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), mental health professionals do not consider it a diagnosable mental health condition. Nevertheless, the impacts of environmental change—such as damage to communities, food shortages, and limited access to medical care—can cause considerable distress and trauma.

Anxiety about the Environment

How common is anxiety?

Anxiety disorders affect over 40 million U.S. adults, with a lifetime prevalence rate of 33%, making it one of the most common mental illnesses in the United States. According to statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) affects 3.1% of American adults, while panic disorder affects six million American adults. Social anxiety disorder (social phobia) and specific phobias are also common in the United States, affecting 6.8% and 8.7% of U.S. adults, respectively.

According to a 2018 national survey, nearly 70% of adults in the United States are worried about climate change, while approximately 51% feel “helpless” about the state of the environment. Clinical analyses have shown that exposure to climate-and weather-related disasters can lead to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). According to the APA, exposure to extreme weather events shares a significant association with chronic psychological functional impairment.

Who does eco-anxiety affect?

Anyone aware of climate change and the small window in which we need to turn around adverse environmental effects, coupled with the reluctance of some to accept that climate change is real, will likely experience some level of anxiety. However, some groups of people experience more intense anxiety toward environmental factors.

Some regions, such as coastal communities, experience higher vulnerability to extreme weather events. In particular, individuals and communities who depend on the environment—such as those who work in fishing and agriculture—are more likely to experience adversity due to environmental damage.

Additionally, indigenous people tend to rely on the natural environment and often live near more geographically vulnerable areas. Indigenous people risk losing their livelihood and heritage, which can damage their sense of identity and community.

The following groups of people may also face a higher risk of physical and mental health issues due to environmental influences:  

  • displaced communities
  • first responders to environmental disasters
  • people with pre-existing health conditions and mental health disorders, such as anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, or major depressive disorder
  • people of lower socioeconomic status or with low family income
  • young children, adolescents, and older adults

Symptoms of Eco-Anxiety

Because eco-anxiety is not considered a diagnosable mental disorder under the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the condition lacks clear diagnostic criteria. However, according to previous research on the significant association between environmental influences and mental health (e.g., Norris et al., 2002), there are multiple ways climate change can affect psychological functioning. You may be struggling with eco-anxiety if:

You feel overwhelmed or powerless.

When thinking about the impacts that humans have on the environment, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the current climate crisis. You might feel overwhelmed about all the changes you could or should make to help the environment.

You might think about how you should stop using plastic or go vegan. With all the small changes you can make, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed by the many different ways our actions affect the environment. 

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, remind yourself that every small change you make helps contribute to the global effort to reverse climate change. It’s not your responsibility to fix the entire world—you can only do your best to take individual action.

You’re struggling with depression.

You might feel overwhelmed by the sheer impact humans have on the environment—from wildfires to air pollution. Pictures of animals battling with human garbage and disagreements on whether climate change is real can trigger significant discomfort, feelings of loss, and psychological distress. When depression symptoms become too overwhelming, it can be tempting to switch off and become numb to it all. 

Additionally, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), some individuals with major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and other mental illnesses are especially susceptible to climate change. Suicide rates vary with weather, rising with high temperature, suggesting a potential correlation between climate change and mental illness.

You’re experiencing physical symptoms.

Anxiety is often characterized by intense fear and nervousness—but most people don’t realize how anxiety manifests physically in an anxiety disorder beyond day-to-day anxiety.

The body’s fear response is responsible for the body’s physical reaction to anxiety. If you have an anxiety disorder, intense fear, and excessive worry trigger the body’s fear response, activating your sympathetic nervous system. The physical symptoms of anxiety include:

  • digestive problems, such as stomach pain and nausea
  • insomnia or restlessness
  • excessive sweating
  • difficulty concentrating
  • unexplained muscle pains
  • frequent headaches
  • racing heart
  • trembling or shaking

You’re using unhealthy coping mechanisms.

When you’re struggling with persistent fear or anxiety, it can be tempting to turn to coping mechanisms that are rewarding, distracting, or destructive, such as substance misuse, including binge drinking. While substance abuse can temporarily alleviate the symptoms of anxiety, it ultimately exacerbates mental health problems.

If you’re struggling with addiction, it’s important to seek mental health care as soon as possible. Substance use disorder and alcohol use disorder can damage relationships and interfere with an individual’s ability to function in daily life. It can ultimately lead to severe illness, as well as humiliation and embarrassment.

You’re experiencing panic attacks.

Natural disasters can destroy communities and livelihoods. As climate change increases, our weather can be increasingly unpredictable, with more intense storms and more severe droughts and floods. For those affected by extreme weather, the aftermath can be devastating, according to the CDC.

For people with severe eco-anxiety, the current climate crisis can be a significant source of anxiety. You might feel a rising panic whenever it rains, or experience the symptoms of panic attacks (tremors, rapid heartbeat, sweating) without warning whenever it’s especially warm. On days where the weather is especially unpredictable, you might feel like it’s impossible to relax. If you’ve witnessed stressful life experiences related to extreme weather, you might experience an onset of anxiety symptoms, the weather returns. 

Ready to feel less anxious?

Tips for Managing Eco-Anxiety

Working toward environmental change requires social activism and political input. However, individuals can manage their responses to environmental factors to make positive changes. Some tips for managing eco-anxiety include:

Taking individual action.

Many people find that taking individual action can help reduce anxiety and hopelessness. According to a longitudinal study, social activism has a positive association with mental health benefits. Some ways to take action include:

  • educating the general population on ways to fight climate change, for example, through social media
  • volunteering to collect or return ballots
  • volunteering with a local environmental group or volunteering for a relevant political campaign
  • making a green space for yourself by reducing waste

Knowing when to unplug.

Representations of climate change in the media can influence a person’s mental health, according to a 2014 systematic review by the APA. Seeing information over and over again can trigger an individual’s fear response and cause stress, especially if the information is inaccurate or biased. 

While it’s important to stay up-to-date with the latest information on issues like climate change and the coronavirus disease, exposing yourself to an overwhelming amount of information or unbiased information can worsen feelings of anxiety. 

Be sure to evaluate your sources of information for biases. For example, if you’re currently relying on partisan news for the latest information on climate change, consider switching to unbiased sources like NASA and National Geographic.

If you’re struggling with severe anxiety symptoms, excessive worry, or panic attacks, cut back or disengage from the media—at least for a short period.

Focusing on self-resiliency.

According to a recent study, individuals who feel confident in their ability to cope with stress can more easily overcome anxiety. For example, someone’s confidence in their resiliency can reduce their risk of developing PTSD following negative environmental experiences.

To build self-resiliency, the APA recommends:

  • fostering relationships with friends and family members who provide support
  • viewing problems in a broader context
  • joining support groups to connect with others
  • avoiding social isolation and loneliness and nurturing social interactions 

Practicing positive self-care.

Self-care plays an essential role in mental health at any age—from your teenage years to adulthood. Spending more time in the natural environment and forming a personal connection with nature is the best way to alleviate eco-anxiety. Incorporating physical activity into your daily life—whether it’s walking, running, or meditating—can help you live in the present and reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety.

In addition to physical activity, aim to eat a healthy and balanced diet, get enough sleep, and limit your caffeine use. Intentionally creating time for daily activities that you enjoy and contributing to your overall health can go a long way in influencing your mental well-being.

Building a strong support network.

If you’re experiencing mild symptoms of anxiety, talking to a trusted friend or family member can give you the opportunity to express yourself and can help reduce the symptoms of anxiety, according to multiple research studies. If you’re meeting with a close friend or family member in person, be sure to follow the World Health Organization (WHO) and CDC guidelines for social distancing and use a cloth face covering (mask) to minimize the spread of COVID-19.

Many people struggling with anxiety disorder symptoms find support groups helpful. In a support group of people working with similar mental health problems, like those with anxiety can meet new people, talk openly in front of others, and build friendships while combating shyness and learning valuable social skills. Support groups can help people overcome their social anxiety and realize their thoughts about rejection are inaccurate.  Support groups can also be incredibly useful to people struggling with PTSD, drug abuse, and chronic medical conditions.

When to Seek Professional Help

Deciding whether to seek professional help can be stressful, especially if you’re already overwhelmed with anxiety. If severe eco-anxiety, social anxiety, chronic anxiety symptoms, or recurring panic attacks are interfering with your ability to function in daily life, working with a qualified therapist can help reduce your anxiety symptom severity and improve your quality of life.

Fortunately, with growing awareness of climate change in recent years, more mental health professionals are training to help people manage their relationship with nature and cope with eco-anxiety. 

Some effective treatment options for anxiety disorders include:

  • Psychodynamic therapy: The oldest form of talk therapy, psychodynamic therapy, focuses on understanding the past to achieve insight into current struggles and how to address them going forward. It is highly effective at reducing symptoms of anxiety and to create lasting change.
  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT, a type of psychotherapy, is commonly used in the treatment of social anxiety, separation anxiety disorder, general anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), avoidant personality disorder, and mood disorders. CBT helps anxious people identify and change unhelpful thoughts and behaviors. After your first session, your psychotherapist will help you set goals and navigate stressful life events.
  • Exposure therapy: Another form of psychotherapy, exposure therapy, helps anxious people reduce their level of anxiety through exposure. In exposure therapy, sufferers of anxiety are gradually presented with a feared situation or object and learn to control their fear response over time. Exposure therapy is an effective treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and specific phobias.
  • Medication: For those struggling with severe symptoms, prescription drugs may help. Anti-anxiety medications, such as benzodiazepines, can help manage anxiety symptoms, while antidepressants like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs), and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) combat serotonin imbalances. Additionally, beta-blockers treat high blood pressure by blocking adrenaline. If you’re interested in using a combination of medication and talk therapy to treat anxiety, talk to your psychiatrist about potential side effects.

Finding the Right Therapist

To find professional mental health care for eco-anxiety, consider reaching out to your primary health care provider for a referral to a therapist or searching for a new therapist online. Because of the quality of the relationship between you and your therapist can influence the success of your treatment, it’s important to take the time and effort to find a good match.

It can be helpful to research different types of mental health professionals, such as clinical psychologists, licensed clinical social workers (LCSWs), licensed mental health counselors, psychiatrists, and licensed marriage and family therapists. Psychologists hold a PhD and PsyD, whereas social workers and counselors typically can have masters or doctoral degrees. On the other hand, psychiatrists are MDs who can prescribe medication.

If you’d prefer to work with a specific type of therapist—for example, someone who shares your ethnicity or gender—consider narrowing your search to accommodate your preferences. Additionally, be sure to take each therapist’s specialty and credentials into account to find the best fit.

Experiencing stress and anxiety toward the current state of the environment is understandable and expected. Whether you’re taking the first step in starting your mental health journey or transitioning to online therapy, one of the experienced therapists at the Therapy Group of NYC can help you find strength and develop healthy coping strategies to effectively manage your eco-anxiety.

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